David Singmaster, best-known as a puzzle expert (particularly famous for his solution to the Rubik’s cube), but also retired professor of mathematics at London South Bank University, has collected a considerable amount of source material on mathematical games and puzzles.

In his commentary on the material he has collected concerning the simple game called Noughts and Crosses (or Tick-tack-toe’) he says:

“Popular belief is that the game is ancient and universal. However the game appears to have evolved from earlier three‑in‑a‑row games, e.g. Nine Holes or Three Men’s Morris, in the early 19C. The game is not mentioned in Strutt nor most other 19C books on games, not even in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games (1889), nor in Halliwell’s section on slate games, but there may be an 1875 description in Strutt-Cox of 1903.

Babbage refers to it in his unpublished MSS of c1820 as a children’s game, but without giving it a name. In 1842, he calls it Tit Tat To and he uses slight variations on this name in his extended studies of the game.

The [Oxford English Dictionary]’s earliest references are: 1849 for Tip‑tap‑toe; 1855 for Tit‑tat‑toe; 1861 for Oughts and Crosses. However, the first two entries may be referring to some other game – e.g. the entries for Tick‑tack‑toe for 1884 & 1899 are clearly to the game that Gomme calls Tit‑tat‑toe. Von der Lasa cites a 1838-39 Swedish book for Tripp, Trapp, Trull. Van der Linde (1874, op. cit. in 5.F.1) gives Tik, Tak, Tol as the Dutch name.”

He has thus found no evidence for the game before 1820 at the earliest, and very little evidence of popularity until later in the 19th century. Yet many writers in the 19th century refer to it as a ‘children’s game’ or a ‘boys game’, and not as a novelty.

 It would be surprising if the game was a relatively modern version of the older smaller Merells (or Three Man’s Morris), as it appears to be simpler than it – and this runs counter to the general evolution of games. In addition, the fact that the game was known in the 19th century in regions which did not have much communication with each other (Sweden and England) tends to imply an older origin. There is no record of the game having originated in one of these countries and being exported to the other.

So the questions remain: is the game older than the 19th century, and if so are there any other records of it earlier than Babbage’s?

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Every article in Board Games Studies 4 (2001) concerned the group of games known in Danish as daldøs, in Norwegian as daldøsa, and in Sámi (Lapp) as sáhkku. Although several researchers had been interested in these games separately for some years, BGS/4 was the first time they had been brought together and compared.

The games are a type known as ‘running fight’ games, where players move their pieces around a prescribed circuit of three or four rows on the throws of a dice, with the object of landing on one of the opponent’s pieces, and thus removing it from the board. The winner is the player who removes all of his opponent’s pieces. The rules are fully explained in BGS/4 and, in summary, in Wikipedia. The game is known only in Scandinavia and in North Africa, with one possible exception – a diagram in a 13th century English manuscript.

The boards vary somewhat in size: in Denmark the three rows contain 16+17+16 points;  in Norway 12+13+12 are used; while in the Sámi game the rows are all of equal length (generally 15 points). In the North African tâb and sîg games there are either three of four rows of points, with the numbers of points per row varying greatly – from 7 up to 25 or more.

The ‘northern’ board – Norwegian model (daldøsa) – appears like this:

Issue 4 of Board Games Studies is an important source of information on the games of this family. Thierry Depaulis who had been studying tâb and sîg games from the Arab-Muslim world contributed an article on Jeux de parcours du monde arabo-musulman (Afrique du Nord et Proche-Orient) to BGS/4.

Peter Michaelsen, who had been studying daldøs for many years, contributed a translated version of his first conclusions which had earlier been published in the Danish journal Ord & Sag (Michaelsen 1999) under the title Daldøs og Sakku – to gamle nordiske spil (Daldøs and Sakku – two old nordic games). Alf Næsheim contributed an article on the (southern) Norwegian game daldøsa, and Alan Borvo contributed an account of the Sámi (Lapp) game sáhkku.

Thierry Depaulis rounded off the set of articles with a speculation on whether there was any connection between the northern games and those of the Arab-Muslim world. He explored several possible transmission routes:

1.   Through the Varangians – or ‘eastern’ Vikings – who travelled through Russia as far as Byzantium. Depaulis concludes, however, that although the ‘Varangian’ hypothesis is attractive, it is difficult to prove.

2.   Through contacts between ‘western’ Vikings and the Arab world; though again Depaulis finds this unlikely. Contacts were largely through warfare (including the Crusades) or raiding (in both directions), and Depaulis finds the lack of any record of the games in other countries with greater contacts – France, Germany, England – as indicating that this route is unlikely.

3.   Through the Vandals – but Depaulis notes that this northern people, although they came into close contact with North African peoples, did not actually return to Scandinavia, and thus is unlikely to have provided a transmission route.

In his conclusion Depaulis come down in favour of the Varangian, or ‘eastern Viking’ route. He emphasises that “… one thing is striking: we have no trace whatsoever of any tâb-type game in Europe” – though he refers in a footnote to the apparent depiction of a similar board in the 13th century English manuscript MS 0.2.45 from Cerne Abbey, Dorset, kept in Trinity College Library, Cambridge (shown on p.27 of BGS/4). This depiction, though, is unlabelled and the game un-described, so no conclusions can be drawn. It is treated as a strange anomaly that does not seriously call his ‘eastern’ route into question.

However, the 13th century manuscript may not be the only evidence of a daldøs-type game in Western Europe.

The 16th century English warship, the Mary Rose, sank in 1545 in waters just south of England. Her wreck remained undiscovered until 1971, and in 1982 it was salvaged. Of enormous importance to archaeologists was the fact that much of the ship and its contents survived in relatively good condition.

One of the artefacts recovered is the top of an Oak barrel, (item no 81A1995) upon which is carved a clear Morris board, and also another diagram that attracts little attention, but in the light of the recent research on the daldøs/tâb group could be very significant:

The diagram, though difficult to see clearly, has a Morris board at the top, but in the centre is a diagram that is similar to a daldøs(a) board, albeit one with 13+14+13 points:

No other known game or religious or other symbol has the same shape. Although no other evidence exists to reinforce the possibility that the diagram was used as a board for a running-fight game, its discovery beside a known game design (the Morris board) suggests that its purpose may have been similar.

If the board was used for a running-fight game of the daldøs(a) type, it could partly bridge the gap between the games of North Africa and those of Scandinavia. The games of Scandinavia were all found in coastal regions, and in the case of daldøsa the boards are carved in the shape of a ship. These two facts may suggest a nautical origin for the game. If it was played in the 16th century by English sailors, then this could explain its spread eastward. But where might the game have come from?

The crew of the Mary Rose were mainly of English origin, but there were also a few individuals from continental Europe, and analysis of oxygen isotopes in teeth indicates that some were also of southern European ancestry. It is not impossible that some of these crew members brought with them the game that is now known in North Africa, played it on the Mary Rose (and other ships?) and passed it, through nautical contacts, to sailors from Scandinavia.

The problematic 13th century diagram in the Trinity College, Cambridge, manuscript remains, as before, an anomaly in this hypothesis, as it would imply a knowledge of a running-fight game in England several centuries earlier. However the origin of this manuscript is unknown, and it may have come from elsewhere – perhaps even from a country where the game was known. Until more research is done on the manuscript it must remain a mystery.

The journal Board Games Studiesis an academic journal for historical and systematic research on board games. Its object is to provide a forum for board games research from all academic disciplines in order to further our understanding of the development and distribution of board games within an interdisciplinary academic context“.

It has appeared (so far) seven times between 1998 and 2004, and has contained a wealth of well-researched and fascinating articles on a wide variety of subjects connected to board games.

It is, however, relatively expensive – €24 per issue, or €168 for the complete set of seven volumes. 

It is with some surprise, therefore, that I discovered that it is now possible to download issues 1, 2 and 3 directly from the BGS website:

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/issue1/BGS1-complete.pdf

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/issue2/BGS2-complete.pdf

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/issue3/BGS3-complete.pdf

What is not announced on the BGS website, though, is that issues 4, 5 and 6 can also be downloaded, simply by stepping back through the levels of the URL until you get to ‘www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf’ and then following the /aux/ directory; thus giving: 

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/aux/BGS4-complete.pdf

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/aux/BGS5-complete.pdf

http://www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/aux/BGS6-complete.pdf

Only issue 7 remains out of reach. But then it was never really the best issue anyway.

The works of the ethnographer Stewart Culin are amongst the most important sources of information on games played by the Native Americans, in Korea, Hawaii, and in the Philippines and amongst Chinese immigrants in the US.

Many of his works are easy to find; some of the shorter ones can be read on the website of the Elliott Evedon Museum of Games in Ontario, and modern publishers have recently reprinted both Korean Games: With Notes On The Corresponding Games Of China And Japan (1895) and Games of the North American Indians (1907)

One work, however, has always proved difficult to find either in printed form or on the internet.

The 1896 Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, otherwise known as the Annual Report of the U.S. National Museum (1896), contains a 237 page paper by Culin entitled ‘Chess and Playing-cards’.

This paper, although nominally about chess and playing cards actually contains some of the earliest information on games such as Nyout, Zohn Ahl, Tab, Asian backgammon games, various Pachisi variants, Asian chess variants, Go, Fox and Geese and Tiger Games.

Where original copies can be tracked down they very expensive (some booksellers quote prices of around €250 ($360). Even the 1976 reprint can cost €70.

However the paper can be found on the internet here. It is a large file, though, so be prepared, and Culin’s paper only starts on page 665, but it is an essential part of any games library.

It seems appropriate to begin at the beginning. Though, of course, as new discoveries come to light the beginning may be pushed further back in time. The great games expert HJR Murray (author of the incomparable History of Chess), in his second major book, the History of Board Games other than Chess, said that:

By chance I happen to live in Brussels, and so here is a picture that I took of the actual board:

El-Mahasna board, Brussels

Nothing can be known about the game played on the board, or if it is related to any later game in Egypt or elsewhere. It appears to have a 3-by-x layout, which is similar to other known boards such as the Game of 30 Squares, but that may be coincidence. We will probably never know anything more about this game.