I love poking around the scans of books in the public domain – stuff so rare I know I will never get my hands on.  I may have read about these books, but never read the books themselves.  Every once in a while, I’ll come across something that makes me giddy to live in the information age.  Think about people that compiled some of the game rule books I’ve been referencing and how much travel and research was involved to discover these things that all I have to do is search for some scanned book and do a little reading to talk about it.

I was looking around game rule books on Project Gutenberg, and found one that, to me, is a significant chunk of gaming history.  Little Wars, by the invisible time-traveller himself, H.G. Wells, took common toy soldiers of his time, and added structured rules, how far each type of unit moves and how combat works, to formalise battles.

This book was the first formal rulebook on wargames, but for a long time, all of the combat was post-gunpowder, since that’s just how toy soldiers were designed.  Much, much later, Gary Gygax and his friend Jeff Perren wondered how much fun it would be to , just a small skirmish.  They published Chainmail, which focused on medieval combat, both at the scale of armies, and skirmish-level.  It even had rules for jousting!

Of true significance, however, is that Gygax was also a fan of the sword and sorcery genre, and developed rules to include fantasy elements.  Tolkein was also hugely popular around the same time, and being able to fight monsters like those in Middle Earth helped drive sales of Chainmail.  After a while, people thought to tell stories of just a few characters within these worlds, instead of a large siege.  Thus, Dungeons and Dragons was born – the first edition actually required a copy of the Chainmail rules.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The best part, though, is the full title: Little Wars (A Game for Boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty, and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books)

More Dicing with Royalty

I think it’s time we look over a few more dice games, courtesy of our old friend Alphonso X, from the Libro de los Juegos.  Let’s start with a couple of simple ones:

Riffa

There is another kind of game which they call riffa that is played in this way: he who first rolls the dice should roll them as many times until he rolls a pair on two, then he should roll the other one. Then the pips of this third die are to be counter with the pips of the other first two dice. 

And if the other who is playing with him, in rolling the dice in this same way rolls more points he wins, and if as many he ties, and if less he loses. 

This is basically a game of high score.  Roll the three dice until you get a pair, then roll the third die one more time.  Add up the pips for your score, and the best score wins.

Par Con As (Pair with an Ace)

And if he rolls a pair on two dice and an ace on the other, he wins. And if not, the other must roll and in this way they play until one of them succeeds and he who should rolls it first, will win. 

Yep, another game of pure chance.  The first to roll any pair with a one on the third die wins.  But that’s easy mode for the gamblers of the day.  How about something a bit more challenging?

Panquist

There is another kind of game that they call panquist and it is played in this way: he who wins the battle will roll first and the other is to place four bets one in front of the other. And whichever one rolls will give the first point number to the other one and the second he will take for himself. 

And the rolls which can be given are from seven pips to fourteen. 

And these are the rolls that win both for the one who places the bets as well as the one who rolls the dice to the one whose roll comes first. 

The break in flow here is because I skipped 8 paragraphs showing how pips add up, even though for this game, the way you roll each of the point numbers matters.  However, I thought it was best expressed as a table:

 Point # Dice Show  # Bets Won 
3-6  Ignore & reroll  0
5-1-1/4-2-1
2-2-3
3-3-1
 2
 3
 4
5-2-1
4-3-1
6-1-1/2-2-4
3-3-2
 1
 2
 3
 4 
6-2-1/5-3-1
4-3-2
2-2-5/3-3-3
4-4-1
 1
 2
 3
 4 
10  5-4-1/5-3-2
6-3-1
2-2-6/4-3-3
4-4-2
 1
 2
 3
 4 
11  6-3-2/5-4-2
6-4-1
5-5-1/4-4-3
3-3-5
 1
 2
 3
 4 
12  6-5-1/6-4-2
5-4-3
5-5-2/4-4-4
3-3-6
 1
 2
 3
 4 
13  6-5-2
6-4-3
6-6-1/5-5-3
4-4-5
 1
 2
 3
 4 
14  6-5-3
6-6-2/5-5-4
4-4-6
 2
 3
 4
15-18  Ignore & reroll  0

Basically, choose someone to roll first.  The person who is not rolling puts up 4 bets as the stakes for the round.  The roller rolls at least twice, giving a point number first to their opponent, and then to themselves.  Rolls below 7 and above 14 are ignored – there are no hazards in this game.  The first person whose point number comes up again wins a number of the bets as shown in the table.

People like this game – it gives the same kind of thrill as modern Craps with slightly less risk, since there’s no bad roll except the opponent’s point number.  But one thing about the rules as written just doesn’t fully make sense to me, and that has to do with how each round is bet upon.

Let’s say you’re rolling, and your opponent puts up 4 bets.  Then their point number ends up winning, but only for 1 of those bets.  What happens to the other 3?  If they stay up on the board, then the opponent didn’t win 1 bet – they lost 3.  If they get them all back, then they didn’t win anything – they broke even.

For that matter, how does it affect the next round, when the roller is now putting up the 4?  Do they just fill it back up to 4?  Give back the previous bet and put up a new 4?  Add to it, forming a pool?

I dug around, and couldn’t find any source that gave a better explanation of how the betting worked.  If each player takes turns putting up stakes for the roller, they will simply get it back as often as not, so it becomes an exercise in losing slowly to the current roller.  To make it more exciting, I’d have each player ante 2 coins each round.  The game would still progress slowly if only 1 or 2 bets are won, but winning 3 or 4 would be far more exciting it wasn’t all your own money.

Alternatively, have the non-roller put in only 2 bets per round, gradually growing a pool.  If someone wins more bets than the pool currently has, then the loser pays the extra out of their current personal stash.  This would add much more interest in the results of the rolls, hoping for those high-paying combinations.

Guirguiesca

For the final dice game from Libro de los Juegos, we have something special, not because of the goal – it’s another Hazard-type game – but because of the playing pieces.  This is the only game King Alfonso X presented that uses only 2 dice.

There is another kind of game they call guirguiesca that is played with two dice in this way: Those who want to play have first to roll battle, and he who wins it will roll first. 

And if he should roll 6+6 or 6+5 or the flip-sides of these which are 2+1 or 1+1 it will be azar, and he will win one amount of such quantity as they agreed upon that it should be worth. 

And if per chance he should not roll azar and he should roll four pips or five or six or seven or eight or nine or ten in whatever way that they should come, each one of these will be called a point number and that whomever he is playing with shall have it, and the other will bet upon it whatever amount he should wish and if the one who rolls the dice should then roll of it as many pips as he gave him, this will be called match and he will take whatever is there whether he had been assigned to that point or whether he had kept silent. 

And if by chance he should not roll a match and he should roll one of the numbers which we said above were azares, he will lose it all. And if he should roll neither match nor azar and he should roll one of the other point numbers, that one he will take for himself, and he will roll as many times until his (point number) or that of the other one comes. And rolling his own he wins and for that of the other one he loses. 

I thought I’d give the entirety of the text for this final dice game.  I’d been skipping the part about rolling battle in the previous games – basically it’s just rolling to see who goes first.  Usually they’d roll all the dice for a high number, but given the wide range of results, it’s more fair to roll only one die.

After seeing all the other hazard games, this one is very simple.  If you get 2, 3, 11, or 12 on the first roll, you win an agreed-upon base bet.  If not, they are now azares, and you’re assigning the first result as a point number to your opponent, who then places their bet against you.

Next, start rolling again.  If you match the opponent’s point number on this second roll, you win.  Rolling one of the azares loses.  Any other number is now the roller’s point number.  Continue rolling until you match your point number and win.  If you roll the opponent’s point or one of the azares, you lose.  Any other result is ignored.

From here, it’s an easy jump to modern-day Craps, in which the hazards changed to just 11 and 7, which of course is the most common number rolled on two dice.  The only point number is taken by the roller.  The rolling itself got simplified from these early games – if I recall, it was the betting that got more complicated, with the non-rollers betting on how the roller would win or lose.  In this way, craps borrowed from panquist, it seems.

That’s it for this entry, but while there are no more dice games presented in this book, there are many others, with new mechanics and goals, which end up proving the last words the king gave on the subject in this text to be incorrect.

In this 12 games of dice that we have put here, can be understood all the others that they play in the other lands which are made or which can be made from here on which we do not know. 

 

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)