Morris, also called Merels, Mills, or a dozen other similar names, has been around since at least the Roman empire. There are board carved into roofing tiles dating back to Egypt around 1400 BCE, but since everybody and their jackal had access, the boards themselves can’t be dated with any certainty.
Of all the variants, which I’ll play and write about in the future, the best known is Nine Men’s Morris, which spread like wildfire through medieval England. Game boards (or at least the points) can be found seemingly everywhere.
The basic idea is to form rows of three pieces along any horizontal or vertical line. This allows you to capture enemy pieces, until they’re down to two.
The mechanics are pretty simple, though the game is surprisingly strategic. It is played in two parts: placement, followed by moving. Players each begin with 9 pieces, hence the name.
During the placement phase, players take turns putting their pieces on the board, at any intersection they like. If you make a row of three, called a mill, you remove any opponent’s piece which is not already part of a mill. Set it aside; it is out of the game.
After each player has placed all their beginning pieces, play continues, with each taking turns to move one piece along a line segment to the next intersection, in an attempt to form new mills, which allows you to capture more pieces. When one player is down to two tokens, the game is lost.
There’s an optional rule to extend the game a little bit: when one player is down to three pieces, they are no longer restricted to the lines. They may move to any empty point on the board, still only one piece at a time.
While this is a very straightforward game, it presents a pleasant mental workout, and a significant challenge with two strong players. It may not be anywhere near as complex as chess, but it forces the same kind of thinking ahead. If you go for too many captures in the placement phase, your pieces may be too crowded to move effectively later. Since we all know how to block three in a row from childhood, thanks to tic-tac-toe, you must find ways to set up positions where there’s two possible mills, so they can’t both be blocked. Obvious tactics, but with strategy that reveals itself through play.
One thing I love about Nine Men’s Morris is the simple design. It can be drawn in the dirt just about anywhere, and as long as you can get 18 distinguishable pieces, you’re all set to play. This makes it a great camping game.
Of course, this is only one of the games that can be played on this board. I’ll explore those in the future, but for my next essay, I think I’ll try some dice games from King Alfonso X.