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)

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!

Nine Men’s Morris

My hand-drawn board, although I don’t remember bleeding on it.

Morris, also called Merels, Mills, or a dozen other similar names, has been around since at least the Roman empire.  There are board carved into roofing tiles dating back to Egypt around 1400 BCE, but since everybody and their jackal had access, the boards themselves can’t be dated with any certainty.

Of all the variants, which I’ll play and write about in the future, the best known is Nine Men’s Morris, which spread like wildfire through medieval England.  Game boards (or at least the points) can be found seemingly everywhere.

The basic idea is to form rows of three pieces along any horizontal or vertical line.  This allows you to capture enemy pieces, until they’re down to two.


The mechanics are pretty simple, though the game is surprisingly strategic.  It is played in two parts: placement, followed by moving.  Players each begin with 9 pieces, hence the name.

During the placement phase, players take turns putting their pieces on the board, at any intersection they like.  If you make a row of three, called a mill, you remove any opponent’s piece which is not already part of a mill.  Set it aside; it is out of the game.

After each player has placed all their beginning pieces, play continues, with each taking turns to move one piece along a line segment to the next intersection, in an attempt to form new mills, which allows you to capture more pieces.  When one player is down to two tokens, the game is lost.

There’s an optional rule to extend the game a little bit: when one player is down to three pieces, they are no longer restricted to the lines.  They may move to any empty point on the board, still only one piece at a time.

Nine Men’s Morris in Libro de los Juegos



While this is a very straightforward game, it presents a pleasant mental workout, and a significant challenge with two strong players.  It may not be anywhere near as complex as chess, but it forces the same kind of thinking ahead.  If you go for too many captures in the placement phase, your pieces may be too crowded to move effectively later.  Since we all know how to block three in a row from childhood, thanks to tic-tac-toe, you must find ways to set up positions where there’s two possible mills, so they can’t both be blocked.  Obvious tactics, but with strategy that reveals itself through play.

One thing I love about Nine Men’s Morris is the simple design.  It can be drawn in the dirt just about anywhere, and as long as you can get 18 distinguishable pieces, you’re all set to play.  This makes it a great camping game.

Of course, this is only one of the games that can be played on this board.  I’ll explore those in the future, but for my next essay, I think I’ll try some dice games from King Alfonso X.

Playable Apps

iOS Nine Men’s Morris

Google Play Nine Men’s Morris