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.


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:


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?


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
10  5-4-1/5-3-2
11  6-3-2/5-4-2
12  6-5-1/6-4-2
13  6-5-2
14  6-5-3
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.


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. 


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.

Throwing Dice with the King

And now, I think it’s time to start digging into the Libro de los Juegos, or Book of Games, as commissioned by King Alfonso X of Spain, completed in 1283.  This post is going to cover several games, as dice games usually have fairly simple rules.  Since we’re going to get into somewhat less commonly-known games, I’ll first quote from the book, then interpret it as plain English, then go over what I think of the game.

Winning Trigas


One thing I’ll mention right up front, instead of repeating it for each game, is that the King believed that “dice” should consist of three cubes, so a player is always throwing three dice, unless the rules specify otherwise. So, without further ado:


The first game of those that men use is he who rolls the highest wins and this game they call mayores. 

Yep, high roll wins.  Not terribly exciting on three dice, I know.

Tanto en Uno Como en Dos

Or tanto en uno como en dos that is in this way: if it should say in the one die six, the other two must say five and one, or four and two, or double threes. And if it should say five on the one, the other two must say four and one, or three and two. And if it should say four on the one, the other two must say three and one, or double twos. And if it should say three on the one, the other two must say two and one. And if it should say two on the one, the other two must say double ones. 

That is a very long-winded way to say that two of the dice must add up to the number on the third one.  This is an interesting game of chance, for a quick-and-dirty tavern game to bet on.  Today, it might be a fun one to teach children learning to add – maybe hold their attention better than flash cards.  The down side is it’s only good up to 6.


There is another game called triga that is played in this way: and if a man is playing against another and he first rolls “par” on all three dice, or fifteen pips, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen or the flip-sides of these rolls which are six, five, four or three, he wins. And these rolls are all called trigas….

From here on, I’m going to skip the part where he describes every possible roll, to summarize.  In Triga, he applies special significance to the numbers at the ends of the probability curve with 3 dice, 15 or greater, and 6 or fewer.  Par in this context is similar to pair – he’s referring to three of a kind.

So, this is a two-player game.  Players take turns rolling three dice, and the first to roll 3 of a kind, 6 or less, or 15 or higher, wins the bet.  You could try playing with more people, but you would increase the chances hat they’d lose their stakes without ever getting a turn.

Alternatively, this could be a great game to teach students about probability.  Remove the stakes, make a chart of the possible rolls, maybe even highlight the winning possibilities.  Then set the class loose and mark what they roll.  You can even keep track of which student rolls winning combinations, to see who “won” the most at the end of the exercise.

Right after describing Triga, he goes on to describe an alternate winning condition, in which each player takes a number between 7 and 14 for themselves, and rolling that number can also win the game.  The catch is that if you roll the other player’s number on your turn, you lose.

This introduces the idea of a point number, which will come up again in other games.  Modern players familiar with the game of Craps will recognize this concept, and will see how the idea evolves through the games I will describe next time.