Nine Men’s Morris

Many years ago, I picked up a “Classic Games Compendium”, a collection of boards and pieces needed to play a whole stack of classic, or traditional, board games. It also came with a pack of cards, because you can never have too many playing cards.

One game from this collection that has seen a lot of play over the past few weeks is Nine Men’s Morris. This is a game whose origins are lost so far back in the mists of time that no-one is quite sure where or when it first emerged, and it’s one that remains surprisingly playable.

Each player has nine pieces and the aim of the game is to form ‘mills’ a horizontal or vertical line of three men. When you form a mill, you can take one of your opponent’s pieces. When you reduce your opponent to two pieces, you have won the game.

It’s played in two parts. First, the players take turns to place their pieces and, once all of the pieces are placed, the players take turns in moving them.

It’s always tempting to try and form mills in the first (piece placing) part of the game but this, I think, is a mistake. When a player does this they tend to find all their pieces bunched up together and unable to move. It is far better to place pieces in order to achieve maximum flexibility later in the game.

Nine Men’s Morris is a solved game (pdf), for which the optimal strategy has been calculated and perfect play from both players will always result in a draw.

We are far from perfect.

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