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!

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El Mundo

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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.

Rules

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.

Review

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.

Juego de la Oca

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Translated as The Game of the Goose, Juego de la Oca has a fascinating mixture of possible origins.  According to Wikipedia, it showed up commercially in the late 1800’s, and it’s generally believed to have originated in the late 16th century.

One of the more amusing theories out there is that the game actually originated in 1600 BC, because of the similarity to the layout of the Phaistos Disc.  While I love the idea that the disc was a game board, to think the two are the same game would be like saying chess and checkers are the same because of the board’s design.

The Rules

The basics are pretty simple.  You start outside space 1, and by rolling two dice on your turn, you move forward that number of spaces.  The goal is to reach space 63 by exact count.  If you get to 63 and have move left over, you “bounce” and complete your turn going backwards, including any extra movement from the special spaces.  Landing on an opponent sends their piece back to where you began your turn.  This is important, since some of the special spaces jump you around the board.  How exactly the special spaces work varies from game to game, but the most common rules are as follows:

    • The goose is found on spaces 5 and 9, and then every 9 spaces from each of them, except for space 63.  When landing on a goose, you move again equal to the current roll of the dice.  If you roll a 6 and land on a goose, you continue 6 more spaces forward.  The exception to this rule is the goose on space 9.  If you reach this goose on your first roll, the rule of moving again whatever the current roll is would take you all the way to the end.  So instead, you go to space 45 if your roll was 5-4, or 36 if it was 6-3.
    • The bridge is on space 6, and causes you to lose a turn.
    • The inn is on space 19, and also causes you to lose a turn.
    • The well, on space 31, costs 2 turns.
    • The dice are on spaces 26 and 53, and give you another roll.
    • The maze on space 42 sends you back 3 spaces.
    • The jail keeps you on space 52 for 3 turns.
    • Death, on space 58, returns you to space 1 to start over again.

Variations

On some boards, the rules are different.  This and more information can be found on the Spanish Wikipedia page.
    • The goose may face in either direction, and in some games, the extra movement is taken in the direction the goose points.
    • The bridge may be duplicated, with another one on space 12.  Rather than losing a turn, landing on a bridge can send you to the other one.
    • The inn may cost 2 turns.
    • The dice, rather than just being an illustration, can represent the number of spaces you move on from them.
    • The well and the jail, instead of only holding you for 2 or 3 turns, might hold you immobile until another player lands in the space to release you.  For obvious reasons, this rule is probably a bad idea unless you have many players.

Symbolism

In digging around to find a board to poorly transcribe onto canvas so I could demonstrate it, I found that researching while using Google Translate can yield incredibly interesting background. While it may not necessarily be the correct origin of the game, the case to be made for the symbolism of the board is compelling.

In short, the idea is that in the 12th century, an old Roman pilgrimage route to the Altar of the Sun was absorbed by the Catholic Church as the Guide of the Pilgrim in the Liber Sancti Jacobi, describing several monuments along the route.  Of note was that these ancient buildings had symbols carved in them from time before the church.  Among these carvings were three lines, representing a goose foot, as the goose was at one time considered a messenger, being able to travel on land, sea, and in the air.

The author of the essay believes that the special spaces on the game board symbolize the spiritual journey of the pilgrim.

    • The two bridges, as a beginning of learning.
    • The inn, to rest, but to remember to continue, to never stop learning.
    • The dice, to learn to take advantage of opportunities to advance your knowledge.
    • The well, as a connection to the underworld, and if you fall in, to wait for help to get out.
    • The maze is confusing, a test of what you have learned.
    • The prison represents orthodoxy, a threat to the pilgrim who may otherwise deviate into heresy.
    • Death, interestingly representing the tomb of the Apostle James, that travelers might learn not to be distracted with a false ending to their journey, lest they have to begin again.
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Juego de la Oca board 

 

 

Review

Juego de la Oca has been the star of the show each time I’ve demonstrated older games so far.  Kids especially love it.  The symbols are pretty easy to understand, and even being well ahead on the board is no guarantee of victory.  If given the option to make a board for themselves, people just gravitate toward it – the spiral and pictures are visually striking, and it’s easy to change the theme of the game to represent any journey you like.

 
This game has been popular for several centuries, and is still reasonably well-known today.  There are apps and programs to play Game of the Goose, even if they look a little cartoony.  There was even a gameshow on Spanish television for a while with contestants playing the game.  The rules are flexible, so you can add as much chaos to the movement as you like.
 
Find this one, draw your own copy, whatever you like, but give it a play.  The fun is worth it.

Playable Apps

It might not be exactly the same, as the game varies through time, but the basics are there.

iOS Game of the Goose

Google Play Game of the Goose