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!

Conquian – the First Rummy in the West

It is generally accepted that rummy-type (draw, meld, discard, try to go out) games originated in China (don’t worry, I’ll get to mahjong eventually).  I’ve played many different variants on the idea, and when I was researching card games played during the heyday of El Camino Real, I was pleased to discover that the very first rummy-style game in the west came from Latin America.  The best guess is Mexico during the 1860’s, but even as of the roaring 20s, game rule collectors weren’t sure.  Here’s an excerpt from Foster’s Complete Hoyle, in its third publication in 1922.

The etymology of this word is Spanish, con quién, “with whom”, but of the game it stands for, little or nothing is known except that it is a great favorite in Mexico, and in all the American States bordering upon it, especially Texas. It is an excellent game for two players, quite different from any other in its principles, and requiring very close attention and a good memory to play it well. In its finer points, especially in the judgment of what the adversary holds or is playing for, it ranks with our best games, and will probably grow in popularity as it becomes better known.

The game is played with the 40-card Spanish deck, of course.  Remember again that the 10 (sota, or jack) comes immediately after the 7 in sequence.  For play with a standard international deck, you can either remove the 8, 9, and 10 from each suit, or the three face cards to have a continuous run from Ace through 10.  In this game, the Ace is low, and the King is high.  When played with stakes, each game is worth one bet, and if it is a tie, another bet is added and a new hand played until someone wins.

Since it is my oldest source, I will be pulling the rules from Foster’s Hoyle.  Modern sources or apps may vary slightly in the number of cards dealt, but the rest of the gameplay remains the same.

The goal of the game is to be the first to meld 11 cards.  A meld is either 3 or 4 cards of the same rank (the 3 of cups, swords, and coins, for example), or at least 3 numbers in sequence within the same suit (such as the 7, 10, and 11 of batons).  In common card-playing jargon, cards of the same rank are a set, while cards in sequence within a suit are a run.

Traditionally, both players are dealt 10 cards, two at a time, and the remainder of the deck is placed in the center as a draw pile.  Play begins with the non-dealer.  The first player turns over the top card of the deck, and checks whether they can form a meld with anything in their hand.  If so, they lay down the cards to meld before adding the revealed card from the deck.  This is important, since so many other games work differently.  A player never draws a card into their hand for this game.  The first player now has a choice:

  1. Play at least two cards from their hand to form a valid meld (set of 3 or 4, run of 3 or more cards in suit) with the face-up card from the deck – you cannot lay down a meld without using the card from the deck. Afterward, they discard 1 card from their hand, ending their turn.
  2. Reject the card, ending their turn.

After this decision has been made, the second player has a slightly different choice:

  1. Play a meld using at least two cards from their hand with the discarded/rejected card from the previous player’s turn.  Afterward, discard a card from their hand, ending their turn.
  2. Reject the card left by the last player.  Turn this card face-down to form a waste pile.  The waste pile cards are out of the game and will not come up again.  Then, reveal the next card from the top of the deck and either meld it, or reject it, which ends their turn and passes this new card to the other player.

Player 1 rejected the revealed card. Player 2 could reject the 4, but then could not meld the 1-2-3 of swords alone. They can meld 2-3-4 or 1-2-3-4 of swords.

Play continues like this, with an old card to either use or reject.  If rejected, it is discarded permanently, and a new card is revealed to be decided on before passing play again.  After you have melds on the table, you may add the revealed card to your existing melds by itself or with a card from your hand.  Again, you may not meld to anything from your hand without using the card from the deck.

After any meld, you discard 1 card from your hand to pass to your opponent. If your discard causes you to be out of cards, the game is not over until you have eleven cards melded in front of you – you just have to hope for a lucky rejection or draw to win.  If you run out of cards in the draw pile, the game is a tie and you play again.

Seems simple so far, right?  There are just a couple little wrinkles left: Borrowing, and Forcing.

Borrowing is about using cards from a meld of 4 or more cards to form a new meld with the card in play from the deck.  You can pull one card from a set of 4 of a kind, or from either end of a run.  No meld can have fewer than 3 cards after any borrowing is complete.

Forcing is when you make your opponent use a card to add onto one of their existing melds (the 4th card to a set, or to extend a run from either end).  It can be done in only two situations:

  1. They reject your discard or drawn card, and turn over a new one that can be used on their visible melds
  2. After you have melded, as it is the only time you would discard.

An example of a forced play. The player rejected the 3 of coins at the beginning of their turn, revealing the 5 of swords. Because they have a visible meld that can use the 5, their opponent forces them to do so, making them break up one of the pairs in hand.


To force a card, simply pick it up once revealed or you discard, and play it on their meld, telling them to discard, instead of melding normally.  This is a technique to disrupt a potential meld in their hand, making it more difficult to finish melding their full 11 cards.

Player 2 is now in a bit of a pickle. They have laid down 10 cards and have none in hand, meaning they must be able to use the card from the deck in order to win the game. They can only add the 10 of swords or the 7 of cups to their runs. The 10-swords is melded by the other player, and what Player 2 doesn’t know is that the 7-cups os in Player 1’s hand. Unless they discard it, Player 2 cannot win.


It is interesting to see elements that were used by so many later rummy games.  The rearranging of melds is especially interesting to me, since the first place I encountered it was in Rummikub, which despite just being plastic tiles representing cards, is considered more of a board game.  I have also seen rules stating the initial deal as 8 or 9 cards, again only requiring melding 1 more card than the number dealt.  In this, I prefer the challenge of the original deal of 10.  Because there are only 10 cards in each suit, this prevents you from winning with only a very long run.

The game can feel more slow than other rummy games, because of the reject/new card/can’t use/reject mechanic.  In other games, you can pick up the discard to try and improve your initial deal, which is not the case here.  It adds a greater challenge to do the best you can with your deal, but it can be frustrating to realize you cannot possibly go out and have to go through the motions of rejecting cards until you finish the deck to tie the game and redeal.

In the example game above, this is exactly what happened.  Player 1 only had sets, and the 4th card of each was melded by Player 2.  Because they had no other pairs in their hand, and no two cards of the same suit that were close enough for a potential run, they could not meld or discard for the rest of the game.  Meanwhile, Player 2 could only win with the 7 of cups, which was in Player 1’s hand and could not be discarded.  So, back and forth, they ended up rejecting the last 10 cards in the deck one by one.  I think when you’re drinking and gambling and not playing very close attention, this wouldn’t be a problem, but for someone used to the light card-counting that helps in trick-taking games, it is frustrating to know the game will be a tie, but to waste time getting to the redeal.

It is a minor quibble, though, and if you can let that go, Conquian is an enjoyable and challenging game, worthy of being the parent to a wide variety of rummy-type games in the west.

Playable Apps

Conquian for iOS (uses the 8 card deal/9 cards melded to win rules)

Conquian for Android

Cinquillo : Introducing the Spanish Pack

To be honest, I’m not sure whether Cinquillo would be considered “historic” or not, as it is difficult to find when any particular card game surfaced.  However, given that it involves laying out the entire deck by rank and suit, I like to use it to introduce the Spanish deck to newcomers.

In the most common Spanish deck, there are 40 cards.  The four suits are oros (coins), copas (cups), bastos (clubs or batons), and espadas (swords).  Each has 10 cards, numbered 1 through 7, and then three face cards: sota (jack), caballo, (knight), and rey (king).  The printed numbers of the face cards are 10, 11, and 12, which initially confuses people new to the deck, since I need to explain that 10 comes immediately after 7.

Originally, Spanish decks were 52 cards, like our modern deck, but one rank was removed so a full deck could be printed on two sheets.  Then, in the 17th century, the game Ombre (played today as Tresillo, which I will cover later) used a stripped deck of 40 cards, by removing the 8 and 9.  This game was wildly popular, and soon, the 40-card deck was the most common deck used for games.  Today, it is possible to get the larger decks (my highest-quality deck, with plastic cards, is a 48-card deck), but the 40-card deck is still the most widely available.

Cinquillo is the Spanish version of Fan Tan (also known as Sevens), which is a relatively common game with the standard French-suited international deck.  Is is a blend of what is known as a tableau game, in which you are laying out cards in a specific pattern (like most solitaire games), and a card-shedding game, in which the goal is to be the first to run out of cards (like crazy eights or Uno).  It can play between 2 and 5 players, and I like to lead with it to familiarize people with the deck.

To play with 3 or more players, deal out the entire deck.  With three, this means one player will have an extra card, so the deal will rotate between hands.  For two players, deal out thirteen cards to each player, and the remainder of the deck forms a draw pile that will be used up during play.

The player with the 5 of coins plays first, laying it down on the table, and then play passes to the right. In a 2-player game, it is possible that the 5 of coins was not dealt.  In this case, choose someone to go first.  They must draw a card and pass their turn.  This continues until someone has the 5 of coins to play at the beginning of their turn.  You do not play the 5 of coins immediately when you draw it – drawing the card was your turn – play it on your next turn.

After the 5 of coins is in play, you will do one of three things on your turn:

  1. Play the next-ranked card (up or down) in suit to a group already on the table.
  2. Play one of the other 5s to begin a new suit.
  3. Pass (and draw a card, if in a 2-player game and the deck has not run out).  Note that you may not pass if you have a possible play.

In this example, the possible plays are the 7 or 1 of coins, the 7 or 4 of cups, or the 5 of either swords or clubs.  The hand shown must play the 5 of swords – they have no other available play.

The game is over when one player runs out of cards.  They score 5 points for going out, plus 1 for each card remaining in their opponents’ hands.  Typically, the game is played to 100 or 500 points.  As a gambling game, there are no points.  Instead, each player antes at the beginning of the game, then adds one bet to the pool when they have to pass.  The winner gets the pool, plus one bet for each card remaining in the losers’ hands.

The easiest mistake to make is to pass because you forget that the 10 follows the 7.  Once you get that down, the game is very simple, and the basic strategy becomes apparent quickly.  Since the hardest cards to play are those at the very ends, you can make your opponents more likely to have to pass by holding on to the central cards (like 3 through 7) as long as possible.  Of course, if you have an end card, you’ll probably want to play cards to force other players to fill in those gaps as early as you can, so you don’t get stuck passing later.

So far, Cinquillo has always gone over pretty well, with players enjoying the light strategy and becoming excited to learn what else can be played with this new deck.  I have no idea how old it is, but it’s definitely a game worth remembering.

Playable Apps

Be warned, there is usually not an English language option available for Spanish card game apps.  You may have to learn a few words to get the hang of what the buttons do.

Cinquillo on iOS

Cinquillo on Android



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)

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!

The Hazards of Being King

Just after Triga, Alfonso X spoke about the idea of losing rolls that had nothing to do with your point number, with azar (hazard) rolls.  In all the following games, to save seeing him write about all the possible combinations to roll them (kings could be almost as long-winded as I am), he pretty consistently defines azar as rolls 15 and up, or 6 or less, on three dice.

Medio Azar being played

Azar (Hazard)

There is another dice game that they call azar and it is played in this way: the one who first has to roll the dice if he should roll 15 pips [or higher, or 6 or lower], they win. And any of these numbers in any of the ways that they may come according to the other games that we have described above is called azar.

And if by chance he does not roll any of these azares first, and gives to the other as a point number one of those which are from six pips and above or from fifteen and below, in whichever way that it may come, according to the other games we described in which they come. And afterward these (rolls) he rolls one of the rolls which we said here was azar, this roll will be called reazar and the one who rolled first will lose.

And also if by chance he should not roll this number which becomes reazar, he must take for himself one of the other point numbers which are from six pips and above or from fifteen and below in whatever way it may come. And they should roll as many times until one of these numbers comes, either his own by which he wins or that of the other by which he loses, except if he takes the same point number that he gave the other, which would be called match. And they must continue rolling as above.

And however any of these rolls should come that are called azar or reazar and until one of the point numbers comes, neither of them will win nor lose because of it until it is divided by the rolls, as it says above.

Did you get all that?  First of all, he seems to be accidentally including 6 and 15 as possible point numbers after he defined them as azar.  I’ll assume that to be an error and that he meant 7-14.

In plain English, roll azar on your first roll, and you win.  If you roll anything else, the number you do roll becomes your opponent’s point number. 

On your second roll and any roll afterword, rolling azar (now called reazar), and you lose.  If you roll your opponent’s point number on this second roll (and only this second roll) and you match (draw) the game.  Anything else is now your point number.

After that, keep rolling until you either roll your point number again and win, or you roll your opponent’s point number or reazar, and you lose. 

In this game, you easily see the concepts that would later become Craps as it is played in the modern day – the instant win opening roll, the point numbers, and the instant loss if you roll the same numbers that would have won if they were first.  The main thing I find interesting is that this is a two-player game in which the first point number is given to the non-roller and becomes an additional hazard.  This idea continues in other games.


There is another dice game that they call marlota in which there is no azar, re-azar, nor high rolls. And it is played for money in this way: he that rolls the dice is to give a point number to the other with whomever he is playing.  And the point numbers that he can give or take for himself are these: [seven through fourteen].

And if he rolls fourteen or above or seven or below, it is not a point number for either one or the other. But rather he should roll as many times until he hits a number of these aforementioned ones to (give to) that one with which he is playing and take another for himself. And of these numbers, the first one is to belong to whomever he is playing with and the other is his own. 

And after the point numbers are divided in this way, he is to roll as much until his comes or that of the other, thus rolling his own he wins and rolling that of the other he loses.

Essentially, Marlota is Azar, without the azares.  You simply ignore rolls above fourteen or below seven.  It’s odd that King Alfonso put this game after the description of Azar, given that it removes that level of complexity that made Azar interesting.  It’s basically just a bet to reroll the second point number you roll before rolling the first again.

Dice of different materials, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medio Azar (Half Hazard)

There is another dice game that they call medio azar that is played in this way: those who want to play have first to roll battle and he who wins will roll first. 

And if he rolls 14 pips or above or seven or below in any way that each one of these numbers may come it will be azar. And for each azar he will take a bet amount as agreed upon…

And the rolls which are in the middle of these are called point numbers and they are these: [8-13]. And if by chance he should not roll azar and hit the other’s point number and take a point number for himself, the one that should come first will win three amounts. 
And if after he should give a point number to the other one he should then roll azar between he takes his own point number, that amount will go up to four. And if he should roll another azar it will go to five. And as many azares as he should roll each one after the other, will be worth an amount until he takes a point number for himself.
And if by chance before he takes a point number for himself he should match the same point number as the other one, he will roll again for azar and if he should make it, he will win all the amounts that were there. And if not, hit the point number again and it will count on top of the other first amounts and in this way the game returns to start over again. 

This one is a little complicated to decipher, but of note is that azar in this case is 14 and up and 7 or below.  Azares in this game work a little differently; instead of instantly winning or losing the game, they raise the stakes.

Basically, if you roll a point number for your opponent and then another for yourself, and manage to roll one of them again without rolling any azares, the winner gets 3 bets (3 of whatever base unit you’re betting with).

For each azar rolled after you give a point number to the opponent, but before taking one for yourself, add one bet to the stakes.

If you roll your opponent’s point number again before taking one for yourself, roll one more time to get azar.  If you make it, you win the pool of bets.  If on this roll, you roll the opponent’s point number again, it’s a match, and the stakes are returned to their owners.  Anything else, and you lose.

Otherwise, once both players have a point number, azares no longer add to the stakes, and the first point number rolled again determines the winner.

Half Hazard is very fun, with a press-your-luck aspect that keeps making the bets go higher and higher, increasing the thrill of victory, or agony of defeat.  You might only win a little, but vast changes of fortune are possible.

Since I can’t resist tinkering with rules, here’s a way to possibly adapt the game for more players (up to 6)

  1. Dice change hands after each roll, so each player sets their own point number.
  2. Azares raise the stakes until all players have a point number.
  3. Matching someone else’s point numbers sets the game between those two players, to finish as described in the normal game.  Any other players take their stakes back and drop out of the round.
  4. Otherwise, if nobody matches someone else’s point number, winner takes all.

If anyone tries it, I’d love feedback on how it plays.  Have fun playing!