The Royal Game of UrArticle by Catherine Soubeyrand.
This time we leave Egypt to move East and reach the region of Mesopotamia. The Royal Game of Ur gets its name from two boardgames which were found in tombs by Sir Leonard Wooley, who was carrying out excavations in the ancient city of Ur in the 1920s.
The two boards date from before 2600 BCE. Each of the game boards is composed of a set of twelve squares and a set of six cases linked by a bridge of two cases. One of the two boardgames is famous and is exhibited in the collections of the British Museum in London. It is sumptuously decorated with shells carved with lapis lazuli and limestone. The squares are all covered with geometrical designs. The picture below tries to give you an idea of the beauty of this game board. Notice the five squares with a rosette.
The second game board is decorated with sheets of shell carved with images of animals and fighting beasts.
Sets of pawns were also found: seven white pawns with five black dots on each and seven black pawns with five white dots. Also two sets of three pyramid-like dice.
Another game board was found more recently in the tomb of the Queen Shub-ad, located about one thousand kilometers from Ur. The design is simpler with only threes square decorated with a rosette.
A cuneiform tablet of Babylonian origin that describes this game has recently been discovered by Irving Finkel, curator at the British Museum. The tablet dates from 177-176 BCE but it describes the main elements concerning the course of the game. Interestingly enough, at that time people used knucklebones instead of pyramidal dice.
"The tablet shows the number and the names of the pawns, one of the dice (two knucklebones: one of sheep, one of ox), and a few details concerning the throws. It appears clearly that each of the five pawns owned by the players were different from one another and that a special throw was required to place each pawn at the beginning of the game. Among the twenty squares on the game board, five are generally decorated with a rosette and it seems that those squares are important in the course of the game. The tablet shows that those squares brought good luck, to place a pawn on them gave an advantage. If a pawn did not stop on a rosette, a penalty had to be paid. The scribe has described the fate of each pawn in a poetical way, the wins and the losses corresponding to the same efforts required to win enough food, drink and love." 
A description of the movement of the pawns is unfortunately missing. The back of the tablet  shows four by three squares with zodiac signs and messages of good and bad luck. Mr. Finkel supposes that this was a simple game and a way to foresee the future and the fate of the players.
All of these give very interesting hints but not enough solid information to actually play the game. So I base my description here on the rules given in "Le monde des Jeux" , which are based on two older rule sets proposed by R.C. Bell ("Board and Table Games", OUP 1969) and Frederic V. Grundveld in "Games of the World".
Rules of the GameEach player has seven pawns, and three pyramidal dice each with two red and two white vertices. This is a race game. The goal is to introduce the seven pawns, to move them along your designated path, and to be the first to have all the pawns out of the game, similar to backgammon. The start square for each player, the path followed by each player, and the five special, rosette squares are shown in the drawing below. The exit square is the one between the two rosettes.
- three red vertices yields 5 points and the right to take another turn
- three white vertices yields 4 points and the right to take another turn
- two white vertices yields no points and the turn passes to your opponent
- one white vertex gives 1 point and the turn passes to your opponent
- Draw lots to determine the first player.
- The board is empty at the beginning. Pawns may be introduced on your first square by rolling a 4 or 5.
- Any pawns already on the board may advanced one square along your path for each movement point thrown.
- Except when they are on the refuges (see point five of the rules) or have entered the central line, pawns may be attacked by opposing pawns moving in the same direction. If a pawn lands on a square already occupied by an opposing pawn, the opposing pawn is removed from the board and has to restart the game from its start square.
- A player may have as many pawns on the board as they wish. Each square, except for the rosette squares and the leaving (last) square, may be occupied by one and only one pawn.
- The rosette squares and the last square are refuges: several pawns of different colors may be present without any danger.
- Each pawn must reach the last square from which it can leave the board on a throw of 4 or a 5.
- The winner is the first player who moves all of their pawns off of the board via the exit square.
- Lhéte Jean Marie, "Histoire des jeux de société", 1994 Flammarion
- Jack Botermans, Tony Burrett, Peter Van Delft, Carla Van Splunteren, "Le monde des Jeux", 1987 Cté Nlle des Editions du Chêne
- Finkel Irving : "La tablette des régles du jeu royal d'Ur", Jouer dans l'Antiquité, cat. exp., Marseille, musée d'Archéologie méditerranéenne, 1991.
[Source: The Game Cabinet]