Naval board game uckers still rules the waves

For more than 80 years, armed forces personnel have sat down during their breaks and lunchtimes, and picked up a board game to pass the time.

Friday, 4th October 2019, 4:04 pm
Dave Clark, left, from Southsea and Philip 'Wally' Blagden, right, from Hayling Island who are the current uckers world champions. Picture: Malcolm Wells (191002-5525)

But snakes and ladders, Monopoly and cribbage end up taking a back seat – because in the forces, only one game will do.

Instead of these classics, the preferred game in the forces is uckers; perhaps unfamiliar to some, but to others, this game has had a tremendous impact on their lives, entertaining them at sea or back at base for countless hours.

The first official record of uckers being played is in 1937, with a diary by EJF Records referring to a game of ‘huckers’.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Her Royal Highness, The Princess Royal, being presented an uckers board by former Warrant Officer Alison Gott. Picture: LPhot Barry Swainsbury

At first glance of the board, it may seem very similar to ludo, with the objective being to get four coloured pieces home before your opponent does.

But a number of rules are added with uckers – for example, a blob can be created by doubling up your pieces on the same square, creating a barrier for your opponent.

In fact, according to those who have played the game for most of their lives, to call an uckers veteran a ludo player would be insulting, given how many more rules are in place and the degree of strategy needed to call yourself the best of the best.

Although all branches of the armed forces play the game, it is in the Royal Navy where the game truly took off and is its spiritual home, even being played on board warships today.

LA(AH) Medcalf, LA(AH) Johnston and NA(AH) Thurgar playing uckers on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. Picture: PO Phot Ray Jones

The navy also has the rules laid out in official naval regulations.

Even the navy’s flagship vessel, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is no exception to this, with a personalised uckers board complete with the ship’s crest engraved into it.

Lt Cdr Lindsey Waudby said: ‘Uckers is an age-old tradition on board Royal Navy warships, and it is no different on board HMS Queen Elizabeth.

‘Not a day goes by without at least one game at play, and when you walk into the mess, it’s easy to tell when there is a game on – there are few other activities that garner such passion and noise.

‘Warships at sea don’t have the ease of access to TV, so ‘sports’ like uckers keep us entertained of an evening. It brings people together at the end of the day and provides some healthy competition amongst shipmates.’

Later this month, the fifth Uckers World Championship will be held in Gosport, with a 15-year-old bottle of Pusser’s Rum up for grabs.

The reigning champion, naval veteran Phil Blagden, lives in Hayling Island.

He says: ‘I’ve been playing uckers for as long as I can remember, ever since I joined the Royal Navy when I was 15-years-old.

‘I served on board HMS Dainty, HMS Glamorgan and HMS Apollo, among others, and while we were at sea people would play uckers every day.

‘We would even challenge the other messes once a month, which was always good fun.’

According to Phil, 72, almost all service personnel past and present will be familiar with the game, although there are different variations depending on which service you are a part of.

The RAF, Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm all have varying rules – though when they play against one another there is a general ruleset that is followed.

According to many, most deviant of these rules are the WAFU rules of the Fleet Air Arm.

Uckers is typically played between two players; if four people take part, the players opposite one another compete as partners.

Historically, the pieces were made from the tops of broom handles, which eventually led to brooms with very short stumps on board navy warships.

Phil and his partner, Dave Clark, play under the team name Timber-shifters, so-called because of a move that allows you to advance your pieces without rolling the dice –  but only if your opponents don’t see you do it.

‘It's certainly a game that’s had a huge impact on my life,’ he explains.

‘Every ship I went on always had uckers boards, and even after I left the navy, that stayed with me.

'My wife and I play uckers every single day, at breakfast, lunchtime and in the evenings.

‘I pretty much live and breathe the game – I love the game, explaining the game and introducing it to new players.

‘Dave and I go on a lot of cruises with our wives, and every time we go we make sure we take an uckers board with us.

‘It's what we do to relax and it’s incredible how many people come up to us and recognise the game we’re playing.’

This year’s world championship will be held at the Explosion Museum in Priddy's Hard, Gosport on Saturday, October 26.

The championship will be played in pairs, with people able to pair up with people on the day.

Each round will be a knockout before an eventual winner is found, giving people bragging rights

Phil is hopeful that the competition – which is free to enter – will continue to grow over the coming years, as more players are made aware of the tournament's existence.

‘The world championship has always been held in the Portsmouth area,’ he says.

‘In the first year it was actually held at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

‘Everyone who competes really wants to bring the game back into popularity – not everyone plays it once they leave the forces but so many people know the game.

‘It would be great to see it return to the glory days.’

Anyone who is interested in playing in the Uckers World Championship can simply turn up to the event on the day.

Play will commence at 11am, and is expected to run until 2pm.

The rules of the game

While ludo may be considered a relatively simple board game, uckers is vastly different in terms of rules and terminology.

Chief among these changes is the rule about blobs – where two pieces of the same colour form a barrier on a square.

The only way to get through the barrier is to roll the same number of sixes as there are pieces in the blob. At the end of the game, the winner is the person to get all their pieces home, much like in ludo.

But an ultimate win can also be achieved, known as an eight piece in harbour.

This is where the player gets all their pieces home, while their opponent’s pieces are still stuck in the base. The humiliation of this is compounded by having the loser’s name written on the back of the board.