When it comes to gaming, there’s retro, and then there’s really retro. There’s Atari 2600 retro, and then there’s shapes-carved-into-stone retro. Centuries ago, during a time when a Nintendo Switch would be seen as evidence of witchcraft and likely subject its owner to death by drowning, would-be gamers turned to a more primitive form of entertainment.
Today, historians and gaming enthusiasts are gazing in awe at a newly-discovered, medieval-era relic that gives a glimpse into board games from a very different time.
Located in northwest Russia, Vyborg Castle is a Swedish-built, 13-century fortress currently serving as a museum near the Russian/Finnish border. Ownership has been passed around between Russia and Finland before eventually falling into Russian hands as a result of Soviet action during World War II, where it’s remained since.
Recently, Russian archaeologists uncovered a secret, underground chamber within Vyborg Castle that had been hidden for hundreds of years. It was in the hidden chamber that, during excavation, researchers found a brick of clay etched with what appears to be the trappings of a rudimentary board game. The museum director called it “the most intriguing” find since excavation began earlier in the summer.
Dating back to the Roman Empire, the two-player game featured on the clay tablet is one that may be familiar to some today, translating into modern day English as “mill.” Sometimes referred to as Nine Men’s Morris or Cowboy Checkers, the goal is for players to form three-wide rows of men (called mills) and claim game pieces.
The game ends when either player is left with only two men, leaving that player without enough pieces to form a mill. The standard version of the game gives each player nine men at the beginning of the round, however it’s not uncommon to see three, six, and twelve instead.
The state of Vyborg Castle has slowly deteriorated over time, leading to concern over the historic site’s lasting structural integrity. Thankfully, in response the castle has received an 1.8 billion-ruble restoration fund (over $25 million/ £19m) to keep it intact.