Games of Chance
Toyohara Kunichika
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Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900?)
Heroes at the Mountain Gate sugoroku (Sanmon goketsu sugoroku)
Japan; Edo period (1615–1868), 1865
Ink and pigment on paper
109 x 88.3 cm
Shobuan Collection, 262


Sugoroku: Japan's Backgammon
In Japan, a game similar to trictrac (or trick-track) and backgammon is ban-sugoroku (board sugoroku), as distinct from e-sugoroku (picture sugoroku). Sugoroku, in Japanese, literally means “two sixes.” This must be derived from the characters used in the name for Chinese versions of the game shuang lu, which has the same meaning. “Two (or double) sixes” signifies twelve boxes, or spaces, referring to the two rows of twelve spaces each on the board. Japanese sugoroku follows the same rules as backgammon; the initial configuration of pieces, or stones, is also identical. The main differences in the design of the board are found in its proportions and the playing surface. The Japanese sugoroku board resembles a box, with its top face divided into three parallel sections. Two outer sections, each divided into twelve rectangular spaces, flank the center section, where stones taken from the opponent are placed. In contrast, the conventional, modern backgammon board is characterized by elongated triangular spaces. Sugoroku is the oldest known board game in Japan. It enjoyed great popularity from the twelfth to the sixteenth century.

Sugoroku gradually began to decline after the seventeenth century, as competition from other games increased and arts and entertainments diversified. In gambling, dice games were dominant, and cards (karuta, from the Portuguese carta) also emerged. In addition, tomikuji (lottery) and mikasazuke (haiku-based lottery) entered the world of games. Gambling with dice became more popular than sugoroku, perhaps because the results were immediate, reflecting the quickened pace of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. E-sugoroku, thanks to interesting themes and innovative pictorialization, came to overshadow sugoroku, while board games of strategy (such as go and shogi) became popular.