The ancient game of Merrills has a long history at Ryedale Folk Museum. In 1987, museum staff decided to hold a ‘Merrills Championship’, inviting players from across the country to participate. The following year, they went a step further. For the ‘World Merrills Championships’, we invited contestants from across the globe. We hosted the junior competition in our Crofter’s Cottage with the main championships held in the atmospheric Manor House. We held this exciting event annually until 1997.
But why here?
Merrills, also known as Nine Men’s Morris, was clearly an important game in the North York Moors. A highly versatile form of entertainment, it could be scratched, carved or scraped into all manner of surfaces. Competitors could use simple counters or even pebbles used as playing pieces.
Boards have been found in the local area, for example, in Byland, Kirkstall and Whitby Abbeys, as well as in Scarborough and Helmsley castles.
The game is believed to have been played by the Romans, with the Latin word ‘merellus’ actually meaning counter or playing piece. However, it may have made its way to England in the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Still played by the Victorians, the game then entered a period of decline.
A welcome distraction
Games have been found scratched into church pews, suggesting that bored congregations played Merrills as a welcome distraction. However, in these parts, we know it was often played on farms in spare moments between work, with simple boards constructed on whatever materials were to hand. You can see this in evidence in the rudimentary nature of some of the Merrills boards in our collection! One board has even been created on the top of a storage chest.
In contrast, other examples were clearly made for special purposes. This ornate and decorative piece (below) was adorned with a border of leaves. Carved in the mid-Victorian period from an elm felled in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was the property of Shakespeare enthusiast Frederick Haines.
How to play Merrills
Merrills is divided into three stages but the object throughout is to get three pieces in a horizontal or vertical line, called a ‘mill’.
After forming a mill, the player removes one of the opponent’s pieces from the board. The winner is the first player to reduce their opponent’s pieces to two, or to block them from being able to move during the middle stage of the game.
The Opening Stage begins with an empty board. Each player takes it in turn to place one of their pieces on any empty spot on the board. This continues until all nine pieces have been played. If either player makes a mill (line of three), that player chose one of their opponent’s pieces to remove, selecting a piece that is not itself part of a mill. Throughout the game, pieces forming a mill are safe from capture. Once a piece is removed from the board, it takes no further part in the game.
The Middle Stage starts when all the pieces are on the board, except those lost in play. Play continues alternately. Each player moves one piece to any empty adjacent point, trying to form mills. Each time, they can remove one of their opponent’s pieces. Once a mill is formed, it may be ‘opened’ by moving one piece from the line if there is an empty point next to it and ‘closed’ by returning it in the next move.
Each time a player closes a mill, they must remove another piece. In a ‘running mill’, they close one mill when opening another, removing a piece on every turn. Sometimes a player is unable to remove any pieces because there are no empty joints next to any pieces. In this case, that player has lost the game. Otherwise, players continue until one of them has only three pieces.
The End Stage allows the player with only three pieces to move one piece each turn to any empty point on the board. The other player must continue to move to adjacent empty points, until both players only have three remaining pieces. A player loses when they get down to their last two pieces and so are unable to form a mill – this marks the end of the game. Alternatively, the players can draw if neither of them is able to go.
Watch the video with former Museum Curator Martin Watts explaining the rules for inspiration!