Levate dalocu, ludere nescis, idiota recede (Get up, push off, you don’t know how to play this game, get lost you idiot)

— Inscription on Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum board, Ancient Rome


Dama – Turkish Draughts

There’s a video that floated across my Facebook feed some time ago of what looks initially like checkers, but isn’t.

Checkers is not a unique game – it is part of a large family of games known as Draughts.  What they were playing in the video is the Turkish variant, also known as Dama.  I’m skeptical of it being a real game between a master and beginner, since it feels like it may be a demonstration of a fool’s game, such as a game of chess being won in two moves by black.  The setup at the beginning of the video is non-standard, and based on how captures work, makes it impossible for the dark player to stop the light player from reaching the final row.

The normal starting setup is as shown here.  Movement is always forward or sideways, never diagonally, and capturing is done by jumping over an enemy piece to the space beyond.  Regular pieces cannot move or capture backward, and if a capture is possible, you must take it.  Multi-captures are possible, and if there is more than one direction you can take, you must capture the most pieces possible in one turn.

The big key to understanding the upset win in the video is that when a piece advances to the far row, it becomes a king, but with much more powerful movement than a king in checkers.  In Dama, a king moves only one space at a time, forward, backward, and sideways.

The exception is when capturing – a king can capture an enemy piece any number of spaces away in a straight line, and may land on any empty square beyond it.  This is what allows the old man to capture every piece in one turn.  The only thing you can’t do with this capture sequence is move 180 degrees, so no reversing your path.

You win if your opponent has no legal move (out of pieces, or blocked), or if you have a king versus a single man.  The latter rule was introduced to avoid a stalemate where one avoided capture indefinitely.

This video was interesting to me, as I basically had the rules figured out before researching them.  Checkers is one of the great time-killing games for children, although I left it behind as I discovered games with more complex rulesets.  Going over draughts variants could make for an intriguing multi-game post sometime down the road.

Playable Apps

Turkish Draughts in iOS

Dama on Android


So You Think You Know Chess…

One of the more fascinating things I saw when digging through the Libro de los Juegos was Alphonso X’s description of how to play chess.  I haven’t played since I was a kid, as I was happy with a casual game of attrition, while my peers who played actually learned the strategy.  Rusty as I am, I still know the pieces and how they move.  Now, I always thought the modern rules of chess were still pretty much the same as the original, but our gamer king not only knew of quite a few variants (4 players!  Larger boards!), and the way he describes the “official” game is absolutely fascinating to me, because of how it would change the strategy entirely.

Today, I’ll compare the modern rules to the rules in 13th century Spain.  As common as chess is, I’m not going to explain the current rules here, just note the differences.  He starts out explaining the many different board sizes known at the time, but settles on the 8×8 board we know today.  Next, he talks about the number of pieces being 32 – 16 each, and that they line up on opposite sides of the board, then that half of each army is lesser to represent common people, clearly describing pawns.  He writes that the king goes in one of the two middle squares on the back row,and then the differences start:

And next to him in the other middle square, is another piece which resembles the fers (alfferez) who carries the standard of the king’s colours. And there are some men who do not know the name and call him “fersa” (alfferza). And these two pieces each one plays alone and does not have another in all the sixteen pieces that resembles them.

So, not a queen, but a standard-bearer.  We’ll come back to this when I talk about movement.  Next, in place of bishops, another different pair of pieces:

And in the two other squares beside these there are two other pieces which resemble each other and they call them fils (alffiles) in Arabic which means the same thing in our language as elephants, which the kings used to bring into battle and each one brought at least two so if one of them died, that the other one would remain.

That’s right, no women, and no clergy — this is a battle, dontcha know?  Next are knights, and then rooks, the same as the starting setup we know today.  One ineresting thing is that the rooks were not originally representing castles or towers or siege engines, like presented today, but instead were a “rank of armed soldiers…holding on to each other” – basically like a Roman phalanx.  He then spends several paragraphs reiterating the number of pieces and that most of them are doubled up so there is an extra should one be captured.  He then notes that a pawn advancing to the back rank becomes a fers – the standard bearer. Of note is that in the modern game, a pawn can be promoted to any piece other than pawn or king, but in this game, the only option is a fers.

Finally, he explains about check and checkmate, and that the purpose was to shorten the game, since it would be no fun to have just the two kings remaining on the board.  Next, he explains the movement of the pieces.  The pawn, king, and knights move the same as we know today, although the knight’s movement is described as one square orthogonally, and then one diagonally out in that direction, rather than the L-shape as it was taught to me.  However, the fers (which replaces the queen), the fils (which replace the bishops), and the rook move very differently:

The fers moves one square diagonally and this is in order to guard the king and not leave his side and to shield him from the checks and checkmates when they are given to him and in order to go forward helping him to win when the game comes out well. 

But he can also on his first move jump to the second straight or diagonal square and even if another piece is in between. And this is in the manner of a good captain who charges ahead in great feats and battles and rushes everywhere they need him.

Instead of being able to move as far as possible in any of the 8 directions, like a queen, the fers moves like a limited king – one square in any diagonal direction, because their purpose is to guard the king.  The only exception to this movement is on their first move, when they can move two diagonal spaces, even jumping over another piece to do so.  This makes a big difference in strategy, as you no longer have to guard from the “queen” when it’s clear on the other end of the board.

Likewise, the elephants are more limited than bishops, in that they only move 2 spaces diagonally, although they are able to jump while doing so – think of the piece it jumps over as getting out of the way to avoid being trampled!

Meanwhile, the rooks can still move orthogonally as far as possible, but they have less control.  Unlike merely being allowed to move as far as you could, the rook in the 13th century was required to do so.  A rook had to move until it either was stopped by an allied piece or the edge of the board, or they captured an enemy piece.

More advanced movement, like capturing en passant, and castling, simply didn’t exist at the time.  Given how gradually the pieces moved, I can see where checkmate may have been a new concept – forcing an opponent to surrender once the king was captured, rather than trying to eliminate all the pieces, like most other games of the time.  It might also have been a reason for changing the movement of the queens, bishops, and rooks to allow for control and more distant captures.  It makes me wonder just how long these historic games of chess took to play.

It is impossible to win gracefully at chess.  No man has yet said “Mate!” In a voice which failed to sound to his opponent bitter, boastful, and malicious.

— A.A. Milne, Not That it Matters, 1919

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 (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.


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.


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.




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)