Nine Men’s Morris (Mill) – truly timeless game!

Is there really any timeless game? Some people say chess or checkers are timeless, but these games are not as old as they seem. Others talk about “timeless” computer games like Pac-Man or timeless tabletop games like Monopoly. But they are are still young. In my opinion there is one special game that deserves to be called “timeless”. It is Nine Men’s Morris also known as Mill. It is still popular, it can surprise next generations of players and many people have no idea how old this game really is!

I will explain Mill rules in this post but first let me write a little about it’s history. In some books you can read that earliest boards to play Nine Men’s Morris (or Mill) were found at Kurna in Egypt and they could be made c. 1400 BCE. Unfortunately we can’t be sure if Mill is really that old game. Those old boards cannot be precisely dated, but…

…Roman poet Ovid in his famous “The Art of Love” (Ars Amatoria) gives a great advice to women. They should learn to play popular games because love sometimes come during play. Ovid recommends especially game of Latrunculi, which is forgotten today (I will describe it soon). But Roman poet also mentions another game, where aim of the play is to get the pieces in a straight line. It is believed that Ovid wrote about game of Mill, which was known in ancient Rome. Confucius in China wrote about similar game much earlier.

Among Celtic nations Mill board was considered a magical symbol of four cardinal directions. People believed this symbol protects from evil and is connected with rebirth. The traces of such magical Mill boards were found in graves from Bronze Age (c. 3400 BC – c. 700 BC). Certainly Nine Men’s Morris was known and popular in medieval Europe. The game was popular among monks, so it was apparently not considered “immoral”.

A 13th century illustration of playing Nine Men’s Morris (from Libro de los juegos)

Various Mill variants are known over the world. In many languages game is called “Mill” but it is also known as “cowboy checkers”. It has many other names: luk-tsut-ki (China), nao-guti (india), epello (Nigeria), triodion (Greece), quarn (Sweden), dugurjin (Turkey). Diverse names and appearances shows that game was known for a long time on large area. There are many games known already in ancient times, but none of them is as popular today as Mill.

English name of the Game – Nine Men’s Morris – comes probably from the Latin word merellus, which means a gaming piece. It is not so far from “merellus” to “merels”, “merrills” and “mill”.

It is a pity that Mill is not a serious mind sport played on large tournaments. I know that the World Federation of Mill was established in the past, but I’m not sure if it is still working. Anyway, a lot of people play Mill, also on-line. Game is present in culture, most often where someone wants to show an old but well-known game.

If you have carefully watched “Maleficent” (American dark fantasy film directed by Robert Stromberg) you may have noticed two fairies playing Nine Men’s Morris.


Nine Men’s Morris is also known to Assassin’s Creed fans because it is used as a mini-game in this video game.

Now let me describe the rules of the game. I warn you that Nine Men’s Morris has many variants and in this article I describe the most popular one.

Nine Men’s Morris (Mill) – general rules

Nine Men’s Morris (aka Mill) is abstract strategy board game for two players, with no element of luck. Player who plays first is determined by drawing lots and then players make moves alternately. Aim of the game is to remove opponent’s pieces by  forming so called ‘mills’.

Board and pieces

To play Mill you need a special board composed of three squares connected with vertical and horizontal lines. Intersections and squares corners are points, on which you can place pieces. In total there are 24 points on the board.

The board is shown on the picture below.


In addition you need 18 pieces – 9 black and 9 white.

The Play

In Nine Men’s Morris each game proceeds in 3 phases: placing pieces, moving pieces and flying. Some sets of rules don’t mention the third phase (flying).

In each phase player can form mills to capture enemy pieces.

Phase I: Placing pieces

The game begins with an empty board.  One of players places his first piece on the board. Opponent makes similar move. In the next moves player only place their pieces on vacant points (one piece per turn). In this phase players are not allowed to move their pieces.

In first phase each player can form a “Mill”. It is a straight line of three pieces, placed  on adjacent points joined by a line (vertically or horizontally). Two example Mills are shown on the picture below (red frames shows a Mills).


Player who formed a mill may capture one enemy piece (freely chosen). Captured piece is removed from the board and it does not come back to game.

Note: In the first phase of the game it may happen that in one move two Mills are formed. In such situation player captures two enemy pieces in one turn.

Phase II: Moving pieces

Second phase begins when players put all their pieces on a board. In subsequent turns each player moves one of his pieces. Piece can move to any adjacent vacant point joined by a line. The figure below shows possible moves of a white piece.


In this phase of the game players continue to try to form mills. In the situation shown on the image below Black player forms a mill by moving a piece on a vacant point just between two other black pieces.


Just as in the first phase, player who formed a mill captures enemy piece.

Phase III: Flying (optional)

The third phase of the game begins when one player has only three pieces left. This player has the right to move his pieces to any vacant points (not only to adjacent points). So a piece can “fly” or “jump” from one point to another and that’s why this phase is called flying.

As I wrote above, some rules sources  don’t mention flying phase at all! This is a kind of possible variation. This phase changes the game significantly because it equalizes the chances in the key moment of the game. Note: If two players have three pieces left, they both can make jumps!

End of the game

Game ends when one of the players has only two pieces left. This player is unable to form mills so he (or she) loses a game.

The game can end with a draw. Sometimes both players block themselves or repeat same positions many times. It can be agreed that game ends with a draw when:

  • threefold repetition of a position occurs or
  • no mills were formed during the previous 40-50 moves .

Additional rules (optional)

Mill fans know that player who formed first mill gains a huge advantage. Such player can just  “break” a mill by moving one of his pieces out of an existing mill, and then form the same mill by moving the piece back. That’s why some people like to play with additional “different mills rule“. This rule states that forming a same mill again do not result in capture of enemy piece. With this rule player must form new mill to capture another piece.

You can also play with “no come back rule“. It states that a player may not form a mill by breaking it and coming back with the same piece. This rule allows you to form  two identical mills one after another, but you have to use different pieces for that..

The above rules are optional. You can use one this rules or two at once. You can play without them. As you can see, the basic rules of Nine Men’s Morris are quite simple, but before a game you have to agree some details: jumping phase, different mills rule or no come back rule.

Let’s play Nine Men’s Morris!

If you’ll try to play Mill you will not regret it. Its’a a dramatic game, beautiful in its simplicity, elegant, full of specific strategies and tactics. This is not a typical war game. It is awesome that ancient game was designed with such high level of abstraction!

I will add that Nine Men’s Morris sets can be really beautiful. Below you can see some examples!

fot. Andrew Magill (lic. CC BY 2.0)
fot. z Wikimedia Commons (lic. CC BY-SA 3.0)
fot. Soenke Rahn (lic. CC By-SA 4.0)
fot. Dirk Broßke (lic. CC BY-SA 3.0)

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