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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3 in a Row on iOS (Tic-Tac-Toe, Tant Fant, Three Men’s Morris, Tapatan, Picaria, Achi)
Merelles on Android (3 through 12 Men’s Morris, Achi, Tant Fant, Picaria)