I’ve recently become addicted to a board game. I’m afraid it’s an ancient one, and the addiction arose out of buying a present and keeping it.

The game is called Tabula and it is the ancestor of backgammon, except that you have to play the pieces onto the board. It was extremely popular in the ancient world, and was itself the descendant of a prior Roman game, which itself probably derived from the Egyptian game of Senet. Senet seems to have been enjoyed by high and low society alike: a Senet set was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. As for Tabula, the Roman emperor Claudius was so fond of the game that he had a table fitted into his imperial carriage, and Suetonius tells us that he even wrote a book on the game.

But the rules of Tabula were then lost, and recovering them rested on decoding a virtuosic poem in the Greek Anthology by the sixth-century historian and poet Agathias. He composed a kind of poetic riddle on a game of Tabula played by the emperor Zeno, who was forced by the rules of the game to throw away a winning position, based on an extremely unlucky roll of the dice. The forgotten rules could in theory be deduced from this puzzle-poem, but as it only partially revealed the positions of Zeno’s counters much ingenuity by historians of board games – there are such beasts – was expended on this problem. This culminated in an article in The Journal of Hellenic Studies for 1934, which page-turner I thoroughly commend to all interested parishioners.

There has long been a tradition of interest in this kind of thing in Oxford. In 1913 Oxford University Press published Harold James Ruthven Murray’s A History of Chess, surely one of the most learned books ever to have come from the press. Murray, son of James Murray the lexicographer and creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, followed this up several decades later with his winningly titled A History of Board-games other than Chess (OUP, 1952). Much earlier, though, in the late seventeenth century Bodley’s librarian, Thomas Hyde, was the leading man in board game history, especially eastern board games, and he published a history of these, again on the Oxford press, in 1694. This makes light reading of Murray’s book. Hyde is remembered for proposing that chess was Indian in origin, and spread both east and west from that point. He was therefore able to identify the Chinese Xiangqi as a kind of cousin of the western forms of the game.

Unfortunately, because Tabula was played with dice, combining luck and skill, it fell under ecclesiastical suspicion because of its close association with gambling, and because chess was also played on a board with pieces, the Canonists tended to lump together ‘chess and tables’ as a kind of catch-all for board games, all roundly condemned as instruments of vice. This is why in most of the earlier statutes for the Oxford colleges, we find, alongside deprecations of hawking, dogs, and football, a ban on chess.