Historic


In the introduction to Sedentary Board Games of India, published in May 1999, Irving Finkel stated that the Anthropological Survey of India, in a joint venture with the British Museum, was going to carry out an ‘Anthropological Investigation of the Board Games of India’ (subsequently called the ‘Indian Board Game Survey‘).

The importance of India, and south Asia in general, in board gaming terms cannot be overstated – it is the probable origin of chess, and has a rich history of race, hunt, war and mancala games. But while Chess is comprehensively covered in H.J.R. Murray’s monumental History of Chess there is remarkably little research available in western languages on the other games. A number of articles were published in journals over the years, were referred to by Murray in his 1952 History of Board Games other than Chess, and were subsequently republished in Sedentary Board Games of India (1999).

At the 2001 Board Games Studies Colloquium Dr Finkel presented a preliminary report on the Indian Board Game Survey – though nothing subsequently appeared in the journal Board Games Studies.

Subsequent colloquia touched on the Indian contribution to gaming, but still nothing much appeared in print:

2002:
Board games from the city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) (1336-1565). A survey and study, by R.Vasantha
Folk board games of strategy in Tamilnadu, by V. Balambal
A contribution to the history of Backgammon from an indological point of view, by Micaela Soar and Irving Finkel

2003:
An inquiry into the earliest game boards, pieces, dice from India, by R.Vasantha
Special features of some traditional board games of Tamilnadu, by V. Balambal

2005:
The arrival and spread of pachisi from India, by Irving Finkel

2008:
Revival of traditional board games — prospects and retrospects, by V. Balambal

2009:
Bondage of Indians with Board Games from Ancient to Modern Times, by V.Balambal
The Game of Chaupad in India, by Ute Rettberg

2010:
A very early counting system in traditional Indian games and some implications, by Irving Finkel

Ancient Board Games in Perspective edited by Dr Finkel and published in 2007 added some extra information on India in the history of backgammon, and India and the Far East Game boards at Vijayanagara, but given its focus on games in the past it had nothing very much to say about the more recent gaming traditions of India.

Currently the web site of the British Museum, where Dr Finkel is Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures, and which will publish the Indian Board Game Survey, states that it is a ‘major report in preparation‘.

Game historians, enthusiasts and anthropologists are by nature probably very patient people, but this month marks the eleventh anniversary of the first mention of the Indian Board Game Survey in Sedentary Board Games of India, and the ninth anniversary of Dr Finkel’s preliminary report. Does anybody know whether the final report going to be published any time soon?

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A recent visit to Rome yielded a fairly meagre harvest of games-related material. Admittedly, the trip was not a research outing and what I found was only accidental – perhaps a focussed search might find more, but that will have to be on another occasion.

In the Vatican Museum I came across a collection of medieval chess pieces, but the display case had no labels at all, so the date and origin are impossible to know. Comparing these with the images on Jean-Louis Cazeau’s excellent History of Chess website, it is at least possible to tentatively identify them.

In the Roman Forum, between the Honorary Columns opposite the Tabernae Veteres/Basilica Iulia, I found an example of a ‘circle and spoke’ game of the C.4 type according to the British Museum Working Typology (see Bell and Roueché in Ancient Board Games in Perspective, 2007). This was no doubt one of the diagrams described by George Dennis in his 1892 letter to Edward Falkener and contained in the latter’s Games Ancient and Oriental, and how to Play Them as Appendix III:

 

Another C.4 type ‘circle and spoke’ game is on display in the Colosseum, though it was not excavated there. It is a common type of game and has been found fairly widely in areas included in the Roman Empire.

The precise game (or games) played on this board are hard to identify. Murray and others consider that the diagram was a variant of the lesser Merels (3-Mens-Morris), but it has also been used in Denmark to play a Hare Game (which is one type of hunt game) (see Michaelsen Somme trak også tavl – om et gammelt tidsfordriv og dets navne, in Ord og Sag 18, 1998). Perhaps further research will throw some more light on this.

Unlike the game of draughts (checkers) played almost everywhere else in the world, the game in Québec is played on a 12 x 12 board with 30 pieces per player.

The game is played otherwise by the same rules as International Draughts.

The Association québécoise des joueurs de dames (Québec Draughts Players Association) has put on line the Traité Canadien du Jeu de Dames à la Polonaise from 1906, as well as the Manuel du jeu de dames canadien from 1922 (both in French) – both interesting from a historical point of view.

It seems that the game is popular in Québec and played there alongside 10 x 10 International Draughts. Only on the other side of the world is draughts also played on a 12 x 12 board. Wikipedia states that in Malaysia and Singapore the game is played on a 12 x 12 board without backwards capture, but provides no verification for this. In Sri Lanka the game is also played on a 12 x 12 board – here it is called Dam, hinting at a Dutch origin. The AQJD itself says that “Canadian checkers (144 squares) [is] played mostly by francophones from North-America (but also in Sri Lanka and Dominican Republic)“.

Where did the variant come from, and is its appearance on two opposite sides of the world merely coincidence?

The AQJD have their own version of their game’s origin:

Legend says that the Canadian game of checkers was introduced here by a voyager who, after having discovered the game in Europe, tried to reproduce it, adding a row of squares all around.

However, draughts on a 144-square board was not unknown in nineteenth century Europe either. A part of the introduction of the Traité du Jeu de Dames by Van Damme, published in Gent, Belgium, in 1871, says: “We again introduced the game of checkers on a 144 squares board, named the double checkers board. Each partner having 30 pieces. This game is unquestionably more complicated than the modern game and offers wider combinations, but the 100 squares game already offers so many resources that we’ll never be able to know all of its artifices.

Murray says that boards for 144-square draughts were on sale in London in 1805, though this is difficult to verify.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon

Sri Lanka was heavily influenced by the Dutch East India Company between 1640 and 1796 when it fell to the British. Malacca in Malaya was also ruled by the Dutch between 1641 and 1975.

In Ancient Ceylon, by H. Parker (1909) the game is described. Parker says that it is played also in India. His rules for the game – Dam, which he translates as ‘the net’ – differ from those of Canadian draughts. In Sri Lanka Parker says that the pieces (30, as in Canadian draughts) are placed on the white squares and may move backwards as well as forwards from the start of the game, but only to the next adjacent square if they have not been crowned. A piece, once crowned, may move as far as it wishes along a diagonal as long as its path is unoccupied by its own or opposing pieces. It may make long captures, but only if each opposing piece has a vacant square after it. A king can continue its move, if it reaches the end of a diagonal, by ‘bouncing’ along the corresponding diagonal at right angles to the first, on condition that it captures one or more opposing pieces on each diagonal. It may continue its move as long as it does so. If the king captures no pieces on the first or subsequent diagonal, it ends its move at the end of that diagonal.

Malaya/Malaysia

W.H. Newell, writing in MAN (February 1959) says that the Portuguese at Malacca played draughts on a 12 x 12 board, calling it Damat. His accompanying diagram shows the long diagonal at the players’ right-hand side, though this may be an error:

 Damat diagram

He also provides a slightly confused description of the move of a crowned piece:

When a piece gets to the opposite end of the board it becomes a king and can travel any distance along the black squares in one move in one line provided that there is a vacant space at the end of its jump.

He states that this is a local rule, but as the same rule exists in International Draughts he may have been mistaken, being probably more familiar with English draughts where the King captures in the same way as an ordinary piece (” … from one square over a diagonally adjacent and forward square occupied by an opponent’s piece (man or king) and on to a vacant square immediately beyond it.”), but is allowed to do so either forwards or backwards.

Arie van der Stoep, in A History of Draughts (1984) notes that 12 x 12 boards were not unknown in India even before the arrival of the Europeans, where they were used for chess variants. It is not impossible that the game of draughts was transposed to an existing board size. The likelihood of the game evolving independently from Alquerque, brought by Arab traders, and having by and large the same rules as International Draughts, is implausible.

If the imported European game of draughts was transposed to a 12 x 12 board in Sri Lanka, southern India and Malacca, with almost exactly the same rules as the game in Québec, this would be a very unusual case of parallel development. As such, it is also quite implausible, and the conclusion must be drawn that a game on a 12 x 12 boards was indeed known and played in Europe in the 18th century, and that it was carried by colonists both east to south asia and west to Québec, before dying out in Europe.

David Singmaster, best-known as a puzzle expert (particularly famous for his solution to the Rubik’s cube), but also retired professor of mathematics at London South Bank University, has collected a considerable amount of source material on mathematical games and puzzles.

In his commentary on the material he has collected concerning the simple game called Noughts and Crosses (or Tick-tack-toe’) he says:

“Popular belief is that the game is ancient and universal. However the game appears to have evolved from earlier three‑in‑a‑row games, e.g. Nine Holes or Three Men’s Morris, in the early 19C. The game is not mentioned in Strutt nor most other 19C books on games, not even in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games (1889), nor in Halliwell’s section on slate games, but there may be an 1875 description in Strutt-Cox of 1903.

Babbage refers to it in his unpublished MSS of c1820 as a children’s game, but without giving it a name. In 1842, he calls it Tit Tat To and he uses slight variations on this name in his extended studies of the game.

The [Oxford English Dictionary]’s earliest references are: 1849 for Tip‑tap‑toe; 1855 for Tit‑tat‑toe; 1861 for Oughts and Crosses. However, the first two entries may be referring to some other game – e.g. the entries for Tick‑tack‑toe for 1884 & 1899 are clearly to the game that Gomme calls Tit‑tat‑toe. Von der Lasa cites a 1838-39 Swedish book for Tripp, Trapp, Trull. Van der Linde (1874, op. cit. in 5.F.1) gives Tik, Tak, Tol as the Dutch name.”

He has thus found no evidence for the game before 1820 at the earliest, and very little evidence of popularity until later in the 19th century. Yet many writers in the 19th century refer to it as a ‘children’s game’ or a ‘boys game’, and not as a novelty.

 It would be surprising if the game was a relatively modern version of the older smaller Merells (or Three Man’s Morris), as it appears to be simpler than it – and this runs counter to the general evolution of games. In addition, the fact that the game was known in the 19th century in regions which did not have much communication with each other (Sweden and England) tends to imply an older origin. There is no record of the game having originated in one of these countries and being exported to the other.

So the questions remain: is the game older than the 19th century, and if so are there any other records of it earlier than Babbage’s?

Every article in Board Games Studies 4 (2001) concerned the group of games known in Danish as daldøs, in Norwegian as daldøsa, and in Sámi (Lapp) as sáhkku. Although several researchers had been interested in these games separately for some years, BGS/4 was the first time they had been brought together and compared.

The games are a type known as ‘running fight’ games, where players move their pieces around a prescribed circuit of three or four rows on the throws of a dice, with the object of landing on one of the opponent’s pieces, and thus removing it from the board. The winner is the player who removes all of his opponent’s pieces. The rules are fully explained in BGS/4 and, in summary, in Wikipedia. The game is known only in Scandinavia and in North Africa, with one possible exception – a diagram in a 13th century English manuscript.

The boards vary somewhat in size: in Denmark the three rows contain 16+17+16 points;  in Norway 12+13+12 are used; while in the Sámi game the rows are all of equal length (generally 15 points). In the North African tâb and sîg games there are either three of four rows of points, with the numbers of points per row varying greatly – from 7 up to 25 or more.

The ‘northern’ board – Norwegian model (daldøsa) – appears like this:

Issue 4 of Board Games Studies is an important source of information on the games of this family. Thierry Depaulis who had been studying tâb and sîg games from the Arab-Muslim world contributed an article on Jeux de parcours du monde arabo-musulman (Afrique du Nord et Proche-Orient) to BGS/4.

Peter Michaelsen, who had been studying daldøs for many years, contributed a translated version of his first conclusions which had earlier been published in the Danish journal Ord & Sag (Michaelsen 1999) under the title Daldøs og Sakku – to gamle nordiske spil (Daldøs and Sakku – two old nordic games). Alf Næsheim contributed an article on the (southern) Norwegian game daldøsa, and Alan Borvo contributed an account of the Sámi (Lapp) game sáhkku.

Thierry Depaulis rounded off the set of articles with a speculation on whether there was any connection between the northern games and those of the Arab-Muslim world. He explored several possible transmission routes:

1.   Through the Varangians – or ‘eastern’ Vikings – who travelled through Russia as far as Byzantium. Depaulis concludes, however, that although the ‘Varangian’ hypothesis is attractive, it is difficult to prove.

2.   Through contacts between ‘western’ Vikings and the Arab world; though again Depaulis finds this unlikely. Contacts were largely through warfare (including the Crusades) or raiding (in both directions), and Depaulis finds the lack of any record of the games in other countries with greater contacts – France, Germany, England – as indicating that this route is unlikely.

3.   Through the Vandals – but Depaulis notes that this northern people, although they came into close contact with North African peoples, did not actually return to Scandinavia, and thus is unlikely to have provided a transmission route.

In his conclusion Depaulis come down in favour of the Varangian, or ‘eastern Viking’ route. He emphasises that “… one thing is striking: we have no trace whatsoever of any tâb-type game in Europe” – though he refers in a footnote to the apparent depiction of a similar board in the 13th century English manuscript MS 0.2.45 from Cerne Abbey, Dorset, kept in Trinity College Library, Cambridge (shown on p.27 of BGS/4). This depiction, though, is unlabelled and the game un-described, so no conclusions can be drawn. It is treated as a strange anomaly that does not seriously call his ‘eastern’ route into question.

However, the 13th century manuscript may not be the only evidence of a daldøs-type game in Western Europe.

The 16th century English warship, the Mary Rose, sank in 1545 in waters just south of England. Her wreck remained undiscovered until 1971, and in 1982 it was salvaged. Of enormous importance to archaeologists was the fact that much of the ship and its contents survived in relatively good condition.

One of the artefacts recovered is the top of an Oak barrel, (item no 81A1995) upon which is carved a clear Morris board, and also another diagram that attracts little attention, but in the light of the recent research on the daldøs/tâb group could be very significant:

The diagram, though difficult to see clearly, has a Morris board at the top, but in the centre is a diagram that is similar to a daldøs(a) board, albeit one with 13+14+13 points:

No other known game or religious or other symbol has the same shape. Although no other evidence exists to reinforce the possibility that the diagram was used as a board for a running-fight game, its discovery beside a known game design (the Morris board) suggests that its purpose may have been similar.

If the board was used for a running-fight game of the daldøs(a) type, it could partly bridge the gap between the games of North Africa and those of Scandinavia. The games of Scandinavia were all found in coastal regions, and in the case of daldøsa the boards are carved in the shape of a ship. These two facts may suggest a nautical origin for the game. If it was played in the 16th century by English sailors, then this could explain its spread eastward. But where might the game have come from?

The crew of the Mary Rose were mainly of English origin, but there were also a few individuals from continental Europe, and analysis of oxygen isotopes in teeth indicates that some were also of southern European ancestry. It is not impossible that some of these crew members brought with them the game that is now known in North Africa, played it on the Mary Rose (and other ships?) and passed it, through nautical contacts, to sailors from Scandinavia.

The problematic 13th century diagram in the Trinity College, Cambridge, manuscript remains, as before, an anomaly in this hypothesis, as it would imply a knowledge of a running-fight game in England several centuries earlier. However the origin of this manuscript is unknown, and it may have come from elsewhere – perhaps even from a country where the game was known. Until more research is done on the manuscript it must remain a mystery.

It seems appropriate to begin at the beginning. Though, of course, as new discoveries come to light the beginning may be pushed further back in time. The great games expert HJR Murray (author of the incomparable History of Chess), in his second major book, the History of Board Games other than Chess, said that:

By chance I happen to live in Brussels, and so here is a picture that I took of the actual board:

El-Mahasna board, Brussels

Nothing can be known about the game played on the board, or if it is related to any later game in Egypt or elsewhere. It appears to have a 3-by-x layout, which is similar to other known boards such as the Game of 30 Squares, but that may be coincidence. We will probably never know anything more about this game.