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)

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!


Alquerque.jpgAlquerque is the Spanish name for a Middle-Eastern game known as El-quirkat, which was believed to have been introduced around the time the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century.  The game quirkat was mentioned in a 10th-century muslim text, Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), albeit without rules.  It is an abstract game of attrition that is very similar to checkers (draughts), although draughts-type games on a grid appear to predate it by about 4000 years.

It is, of course, also described by our old friend, King Alfonso X, in Libro de los Juegos, although he names the game twelve men’s morris, even calling the board a millboard, despite the fact that they are two very different games (and there is a variant of Nine Men’s Morris that adds a few lines to that board and is played with twelve pieces).

The Alquerque board is used to play many games around the world, which I will describe in future posts, but for now, here’s the basic description as per King Alfonso:

And it is played in this manner: on the millboard there are to be twenty-five places where the pieces can be placed and there are to be twenty-four pieces. And they put twelve of one colour on one side and the other twelve on the other in a troop formation. And one place remains in the centre to allow play. And the one who plays first has a disadvantage because he is forced to play in that empty space. 

And the other player moves his piece to the space the first left empty and captures the one that was first to move. That player captures the second player’s piece by jumping over it from one space to another according to the straight lines on the board, and over as many pieces as he should jump in this manner he will capture them all. And the other player does likewise. 

And the one that plays first always moves first trying to capture some piece from the other side. And the other player guards himself well from attack because of and by understanding the move that he wants to make so that he guards that piece of his best. And the other does the same thing that his opponent plans to do to him and therefore he is at a disadvantage, the one who plays first. 

And the one who guards his pieces worse and loses them more quickly, loses. And if both players known how to play it, they can both tie the game. And this is the mill, the pieces, and how they are placed in their spaces. 

Put simply, the pieces are first arranged as shown on the board above, 12 for each side. Of course, in the picture, the players are sitting to the left and right of the board.  Your pieces are grouped on the side if the board nearest you.

On your turn, you either move along the line to the next intersection, or you capture an opponent’s piece(s).  You capture a piece by jumping over it into the space behind, just like in Checkers, with the goal being to capture all the opponent pieces.  As the king points out, the first player is at a disadvantage, because the only possible first move sets up the piece to be captured.

One detail in the third paragraph that is easy to overlook is that if you have a possible capture, you must do so.  The translation is a little clumsy and should probably read that the current player moves, first trying to capture some piece from the other side.  This means your first priority is always capture over defense.  While these rules don’t explicitly state it, the common penalty is that if you had a possible capture and failed to take it, your opponent may capture the piece that failed to make the required movement.

Once the board starts getting more sparse, the game can easily end up a stalemate as players simply avoid moving pieces into a potentially risky position, leading to the opponents dancing around the board with no progress.  To resolve this problem, a few more rules were added as time went on:

  1. A piece cannot move backward.  (For example, from the center, a piece would have 5 possible moves, not 8)
  2. No take-backs, you can’t just undo your last move.
  3. Once a piece gets to the back row, it can only be used to capture.
  4. An extra win condition was added.  You can also win if your opponent can’t move.
This game provides a decent challenge of wits, and as you will see, there are many other games of capture played on the same board.  Some add extra spaces outside of the square, while others may further subdivide it to add more intersections.  Many are hunt games, with one player having fewer pieces, and different goals for each player.  Best of all, it’s another good game you can play by simply scratching the board in the dirt.  Give it a try!

Playable Apps

Alquerque for iOS (uses the extra rules)

El Mundo


My poorly-drawn El Mundo board

Growing up, my mother introduced me to backgammon, and while I never played for points using the doubling cube, it was one of the first games I felt a strong affinity for.  Maybe it was tactile – there was something about the clack of the bakelite pieces and putting them down onto the soft corrugated felt board, the faux leather case.  I still own my set today, which will be good for when I get around to looking at all the tables games.

One of the more intriguing things I found when poking through Alfonso X’s Libro de los Juegos were a variety of what he called tables games.  The design of the rectangular board showed me that all the games were precursors to backgammon, although none of the setups were exactly the same as the modern game.  Almost all of them were two-player games, though, and I was looking for another multiplayer game to teach.

Enter El Mundo (pdf).  This was a four-player tables game played on a circular board.  Also known as the Game of the Four Seasons, the colors were supposed to be green, red, black, and white, but I decided to go with brighter, more modern colors for my teaching copy.  Originally, I tried explaining the rules with just what was different from backgammon, but stumbled as I discovered many people didn’t know my beloved childhood game.  When I write about this and the other tables games, I’ll explain their rules from scratch.  If you want to learn backgammon, I’ve posted above a link with detailed instructions for this classic.


The goal of the game is to move all of your pieces counter-clockwise around the board to the quadrant opposite where you begin, and then bear them off – that is, remove them from the game.

Each player begins the game with 12 pieces in their color, and starting placement is random.  For convenience of teaching, I numbered the spaces for each player, but that is optional.  The King specified that each player in turn rolled three dice and played three pieces according to the numbers shown, then passed to the next player for four times around the board.  Since it didn’t affect play, I chose to have each player roll for all 12 of their pieces at once to save time passing the dice.

Once all pieces are placed, the first player takes their turn.  Roll the dice, and the three numbers each represent one movement.  There are no bonus movements for doubles or triples.  You can move the same piece multiple times, and you may land freely on any space containing your own pieces.

You may not land on any space controlled by two or more opponent pieces, but if there is only one piece on the space, you capture it by landing there.  This is where the game throws a strategic restriction on you – if you are able to capture a piece belonging to either of the two opponents to your right (i.e., the quadrants you will be traveling through), you must do so.  Capturing a piece of the player to your left is optional.

Captured pieces are returned to their owner and must re-enter the board by using up a die roll, just like the initial placement. On their turn, a player must re-enter all captured pieces before moving any other pieces on the board.

Sometimes, you will find that there will be a die roll you cannot use.  When this happens, the next player to your right gets a chance to use that die, even though it is not their turn yet.  I repeat, using your die does not count as their turn – it is a bonus movement for them.  If they are also unable to use the movement, the die passes around to the right until either someone can use it, or nobody can, in which case the die is lost for that turn.

After taking all your moves, the dice pass to the right and that player begins their turn.

Now, running around the board and capturing pieces is fun, but the foal of the game is to bear off all of your pieces.  To do so, you must first get all of them into the quadrant opposite where you started.  So, on my board, red is trying to get into green, blue into yellow, and vice versa.  If you have even one piece outside of your goal quadrant, you cannot begin to remove your tokens yet.  And the dividing line into the fourth quadrant is effectively a wall for you – you cannot move past it. (Red cannot enter yellow, for example.)

Once you have your pieces ready to bear off your rolls now represent movement “past” that wall, off the board.  Your movement must be exactly what you need to get one space beyond the last space.  You can only use higher rolls for lower movement if there is nothing behind the space that could use the roll to just move without bearing off.  This is a little hard to explain without visuals, so I’ll show an example of bearing off in pictures.

  First roll.  Space 1 moves 6 and off.  Space 4 moves 3 and off twice.
  Second roll.  Space 2 moves 5 and off.  Space 4 moves 3 and off once.  The remaining 3 can’t be used for an empty space, nor for 5 or 6, because there are pieces further back that can still move 3.  I will move the other piece from space 2 into space 5.
  Third roll.  In this case, there is nothing in spaces 1 or 2 to use the 5 or 6 on the dice, so the movements are allowed to be used by the remaining pieces with the furthest to go.  In this case, Space 3 uses all three movements to bear off.  The last 4 pieces on spaces 5 and 6 are guaranteed to win in 2 more turns. 

Of course, you might have vulnerable pieces captured while bearing off – this would require you to re-enter them and go all the way back around the board again to resume bearing off.

The first person to bear off all their pieces wins the game.


Aside from the challenge of getting four players together to play an unfamiliar board game, this is a lot of fun, and pretty easy to understand once you get going.  The most common problem is people missing required captures, but for a casual game, that’s not really a big deal.  While it doesn’t have the excitement and pretty pictures of Juego de la Oca, it has still gone over pretty well, despite the length of time required to play (about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how quickly people grasp the strategy).

Like I said, backgammon is near and dear to my heart, and I will enjoy the different setups and goals of the various tables games.  El Mundo, with the circular board, is just the most visually different one to start with.

There are many childhood games that “everyone knows how to play.”  The interesting thing is that usually, someone who already knew the game taught us.  But, are you sure you know how to play?  Just for fun, dig out that much-maligned copy of Monopoly and read the rules.  Betcha there are a couple in there you didn’t know existed, or you played it differently growing up.

House rules and variants have existed throughout history.  Look some up for games you might have stopped playing, give them another try.  You might find a new interest.

By Request, Games of the Caddo Tribe

Since the first public teaching engagement was at the Caddo Mounds state historic site along El Camino Real, the staff and teachers naturally requested something about games the Caddo played.  The only thing I found referenced frequently was “the hand game,” a team guessing game which the Caddo still demonstrate today.  With a little digging, I came across a cultural text from 1947 that spoke about some of their pastimes.  I’ll fill in a little detail as we go.

The Caddo were fond of foot races and wrestling.  Their principle game in the old days was a kind of hockey.

The foot races were a bit of training for carrying messages, and usually preceded the Ghost Dances.  The Chief would hang two gourds with beads from a pole about three hundred yards from the start.  The first sprinter to the pole would take the gourds and keep running.  Anyone overtaking the leader would take the gourds, as whoever was in the lead had to be carrying them.  Onlookers would follow on horseback, shouting encouragement, while trying to stay downwind, so the smell of the horses wouldn’t weaken them.  Incredibly, this race went for forty or fifty miles, and sometimes, an infant would be placed on the finish line, so the winner’s foot would pass over him and hopefully make him a good runner.

The hockey-like game is better known today as lacrosse.  This game of grabbing a ball with a net on a staff and trying to get it into a goal was common in several tribes, and was apparently a kind of symbolic war to give thanks to the Creator.

They also played a game in which four split canes were used.  The concave side of three of these were red and one black.  They were all thrown down together on a square block.  If they then lay with their concave or their convex side all up, it counted 4.  If the black one lay concave side up and the other convex, it counted 2.  If any of the red ones lay with the red showing it counted nothing.

This seems pretty straightforward.  Basically you have 4 two-sided dice.  You can either cut and paint some cane, or you could get 4 tongue depressors and paint them accordingly on one side, three red and one black.  4 blank or 4 painted sides up, you get 4 points.  Three blank and the black side up gets you 2 points.  Anything else scores zero.

You could either play to a total number of points, or pay a number of bets based on the score.  To make it a little more interesting, you could require that you score the exact goal point total.

Another game was played by two persons on a board having nine holes.  Three pins were placed in a row on each on opposite sides.  The object was to get the three pins in a row again, and a player could move to any vacant hole on the board, each player watching carefully so as to block his opponent.

At first glance, this seems like an outsider’s view of Three Men’s Morris or Picaria, but in both those games, the players take turns placing their three pieces anywhere on the board before beginning to move them, unlike the description given.  There is a game from India, called Tant Fant, which begins as described, and the players move along the lines to try and form three in a row, but not in their starting positions.  Perhaps with an honest misunderstanding, this may be the correct game.  If you are able to jump anywhere on the board, then this is a unique game with no name I could find.  You and your opponent begin on what is basically a tic-tac-toe board that is already mostly full, giving you each three possible spaces to move into.  Since the opponent’s first move would obviously be to fill in the gap made by the first player’s move, the game rapidly becomes challenging as you attempt to line your pieces up again.

Still another game was played with grains of corn laid in a certain way.  All the grains but one were eliminated by jumping one grain over another.

Unfortunately, this description is pretty vague.  It sounds like it was a solitaire game, as most competitive games end when all the opponent’s pieces are captured, so there might be more than one piece left on the board.  I was unable to find anything which might clarify the design of the board.  If I run across another text with more detail, I’ll come back to this in another article.

The Caddo’s version of the hoop and pole game sounds interesting, as described by a myth on the text:

In the story of ‘The Brothers Who Became Thunder and Lightning,’ Doctor Dorsey tells of two brothers, the elder of whom made two arrows for his younger brother; one he painted black and the other he painted blue.  They then made a small wheel out of the bark of the elm tree.  One of the boys would stand about fifty yards away from the other and would shoot the wheel with the arrows.  They played with the wheel every day until finally the younger brother failed to hit the wheel, when the wheel kept on rolling and did not stop.  They followed its traces and, after a series of adventures, recovered the wheel from an old man, whom they killed.  Later, they ascended to the sky and became the Lightning and Thunder.

In context, this sounds like one would roll the hoop toward the other, who shot it to make it stop.  Current sources show that this is commonly a team game, each team with four arrows and a bow.  One team rolls the hoop toward the shooting team, and each arrow stuck in it counts as one point.  A different variant has a net in the hoop, and the players have three-foot long “darts” to throw, with fork-like projections at the tail.  A clean throw through the center scores a “heart,” and any other shot that catches the net scores a “claw.”  Upon scoring, that player picks up the hoop and tries to tag the opposing players.  A player tagged is out of the game.  According to the rules I found, when there’s only one player left to be touched, he wins the game for his team.

That wording sounds like the eliminated team would be the winners, which feels incorrect to me.  Given the rest of the rules, I would assume it means the player who scored a shot wins the game for his team if there’s only one opposing player left to chase.  One rule not specified is when the roles of the teams switch sides.  I would assume that after a successful tag, the tagged team now become the throwers and the scoring team is the rolling side.

Finally, there were two versions of a team guessing game.  In both versions, the teams would form two lines, and sing or taunt and make movements to distract their opponents.

In one version, the leader of one side took an ivory bead and gave it to one of his men.  That team would then shuffle the bead among themselves until a halt was called, and the opposing team now had to guess who had the bead.  Successful guesses scored a point, and after each guess, the bead would go to the other team.  First to 8 points won.

The other version, known as the hand game, is still played today.  This one used 2 small bones, and has a scorekeeper.  This person hands the one bone each to the first two players in one line (line 1, for convenience of description).  The first player shuffles the bone behind their back, and then starts crossing them back and forth in front of them.  At this point, the player directly across from them (player 1 in line 2) has to guess which hand the bone is in.  If correct, the bone is laid down in front of the player in line 1, then the guessing and bone movement goes to player 2 in each line.  On a failed guess, the bone-holding player gets one of 6 tally sticks.

If one of the pair had their bone guessed and the other was a failed guess, they get to pick their bone back up, and play continues with this pair until both have been correctly guessed.  The bones then pass across to the first two players in line 2, with the previous bone-holders now taking the role of the guessers.

After this, the bones come back to the next couple in line 1, and they also get any tally sticks won by their team so far.  Play continues in this way, couple by couple, until one team has won all 6 tally sticks.

If it feels like this game might be over too quickly (wouldn’t want people at the end of the line to not get a turn), you can either just play for the most points by the end of the line, or you could make it a race, with a failed guess meaning the bone is passed down the line instead of picked back up, and instead of tally sticks, use something to mark how far along the stones have gotten before being passed across to the opposite line.

This is a small sample of games described in one book about one tribe.  As the mood strikes, I will definitely write about more that I found while researching these.  Enjoy!