What Did Pilgrim Children Do Without Videos?

Children of the Plymouth Colony in 1627 probably did what children today do: pester their parents by announcing "I'm bored!" Actually, 17th-century kids were busy with such chores as gathering firewood, fetching water, looking after livestock, even cooking. But they still had time for games, riddles, and other fun. You might think that Pilgrims were grim. Actually, more than most people of their day, they thought that sports and recreation were needed to refresh body and spirit.

"Nine Men's Morris" was likely one of the games they played. No one can say for sure, because there are no pictures or written accounts of it being played by the colonists. Only two games are mentioned specifically: "stoolball" (a cousin to cricket) and "pitching the bar" (seeing who could throw a log the farthest).

Nine Men's Morris was popular in England at the time, and had been for centuries. It probably originated in Greece or Phoenicia (modern-day Syria and Lebanon) during the Bronze Age. The Vikings played it, too.

The game came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Nine Men's Morris diagrams have been found scratched into the pews and windowsills of old churches. The farther you go from the pulpit, the more likely you'll find one.

How to play

It's an easy game to play. Draw a diagram like the one you see here, and get two sets of nine markers each. You could use red and black checkers, pennies and nickels, squares of paper, or whatever you can find. The object of the game is to get three of your markers in a row, called a "mill." Mills must be connected by the lines on the board. Three in a row diagonally does not count.

Two players draw lots to decide who goes first. They take turns placing one marker at a time on unoccupied corners/intersections on the board. If a player makes a mill, he may remove one of his opponent's markers - except if it's part of a mill. Mills are protected unless there are no other markers to remove. The marker that has been removed is out of play. Players continue to place markers on the board until all have been placed once.

Now players take turns moving their markers to adjacent, open intersections/corners to make mills. Pieces can only move along the lines drawn on the board. An opponent's marker is removed every time a mill is formed - or re-formed. (A clever strategy is to form a "running mill" of five markers and one open space, arranged so that moving one marker opens one mill and closes another.)

Play continues until one player has only two markers left or can't move anywhere. Variation: A player with only three markers left can move to any unoccupied spot on the board.

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