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Tabula is an early form of Backgammon (Parlett, The Oxford History 68). It was a variation on the older game of Duodecim Scriptorum and replaced it in popularity in the first century AD (Bell, Board and Table Games 33). Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) loved the game and wrote a book about it. He even had a board attached to his chariot because he wanted to be able to play it wherever he went. About 400 years later, Emperor Zeno (475-481 AD) also played it. Agathias (527-567 AD) wrote an epigram about one of Emperor Zeno's games in which he had a very unlucky throw of the dice which ruined his position (Bell, Board and Table Games 33-34). This epigram and other sources helped scholars to reconstruct the original rules. The name "Tabula" comes from the Latin word for "tables." The game was later known by the name Alea, and people called the quarters of the board "Tables." In Medieval times, people called both the game and the game board Tables (Bell, The BoardGame Book 90).

Below, I have the rules and a printable board for the game of Tabula, but there is also a version that you can play for free online at Play Backgammon. Play Backgammon has multiple versions of Backgammon that you can play for free. It will ask you to sign in or register to play, but you can just sign in as a guest without registering. There is no cost, and you are not required to download anything. You can play against a human opponent or against a bot. The bot games are shown in a list, and the ones for the Tabula version are labeled.


The rules for this game come from Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations by R.C. Bell, pp. 34-35, with additional information from The Book of Games by Jack Botermans, pp. 557-568. Although I really consider Bell to be the more reliable source, I found his list of instructions vague on a number of points. I used Botermans to clarify a number of these, although I don't think that Botermans's book is as well-researched and documented. (See Bibliography for more information). If you've already read the rules for Duodecim Scriptorum, you'll see that they have many features in common.

Players: 2

Object: To be the first to remove all of your pieces from the board.

Equipment: Aside from the game board (printable), you will need three six-sided dice and two sets of 15 playing pieces in two different colors. (You can cut circles from construction paper for the pieces.)

The Board: The game board has two rows of 12 spaces, called "points." (I've numbered the points so that you can better understand how the pieces move.)

The games starts with an empty board. The two players choose which set of pieces they want and decide which of them will go first.

Tabula Board

Placing Pieces: When putting pieces on the board, both of the players start on the first quarter of the board (points 1 through 6) and may also allow their pieces onto the second quarter (points 7 through 12). Friendly pieces and can will share the same space. The points where the players put their pieces are determined by dice rolls. The players take turns rolling all three dice and placing their pieces on the board.

It is up to the player how to use each roll. A player can total all three of his dice and place one piece on the point that corresponds to the total. Since the players are limited to the first twelve points (Bell says that "it improves the game" if the players do not move any further than point 12 until they have all of their pieces on the board. That may mean that it's not a hard and fast rule, but I recommend following it because it does make the game more interesting.), no player can use a total that is higher than twelve. The numbers of each die can also be used separately to place three pieces on the board on one turn. Players can also choose to total two of the dice and use the third one separately, placing two pieces on the board.

Example of Placing Pieces: Suppose that a player rolls 5, 4, and 3 on his turn. The player can use the roll in one of the following ways:

  • The player can total all three of the dice and put one piece on point 12 (5 + 4 + 3 = 12).
  • The player can total the first two dice (5 + 4 = 9) and use the third one by itself, putting one piece on point 9 and another on point 3.
  • The player can total the last two dice (4 + 3 = 7) and use the first one by itself, putting one piece on point 7 and another on point 5.
  • The player can total the first and third dice (5 + 3 = 8) and use the second one by itself, putting one piece on point 8 and another on point 4.
  • The player can use all three of the dice separately, putting one piece on point 5, a second on point 4, and a third on point 3.

If the player had rolled 6, 5, and 4 instead, his options would be more limited because he wouldn't be allowed to use any total over 12 (6 + 5 + 4 = 15). The player would place two or three pieces on the board, using at least one of the numbers on the dice by itself (as in the last four options described above).

Additional Tips: It's a good idea to try to put your pieces on the first six spaces on the board. It can help to bottle up your opponent's pieces from the very start (see the sections on Moving Pieces and Blocking). Also, you can protect your pieces from capture by making sure than none of them are left alone on a point.

Moving Pieces: Once a player has all of his pieces on the first twelve points, he can begin moving them further along the board. The players move their pieces counter-clockwise around the board, going through the points in the order in which they are numbered. The number of pieces and spaces that a player can move on his turn is based on dice rolls, just like the placing of the pieces at the beginning. The players take turns rolling all three dice and deciding whether they will use the numbers on each die separately or total them. Each player is require to use all of the numbers he rolled even if it puts the player in a bad position, such as leaving some of his pieces open to capture (Remember Emperor Zeno?). The only exception is if one or more of the player's pieces is blocked (see Blocking below). In that case, the player uses as many of his dice as he can and ignores the rest of the roll.

Players cannot move their pieces backward, but they can move past both their pieces and their opponents' while moving (Botermans 562). Pieces cannot end their move on any point containing more than one of their opponent's pieces.

Determining Possible Moves: Suppose that a player rolls 6, 5, and 3. The player's possible moves are:

  • The player can total all three of the dice and move one piece 14 spaces (6 + 5 + 3 = 14).
  • The player can total the first two dice (6 + 5 = 11) and use the third one by itself, moving one piece 11 spaces and another 3 spaces.
  • The player can total the last two dice (5 + 3 = 8) and use the first one by itself, moving one piece 8 spaces and another 6 spaces.
  • The player can total the first and third dice (6 + 3 = 9) and use the second one by itself, moving one piece 9 spaces and another 5 spaces.
  • The player can use all three of the dice separately, moving one piece 6 spaces, a second 5 piece spaces, and a third 3 spaces.

Capturing: A player can capture one of his opponent's pieces by landing on the point where it is sitting as long as the piece is the only one on that point. These lone pieces were called Vagi ("Vagi" is the plural form, "Vagus" is singular in Latin -- it means "Wanderer"). A player can protect his pieces from capture by making sure that he has at least two of them on the same point.

When a piece is captured, it is removed from the board and returned to its owner. The owner must return all of his captured pieces to the board (on the first twelve points of the board, using the method for placing pieces on the board just like at the beginning of the game) before he continuing to move any of his other pieces.

Blocking: As in Duodecim Scriptorum, players can have more than one of their pieces on the same point at the same time. Friendly pieces that share the same point are called Ordinarii (or "Piled Men," Bell translates the name a little differently for this game than Duodecim Scriptorum.) Players can never on land a point that holds more than one of their opponent's pieces; they are blocked from entering those points. Players must take these blocked spaces into account when planning their moves. They might not be allowed to use their dice rolls in certain combinations or might even have to forfeit part of their roll to avoid landing on these blocked points. Pieces that are completely blocked (cannot move no matter what the player who owns them rolls) are called Inciti ("Immovables").

Removing Pieces From the Board: When a player has all of his pieces on the last six points (19 through 24), he can begin removing them from the board. (Bell says that the rule that a player must have all of his pieces on the last quarter of the board isn't mentioned in the original sources that describe the game but that it makes the game better.) The player continues to roll all three dice and move his pieces off the edge of the board, past point 24.

Since pieces can still be captured in the last six spaces and sent back to the beginning, it is a good idea to make sure that no piece is on a point by itself if you can avoid it. If a player's piece is captured while he is removing pieces from the board, he has to return it to the board (as described earlier) and move it onto one of the last six points again before continuing to remove pieces.

Ending Strategy: Once you begin moving your pieces onto the last six points of the board, it is a good idea to put multiple pieces on each point, not only to protect them from capture but to slow your opponent's progress. If you can block him from moving forward for awhile, you'll be able to remove more of your pieces first. Also, try to capture any of your opponent's pieces that you can on the last six points.

Winning: The first person to remove all of his pieces from the board wins the game.

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