My poorly-drawn El Mundo board
Growing up, my mother introduced me to backgammon, and while I never played for points using the doubling cube, it was one of the first games I felt a strong affinity for. Maybe it was tactile – there was something about the clack of the bakelite pieces and putting them down onto the soft corrugated felt board, the faux leather case. I still own my set today, which will be good for when I get around to looking at all the tables games.
One of the more intriguing things I found when poking through Alfonso X’s Libro de los Juegos were a variety of what he called tables games. The design of the rectangular board showed me that all the games were precursors to backgammon, although none of the setups were exactly the same as the modern game. Almost all of them were two-player games, though, and I was looking for another multiplayer game to teach.
Enter El Mundo (pdf). This was a four-player tables game played on a circular board. Also known as the Game of the Four Seasons, the colors were supposed to be green, red, black, and white, but I decided to go with brighter, more modern colors for my teaching copy. Originally, I tried explaining the rules with just what was different from backgammon, but stumbled as I discovered many people didn’t know my beloved childhood game. When I write about this and the other tables games, I’ll explain their rules from scratch. If you want to learn backgammon, I’ve posted above a link with detailed instructions for this classic.
The goal of the game is to move all of your pieces counter-clockwise around the board to the quadrant opposite where you begin, and then bear them off – that is, remove them from the game.
Each player begins the game with 12 pieces in their color, and starting placement is random. For convenience of teaching, I numbered the spaces for each player, but that is optional. The King specified that each player in turn rolled three dice and played three pieces according to the numbers shown, then passed to the next player for four times around the board. Since it didn’t affect play, I chose to have each player roll for all 12 of their pieces at once to save time passing the dice.
Once all pieces are placed, the first player takes their turn. Roll the dice, and the three numbers each represent one movement. There are no bonus movements for doubles or triples. You can move the same piece multiple times, and you may land freely on any space containing your own pieces.
You may not land on any space controlled by two or more opponent pieces, but if there is only one piece on the space, you capture it by landing there. This is where the game throws a strategic restriction on you – if you are able to capture a piece belonging to either of the two opponents to your right (i.e., the quadrants you will be traveling through), you must do so. Capturing a piece of the player to your left is optional.
Captured pieces are returned to their owner and must re-enter the board by using up a die roll, just like the initial placement. On their turn, a player must re-enter all captured pieces before moving any other pieces on the board.
Sometimes, you will find that there will be a die roll you cannot use. When this happens, the next player to your right gets a chance to use that die, even though it is not their turn yet. I repeat, using your die does not count as their turn – it is a bonus movement for them. If they are also unable to use the movement, the die passes around to the right until either someone can use it, or nobody can, in which case the die is lost for that turn.
After taking all your moves, the dice pass to the right and that player begins their turn.
Now, running around the board and capturing pieces is fun, but the foal of the game is to bear off all of your pieces. To do so, you must first get all of them into the quadrant opposite where you started. So, on my board, red is trying to get into green, blue into yellow, and vice versa. If you have even one piece outside of your goal quadrant, you cannot begin to remove your tokens yet. And the dividing line into the fourth quadrant is effectively a wall for you – you cannot move past it. (Red cannot enter yellow, for example.)
Once you have your pieces ready to bear off your rolls now represent movement “past” that wall, off the board. Your movement must be exactly what you need to get one space beyond the last space. You can only use higher rolls for lower movement if there is nothing behind the space that could use the roll to just move without bearing off. This is a little hard to explain without visuals, so I’ll show an example of bearing off in pictures.
||First roll. Space 1 moves 6 and off. Space 4 moves 3 and off twice.
||Second roll. Space 2 moves 5 and off. Space 4 moves 3 and off once. The remaining 3 can’t be used for an empty space, nor for 5 or 6, because there are pieces further back that can still move 3. I will move the other piece from space 2 into space 5.
||Third roll. In this case, there is nothing in spaces 1 or 2 to use the 5 or 6 on the dice, so the movements are allowed to be used by the remaining pieces with the furthest to go. In this case, Space 3 uses all three movements to bear off. The last 4 pieces on spaces 5 and 6 are guaranteed to win in 2 more turns.
Of course, you might have vulnerable pieces captured while bearing off – this would require you to re-enter them and go all the way back around the board again to resume bearing off.
The first person to bear off all their pieces wins the game.
Aside from the challenge of getting four players together to play an unfamiliar board game, this is a lot of fun, and pretty easy to understand once you get going. The most common problem is people missing required captures, but for a casual game, that’s not really a big deal. While it doesn’t have the excitement and pretty pictures of Juego de la Oca, it has still gone over pretty well, despite the length of time required to play (about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how quickly people grasp the strategy).
Like I said, backgammon is near and dear to my heart, and I will enjoy the different setups and goals of the various tables games. El Mundo, with the circular board, is just the most visually different one to start with.