All Your Prisoner’s Base Are Belong to Us

In the early 14th century, a French game called barres came into vogue among the children.  It was a game of tag, with several barriers (bars) declared as safe spaces.  Children would dart from bar to bar, tagging each other out along the way.  This game was such a nuisance to the nobility of the time that they passed an act of Parliament forbidding it, at least near Westminster Palace.

Not that kids have ever cared much for draconian laws.  The game persisted, with the name degrading over a couple of centuries to simply Base.  Many variants on this type of tag arose, but one of the most popular was Prisoner’s Base.  After dividing into two teams, the basic idea was to run across a field and back to home without being caught, or to rescue team members from an enemy base and return them home.

Later, the game changed form again, and became more about running around a designated set of bases.  Eventually, someone added a ball into the mix, and the game known as Rounders was born, named for having to run ’round the bases.  Another name, of course, was base ball, though it would take still more evolution to become the game we know today.

But for now, let’s back up to the earlier game of Prisoner’s Base.  Ideal with large groups, first divide into two teams and find a large open area to run in.  Determine the boundaries for the game, and designate two areas as each team’s home base.  While within this zone, players are safe and cannot be pursued.  Some distance out, designate two areas to be each team’s prison, with each prison in front of the opposing team’s home base. As an idea, books from the mid-1800s suggest at least 20 paces as the distance between home bases, and the distance out to the prisons.

The field, showing Home and Prisons color-coded by team.

Each team starts out completely in their home base – make sure there’s plenty of room.  Pick a team to start.  That team sends a runner out.  The runner must run all the way out across their prison (so diagonally over the field), cross it, and then run back to home, where they will be safe.

Meanwhile, the second team sends out one runner to tag the first team’s runner.  If successful, the catcher escorts the prisoner to the prison for their team (diagonal to the prisoner’s home).

To rescue a team member, a runner must go to the prison without being caught, tag one (and only one) teammate, and can then escort them back home without being targets on the way.  A group of prisoners on the same team can even form a chain out onto the field, as long as at least one is in prison, but they can still only be released one at a time.  The goal is to catch all of the enemy team.

Now here’s the tricky part.  Let’s say our first two runners were Red1, followed by Blue1 to chase.  At this point, Red2 enters the field to try and tag Blue1.  Now Blue2 comes out, and can tag either of the Reds, but is not a valid target for either of them.

You see, new runners can only tag enemies who are already on the field, but not anyone who comes after them, unless they first go home and then come back out.  As you can imagine, this results in a great deal of chaos as each runner has to remember who they can and can’t tag, between later runners and safe ones escorting prisoners to prison or home.

In the past, this was partly solved by each team having a Captain who only left their home base if absolutely necessary, but mainly shouted out directions to their team.  This is not strictly required, but someone with a good memory can help to play without accidentally breaking the rules.

Given that the goal is to capture the entire enemy team, but prisoners will constantly be getting freed, the game usually ended when everyone was too tired to keep playing.  It’s one of the most complicated forms of tag, but if you’ve got a large group of kids and you want to introduce organized play, it’s a great option to run off a lot of energy.

Many Forms of Merels

Previously, I wrote about how to play Nine Men’s Morris, but many of these ancient games have several variants that can be played on the same board, or have similar rules, and a slightly different board design.  So, first up is the Nine Men’s Morris, or Merels board.  What else can you play?

Nine Men’s Morris stone in the Malton Museum

 

Shax

Shax (pronounced “shah”), is from Africa, particularly near the Somalian region.  The game is mentioned in their literature, perhaps as a peaceful means to resolve disputes.  The board is identical to Nine Men’s Morris, but each player begins with 12 pieces.

The game is still played in two phases, Placement and Movement, but no pieces are removed during placement.  Instead, note which player first manages to form a mill (3-in-a-row, remember).  Once all the pieces have been placed (which will cover the board), the player who formed a mill first during placement removes one opponent piece.  Afterward, the opponent also removes one piece, whether they formed a mill or not.

After this removal, movement can begin, with players now removing pieces each time a mill is formed, until someone is down to two pieces, as before.  Interestingly, this game has a courtesy rule built in: if your opponent has no move, you must move a piece to give an opening.  If you form a mill during this movement, no piece is captured.

Lasker Morris

This variant, also called Ten Men’s Morris, was described in 1931 by Emanuel Lasker in his book, Brettspiele der Völker (Boardgames of the Nations).  I found a translation of his rules below: 

One move consists in placing a stone on a vacant point or in sliding an already placed stone to a free neighbor point and the player may do either this or the other. The number of stones in the hand, at the beginning of the game, may be nine or better ten.’

The game plays almost the same as Nine Men’s Morris, with the exception that placement and movement are not separate parts.  On your turn, you may either place a piece or move an existing piece.  Mills formed allow capture as normal.  He also suggested that starting with 10 pieces would make for a more satisfying game.

 

Three Men’s Morris board

Three Men’s Morris

Also called Nine Holes, this is played on a set of intersections that gives 9 total spaces.  Players each have three pieces, and the game is still divided into two phases of placement and movement.  During the placement phase, a mill formed allows you to capture a piece, which will win the game immediately.  After all three pieces for each player are laid down, the players move one piece at a time, trying to form a mill.  At the beginning of the game, they agree on whether they may move to any empty space, or only adjacent ones.  Tapatan, from the Philippines, is the same game.  Achi, from Ghana, is almost the same – the only change is the players begin with 4 pieces instead of 3.  Tant Fant, from India, begins with each player having 3 pieces on the side closest to them.  They take turns moving along the lines, trying to form three in a row to win, but cannot win on their home row.

Tic-Tac-Toe

We all know how to play this, but I am including it here as a variant of Three Men’s Morris.  It is basically just the placement phase, although each player effectively has 4 or 5 pieces.  The goal here is just to form a mill.  No pieces are captured, but the game is won as soon as someone gets three in a row.

 

Six/Five Men’s Morris. Add a cross in the center for Seven Men’s Morris.

Five, Six and Seven Men’s Morris

Six Men’s or Five Men’s (Smaller) Morris are played on the two inner squares of the Nine Men’s Morris board, with each player having 6 or 5 pieces.  Because you cannot form a mill in the line connecting the two squares, the corners become more important strategically during the placement phase.  Six Men’s Morris seems to have been popular during the Middle Ages, but by the 1600s, other games came to prominence.  Seven Men’s Morris adds a cross in the center square, giving one extra intersection, and 7 pieces.

Morabaraba

In Europe, this is now known as Twelve Men’s Morris.  There have been some that thought this game was brought to southern Africa by Europeans, but variants on the Morris games have been found around the world, and the Morabaraba board has been found carved into stone before Europeans arrived, so it may have been the other way around.  Interestingly, as of the writing of the Libro de los Juegos, Alfonso X referred to the Alquerque board as Twelve Men’s Morris, which lends credence to the idea that Morabaraba arrived later.

Morabaraba, or Twelve Men’s Morris

The Morabaraba board is almost identical to the Nine Men’s Morris board, except for the addition of diagonal lines, which gives 4 more possible mill paths.  Players each have 12 pieces, referred to as “cows,” because the game was especially popular among people who herded cows.  The gameplay is pretty much the same as well: take turns placing pieces.  If a mill is formed, capture (shoot) an opponent’s cow, removing it from play.  You must shoot a cow that is not in a mill if possible; if not, any cow is a valid target.  Next, move your pieces along the lines, continuing to capture each time a mill is formed.  If someone is down to 3 cows, their pieces may now “fly” – that is, move to any empty space, rather than just adjacent ones.  The game is over when a player is down to 2 cows, and is no longer able to form mills, at which point they lose.

 

Picaria

Picaria

Last for today, we have Picaria, a variant on Three Men’s Morris played by the Zuni and Pueblo tribes of Native Americans.  Add a diamond to the Three Men’s Morris board, which brings the possible spaces from 9 up to 13.  Again, players each have 3 pieces, and the game is played in two phases, placement and movement.  During placement, you may not take the center space.  Movement into the center space is allowed, however.  A player wins upon forming 3 in a row during either phase.  If a player is unable to move, or makes the same back and forth movement 3 times, it is either a loss or a draw, depending on what the players agreed to beforehand.

Playable Apps

3 in a Row on iOS (Tic-Tac-Toe, Tant Fant, Three Men’s Morris, Tapatan, Picaria, Achi)

Picaria on Android

Morabaraba on Android

Merelles on Android (3 through 12 Men’s Morris, Achi, Tant Fant, Picaria)

Turning the Tables – Quinze Tablas (15 Tables)

Among the more popular games throughout history are the varying tables games.  The main one we know today is backgammon, and I already wrote about El Mundo.  In King Alfonso’s day, quite a few more were known, and most were played on the same board we recognize today for backgammon.  Today, I’m going to detail the first of these, called Quinze Tablas, or 15 Tables.  Interestingly, this is the French spelling for fifteen, rather than quince, in Spanish.  This implies that this game came to him via the French courts, he liked it, and decided to add it to his book of games.

This was a fun one to figure out the rules for, as the King was in the middle of describing how to make a tables set in general, and just sort of rambled about the rules for quinze tablas in the process.  Here is an example paragraph, per the translation:

The prime of tables is when one player captures so many of the other’s pieces that he then does not have points upon which to enter them and he therefore loses the game. And tying is that even if he has very few pieces and he enters them that neither one can play even if he wishes. Whence also for the prime because without these three pieces which are in addition to the first twelve, it could not be done.

Here, he’s talking about the goal of the game, which is either to block your opponent from reentering the board, or ideally (prime) to move all your pieces to the opponent’s starting spaces, with your three extras arranged on your outer table, basically as a mirror to your starting setup. Because of how convoluted the rules are in Libro de los Juegos, I’m going to skip the quoting and just explain the game for this post.

Quinze Tablas is primarily a game about defense – blocking your opponent’s movements.  The goal of the game is to move 12 of your pieces to their starting quadrant, and your other 3 pieces jammed up against their “gates,” if you will.  Failing this, the goal is to seal up their entry spaces (starting quadrant) so after a capture, they cannot return to the board.  Below, laid out on my trusty backgammon board, is the starting layout.

As you can see, you start with six pairs of pieces in your home quadrant, with your extra three placed immediately next to them in your outer table.  The game uses three dice for movement.  Each die may move a single piece the number of pips shown, and there are no bonuses for doubles or triples.  Above, blue will be moving counter-clockwise, while red will be moving clockwise, in an attempt to mirror their starting positions on the other side of the board. As is common to most tables games, a single piece is vulnerable to capture, but two on a space blocks movement.

The most important thing to remember in this game, compared to most other tables games, is that you can never have a stack of more than two pieces.  This means that it is possible to be blocked by your own pieces.

If one or more of your pieces is captured, you may bring them back into play at the beginning of your turn by placing them in an empty (or single-piece) space in your home quadrant.  You may not place onto any space that has two pieces, no matter who owns them.  Originally, we thought you had to roll for which space to return to, like in backgammon, but found this shortened the game considerably, as an unlucky roll near the beginning, while still trying to move your pieces out, could require a space that still had its starting pieces in the way.  Being able to return to any available space prolongs the game, and makes it more about strategic movement than unlucky rolls.

If you get all of your pieces all the way around the board, you win!  If you capture an opponent’s piece and they can’t bring it back on, you win!  If neither player can move any pieces no matter what the dice roll, the last one to make a successful move is the winner.

I find this game to be an interesting challenge, and a nice change of pace from normal backgammon.  You are not trying to bear off pieces, and the limited movement, including being blocked by your own defenses, gives the game a very different feel.  If you have a backgammon board, give it a try and let me know what you think!

In reality a marble won is a point won in the game, and it is not necessary to keep the marbles after the game is over, any more than it is necessary to keep the balls and bats of the defeated base-ball players or the balls and rackets of the defeated lawn-tennis players, or the foot-ball of the defeated foot-ball players.  What the American boy plays for is to win the game, not the implements of the sport.

— Daniel Beard Carter, The American Boy’s Book of Sport, 1896