Okay, I’m old…I was trying to figure out a Baba Looey joke for the title, but I doubt people would remember Quick-Draw McGraw’s burro sidekick.  

Anyway, this is about a Spanish card game that is a blend of trick-taking and card-shedding.  That is, the goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards, but the mechanic is similar to trick-taking games.  It’s a children’s game, which introduces the concept of following suit, and the titular B-U-R-R-O is how you track the five penalty points before ending the game.  The winner will be the player with the least letters spelling burro.

Up to 8 players can play, usually with a 48-card deck (which includes the 8 and 9 of each suit), although the more common 40-card deck can be used, as well. Cards are ranked King high down to Ace low.  Deal each player 4 cards, and set the rest aside as a draw pile.

The first player leads a card to a trick, and players must follow suit.  If they cannot, they must draw cards until they have a card of the led suit to play.  If the draw pile runs out, the player simply passes.  Tricks are won by the highest card of the led suit, and that player leads a card to the next trick.

Players who run out of cards drop out of play, and the last player holding cards receives a penalty point, one more letter toward spelling burro.  Once someone has spelled the complete word, the player with the least points wins the game.  If there is a tie, the tied players may play another hand to determine the winner.

Portuguese Variant

In Portugal, the 40-card deck is used, and gameplay is the same except that the deal is 5 cards, and players may continue to draw even after finding a card of the suit led.  In Burro Deitado, the stock is face-down as normal, but there is another game, Burro em Pé, in which the stock is divided in two piles, and they are balanced against each other in the shape of an A.  If a player knocks over the stock while drawing, they are required to pick up the entire pile.


W├╝rfelspiel and Bowling!

I’ve been poking around at other interesting sources of historic dice games, and ran across a document published by the SCA.  For those who don’t know, that’s the Society for Creative Anachronism, a long-running LARP (Live-Action Role-Playing) group.  They research and practice the skill-sets from medieval Europe, although they are especially known for mock battles with PVC and foam weaponry.  Several of my friends in college were into the SCA, although it wasn’t really for me.

However, some of what they claim as historically accurate may be a bit romanticized and not strictly correct – creative anachronism, after all, so I like to double-check sources to make sure things like games weren’t a modern invention created to feel historic.  Fortunately, this particular dice game was referenced in a book from 1910, published in Germany. There doesn’t seem to be a translated version available, but at least I found the book – Würfel und Würfelspiel in Alten Frankreich (Dice and Dice Games in Old France – thank you Google Translate).

The game is called Le Drinquet, which immediately makes me assume that the stakes were alcoholic beverages, but who knows?  It is a simple two-player dice game, racing to score 101 points, with one small twist – it requires a chessboard.

One player takes the dark squares, and he other has the light ones.  They agree beforehand whether each throw will consist of one, two, or three dice, and who goes first.  The player trows their dice onto the board, but only gets to score the dice that land fully within their squares.  If any portion of the die touches an opponent’s color, it scores zero.  This adds a fun extra element of chance and dexterity, in addition to not knowing what number will be rolled on each die.

Since it would be a shame to end a dice blog entry with only one game, here’s another fun one from the 1910 edition of Foster’s Complete Hoyle – Ten Pins with Dice.  In this game, you play ten frames, like a standard game of bowling, with up to three throws each.  Any number of people can play, each throwing two dice.  After each roll, a player may leave one or both dice on the table.  If only one is left, the other is thrown again.

When throwing, a six counts as zero (think of it as a gutter ball), so double-fives (ten pins) is the best possible roll.  If you throw double-fives, on your first roll, it counts as a strike.  Double-fives on the second roll is a spare.  If you don’t throw a strike of spare, it is a break, and you keep the results of your third throw for the frame.

As in bowling, a strike not only scores ten points, but also the results of your second roll in the next frame (the total of throwing the “ball” twice).  A spare scores ten plus the results of your first roll in the next frame.  Now, the rules don’t specify this, because the odds of throwing double-fives twice in a row are relatively slim, but I would assume that if you throw a strike again immediately after scoring a strike, you would also add the first throw in the next frame.  This would allow the change of a maximum score of 30 for a strike, as in real bowling.


Dama – Turkish Draughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playable Apps

Turkish Draughts in iOS

Dama on Android


So You Think You Know Chess…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I Always Thought Hopscotch was Easy!

When I was in elementary school, I was a bit of an oddity, as I never went through the “icky girls have cooties” phase.  I was also often the new kid, since we moved a lot, and while I made friends easily, I knew I was unusual in that I was also willing to play the “girls games” as much as running around on the swings and jungle gyms with the boys.  So it was interesting to go poking through the Outdoor Boy’s Handybook of Sports, by Daniel Beard, and see a whole section dedicated to hopscotch.  Ignoring the hilariously misguided attempt to make it seem like it came from wild East India, the game as written in the late 19th century was considerably more challenging than the game I was taught in my youth.

Modern Hopscotch

To play, you draw a hopscotch board similar to the one shown here.  Players take turns standing a little bit away from the space marked as 1, and toss a small stone onto the board.  Then they have to hop up to where it lands, lean over and pick it up, and then hop back.

The single boxes are to be hopped on one foot, and the double boxes are straddled, with one foot in each box.  If I remember right, you’re also supposed to turn around by hopping and landing facing back toward the beginning.

If you miss the board, stumble, or put a foot in a box other than where it’s not supposed to be, you’re either out, or miss a turn, or lose a point, depending on the group you play with.

This version can either be played for points or as a player elimination game, probably largely depending on how clumsy the players are.  You can add a rhyme to be said, a requirement to switch feet while hopping, or even tossing the stone again while in the middle of the board, until you miss or end your turn with one of the other disqualifying conditions.

Simple, boring, a kid’s game.  And even among kids, it is looked at through a sexist lens as just being for the so-called weaker gender.

However, as we look back, the game used to be considerably more challenging.  So, regardless of gender, you can have your more athletic kids give hopscotch a try with the original rules.  First, below are a few more options for the board.


These boards were all taken from the Outdoor Boy’s Handybook of Sports, right after the rules for Mumbledy Peg, which, as common as it was, should have made every kid an expert knife thrower.  But that’s getting off-topic.

These boards might look pretty easy, with the apparent difference being only that there are more one-foot hopping spaces, including a tricky sequence where the crossed lines are.  But the real challenge is in what you do with the rock.

First, all of these games have a separate line some distance away from the board, called a taw line, which is also a term used in marbles.  From this line, you toss the rock onto the board, and that will be the position you hop to for this turn.

Seems like the same game, right?

Here’s the first catch – you have to do the numbers in order.  That means first to 1, then 2, and so on. If you throw the rock and it lands in the wrong space, you miss your turn.  The goal, naturally, is to be the first to get to the last space and back.

But wait, there’s more!  When you get to the space with the rock, you’re not supposed to pick it up.  Instead, you kick it backwards, by a hop-kick if you’re on one foot (not using your other foot, that would be too easy), or with a slide-kick that doesn’t lift the foot of the ground if you’re straddling.

Challenging, but still doable, right?  Oh no, there’s one more teeny-tiny little tricky rule to remember to avoid losing your turn.  You’re kicking it back into just the previous space, hopping as per the requirements of the space, and then kicking it back through all the spaces as you go.  So if you were throwing the rock into space 3, you would hop up to space 3, then you would kick it back into space 2, then hop to space 2 and kick it into space 1, then hop to 1 and kick it out and back past the taw line.

With the stamina and coordination this game requires to make it to the end and back, it can be a solid game for burning off energy, since all it really requires is some way to draw a board, and a rock to hop after.  The problem is if the players are more likely to quit from frustration or fatigue.  That would be an ideal time to encourage self-confidence and the drive to see a project to its end no matter how hard it is.  Alternatively, teaching good sportsmanship if someone is having an easier time with it than others would also come up as an opportunity.

So get some chalk, find a sidewalk, and rediscover a game from your childhood.  Can you play it the old-school way?

More Fun than War? Burglary!

I remember many afternoons killing time with my younger brother by shuffling up a deck of cards, dealing it all out between us, and playing War.  It was an easy game to play – put out a card each, high number wins.  If they’re equal, deal 3 face down, and one more faceup – high number wins it all.  Still equal?  Another three face down plus one faceup, lather, rinse, repeat.  All the cards you win go on the bottom of your deck.  First player with all the cards wins.

It seems fun at that age, a game of chance, but unfortunately, the game is determined completely by the shuffle.  There are no decisions to be made during play.  And without choice, you have no real stake in the outcome.

So, as an alternative game with a similar feel, allow me to present Casita Robada (“Stealing Bundles”), from Argentina.  In Italy, this game is called Rubamazzo.  English-speaking countries call it Steal the Old Man’s Bundle, or Stealing Piles.  As you might guess, stealing what your opponent has won is part of this game.

Casita Robada is from the family of card games known as fishing games.  Oddly enough, I don’t think Go Fish falls in this family.  Fishing games have a selection of cards on the table, which you capture in some fashion with a card from your hand, sometimes with math, but usually by matching.  Most fishing games are won by having the most captured cards after one run through the deck, but obviously, it varies from game to game.

You can play this game with 2-4 players, and with pretty much any card deck, though I initially discovered it while researching games to play with the Spanish pack.  Deal 4 cards to each player, and then 4 more cards faceup in the middle of the table.

On your turn, play a card from your hand faceup into the cards in the middle.  If you match ranks with any of the cards there, you capture them.  Take your card and all matching cards, and put them in a faceup pile in front of you, only the top card showing.  If you didn’t match anything, your card stays in the middle.  In either case play then passes to the next player.  After each player has used their 4 cards, deal them each 4 more (but not to the middle), and play continues.

“Okay, but where’s the stealing?  You promised me looting,” you may be saying.  Here’s where having that faceup pile of captured cards matters.  If the card you play matches the top card of someone’s pile, then instead of taking cards from the middle, you capture that player’s entire pile.  Take your card and their stack, and place it on top of your own pile.

In this example, I can play the 10 to the table, capturing nothing. Or, play the 6 and capture the 6 from the table, and put them both on top of my pile. Finally, if I play the 5, I capture my opponent’s entire pile and put it on top of my own.


Once all cards have been played, any remaining cards in the center go to the last player who made a match.  Players then count up their stacks, and whoever has the most cards wins.

Playable Apps

Rubamazzo for iOS

Rubamazzo for Android

I love poking around the scans of books in the public domain – stuff so rare I know I will never get my hands on.  I may have read about these books, but never read the books themselves.  Every once in a while, I’ll come across something that makes me giddy to live in the information age.  Think about people that compiled some of the game rule books I’ve been referencing and how much travel and research was involved to discover these things that all I have to do is search for some scanned book and do a little reading to talk about it.

I was looking around game rule books on Project Gutenberg, and found one that, to me, is a significant chunk of gaming history.  Little Wars, by the invisible time-traveller himself, H.G. Wells, took common toy soldiers of his time, and added structured rules, how far each type of unit moves and how combat works, to formalise battles.

This book was the first formal rulebook on wargames, but for a long time, all of the combat was post-gunpowder, since that’s just how toy soldiers were designed.  Much, much later, Gary Gygax and his friend Jeff Perren wondered how much fun it would be to , just a small skirmish.  They published Chainmail, which focused on medieval combat, both at the scale of armies, and skirmish-level.  It even had rules for jousting!

Of true significance, however, is that Gygax was also a fan of the sword and sorcery genre, and developed rules to include fantasy elements.  Tolkein was also hugely popular around the same time, and being able to fight monsters like those in Middle Earth helped drive sales of Chainmail.  After a while, people thought to tell stories of just a few characters within these worlds, instead of a large siege.  Thus, Dungeons and Dragons was born – the first edition actually required a copy of the Chainmail rules.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The best part, though, is the full title: Little Wars (A Game for Boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty, and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books)