When was Naughts and Crosses first released in its current form?

I see there were Egyptian and the Roman versions, but these are very different games.

3 Answers 3


Having spent a little while looking into this, the only clear thing is that there is no firm evidence for any distant historical first date for Tic Tac Toe. Although many people claim the Romans played this game, in the form of Terni Lapilli, and point to the large number of historical boards that exist, scratched into walls, this seems unlikely, not least because Tic Tac Toe isn't a very interesting game:

Terni Lapilli is considered to be identical to modern Tic-Tac-Toe. However, although Terni Lapilli boards are found throughout the Empire, scratched on walls, floors, and roofs, no X's and O's accompany the markings. Obviously playing pieces were being used for this game and the would surely be the same ones used for both Latrunculi and Tabula. Bolesden says that three pieces were used in this game but if that is true, this is not Tic-Tac-Toe.

Judging from the number of Terni Lapilli boards found around Rome it would seem this game was more popular than Tic-Tac-Toe, and therefore we must conclude that it was not, in fact, Tic-Tac-Toe since this is not really a game and could not sustain such interest.

Three Men's Morris, on the other hand, which uses an identical board, is much more challenging, and has a board from Egypt dated to 1400 BCE.

One suggestion is that the etymology of "Tic-Tac-Toe" is based on "Tit-Tat-Toe" (as in tit-for-tat retaliation), apparently from the 16th Century, but this is completely unsubstantiated.

Wikipedia's information, dated definitively to 1864 and widely re-gurgitated across the internet, is based on the OED, which quotes a Boston periodical, The Living Age:

1864 Littell's Living Age 22 Oct. 182/1 Mr Babbage..has proceeded some way towards the invention of an automaton intended to play at the very simple game called indifferently ‘noughts and crosses’ or ‘tit-tat-to’.

You can read the full reference for yourself online: The Living Age, 22 October 1864, p.182.

It is known is that there are many historical examples of so-called "games of alignment", from all around the world:

...in Europe, Asia, and Africa many people have long been playing similar games which require the alignment of five or nine symbols in a row. Most of these latter games are played on boards scratched in the earth, carved into wooden or stone benches, or cardboard or wooden boards constructed for these variations. There are at least nine different board configurations for these games.

These games are grouped together because they all have the same purpose - that is for two players to each place a symbol on the board, one symbol at a time during alternate turns of play, with the goal of aligning a series of agreed upon symbols in a "row", while at the same time attempting to prevent the other player from doing the same thing. In each version of the game, as the number of symbols are increased, the goal does not change, nor does the primary mode of play. In versions using five or nine symbols, additional procedures are added to the play of the game.

It seems very likely that the game existed in the distant past, but being a less than engrossing pastime for anyone other than young children, distant historical references are lacking.

Key references for further research:


Noughts and Crosses/Tic Tac Toe belong to a family of games, (and in my opinion Noughts and Crosses is the runt of the litter.)

Achi, (from Ghana) and Tapatan, (from the Philippines) show that such games are well distributed across the world. If we search for the oldest abstract board games we usually run into one of the Mancala family of games, (Bao, Kalah...) which are clearly very old. This family includes Oware, (again from Ghana) which resembles Achi, and I would not be surprised if Achi is a simplification of Oware, (a child's version or someone partly remembering the rules). Staying in Africa but returning to the original question we find Three Men's Morris in North Africa 1400 BCE AND carved into English cathedrals. This leads us to the game of Nine Holes which is another alteration of the rules of TMM. (There are records of people being punished for carving Nine Holes boards into Cathedral - and I believe it was suppressed or banned in some parts of England.)

Over and over we see simplification and efficiency until we find Noughts and Crosses emerging as a rather childish descendant. Despite claims that, "The Romans played tic-tac-toe" I would suggest that this is false: They were limited to three playing pieces each which is clearly not the case with "modern Naughts and Crosses", (thank you, alan2here, for a well worded question), which seems to have emerged in the middle of the 19th Century, but as it was not patented and no one seems to have taken credit it probably evolved naturally from Nine holes in many locations at similar times, (hence the other name for it in North America.)


Wikipedia mentions the following under http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tic-tac-toe

'The first print reference to "noughts and crosses", the British name, appeared in 1864. The first print reference to a game called "tick-tack-toe" occurred in 1884, but referred to "a children's game played on a slate, consisting in trying with the eyes shut to bring the pencil down on one of the numbers of a set, the number hit being scored".'

And since this game is mostly played by children, I would assume that this would be the first reference to the current form.

The game evolved from Three Men's Morris where each player had to keep 3 pieces each alternately on any of the 9 boxes and move the pieces around to form a straight line. To simplify it to children, the latter part of the game was replaced by continuing to keep more pieces and fill all 9 boxes.

  • The 1884 game of "trying with the eyes shut to bring the pencil down on one of the numbers of a set, the number hit being scored" is quite different to modern tic-tac-toe despite the similarity in name. Again "Three Men's Morris" is also significantly different and seems more similar to how the roman version was described by the wiki article. However from this and that my parents can remember it always having been around we could determine that the date was between 1884 and ≈ 1960.
    – alan2here
    Commented Sep 15, 2012 at 16:58

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