hist-games: Seven-sided backgammon

Christian Joachim Hartmann lukian at Null.net
Mon Jul 27 08:39:24 PDT 1998

At 13:49 26.06.98 +1000, Adelle Hartley wrote:
>My partner (who doesn't have direct e-mail access) recently came accross
>a book
>titled "Games of the World".  Unfortunately, the book leaves a lot of
>questions unanswered.
>She has asked me to post the following list of queries:
>1.  How was 7-handed backgammon played?
>(The book has a picture taken from Alphonso X's games book.  7 players
>are pictured
>sitting around a 7-sided table, each with 7 pieces and 2 dice.

I've finally brought all pieces together to make a try at the rules of
this curious game:


These rules are paraphrased from the Alphonine Manuscript. The chapter
in which the game is described begins like this:

"This is the astronomical board-game with backgammon-men - as
corresponding to the one with chess-men."

The board used for this game has seven sides in the form of a
seven-sided polygon. Each of these sides or 'tables' belongs
to one of the seven players. Each table consist of seven points
instead of the usual 6 point on a backgammon board.

Each side belongs to one of the seven heavenly luminaries which
should be pictured on its side of the board (on the frame) in the colour
belonging to the particular planet, viz. Saturn black, Jupiter green,
Mars red, Sun yellow, Venus violet, Mercury coloured, Moon white.

By inference from the "Astronomical board-game with chessmen", the
players throw with a seven-sided die for the planets, Saturn being 7,
Jupiter 6, Mars 5, Sun 4, Venus 3, Mercury 2, Moon 1.
Then they throw "a battle" with at dice and the winner begins.

Each players is sitting at the side of his planet having seven men
in the colour of that planet which he places on the leftmost point
of his starting table. Furthermore, each player has got seven chips
or counters each "worth a Maravedi or any other coin as the players 
agree on" as Alfonso put it.

The game proceeds anticlockwise [by inference]. A player throws with 3
seven-sided dice [inferred from the illustration] and advances his men
like in backgammon. The men are played to the right, i.e. anticlockwise.
The ace points of the tables (being the points where the men are piled at
the start) aren't counted for moving the men if they're occupied by more 
than one enemy man. But if the enemy's ace-point is uncovered or occupied
by only one man, it is counted and this man may be hit.
Beaten men (blots) are removed from play and not re-entered. A players 
receives one chip per blot he's hit from the players these men belonged to.
There's no bearing off, consequently no 'home table'. The men circulate
the board till they're thrown out.

The play continues until there's only one player left which is the winner.

"... And this is the illustration of the board and the men."


Most important: The illustration in the "Games of the world", page 8 is
reversed right to left!
The planets are arranged anticlockwise, starting with Saturn's black men
in the lower right table and continuing with green, red, yellow, violet [?],
'chequered' coloured, and white.
The king - if so he's represented by the figure at the top - is playing the
Sun, Helios, Sol, fitting for a man which is dating his era from Augustus'
inauguration of the province of Hispania.

The number of dice to be played with isn't mentioned in the account. The
'astronomical board-game with chess-men" is played with only one die, but
most of the backgammon games in this book are played with three dice. After
all, three dice are to be seen in the table of the 'Mercury" player which
has just thrown 1, 5 and 7, enabling him to put one men on the 2nd point
of his table, one on the 6th and one on the 2nd point of Venus' table, 
just to the right of the white men.


The Alfonso MS consists of three parts or books, distinguishable by the introduction
at the beginning of each: A book on chess, a book on dice-games and a
book on 'tables'. To this last one, which should as such only deal with
'tables' or backgammon-games is appended the description of several other
board games. This 'Odds-and-Ends' section contains in the middle descriptions
of some games on the Alquerque and Morris boards, but these are 'framed' by
the account of chess variants: Before the Alquerque/Morris part a "great chess"
of 12x12 squares is described [supposedly] followed by a 10x10 chess and by a
four-handed chess "in the likeness of the four seasons".
After the Alquerque/Morris part - thus at the end of the whole manuscript -
an 'astronomical chess' is described. This is introduced as a "new game",
of "very noble and extraordinary kind". This game seems to be the meant to be the
climax of the whole work. Whereas we got parallels to the other chess variants
in Arabic works, this 'astronomical game' is only described by Alfonso and may
well be his own invention.

Now it is important to note that every chess variant is followed immediatley
in the text by a 'tables' game which is a fairly close analogy to the chess
version. Thus, the great chess of 12x12 which is played with an eight-sided
die seems to have been followed [there's talk of some pages missing] by a
version of backgammon played with these eight-sided dice and with (you guessed
it) eight points per table. The four-handed chess if followed by a four-handed
(round) backgammon and like this the 'astronomical chess' is followed by an
'astronomical game of tables'.

Our seven-sided 'astronomical' backgammon is described on the page following
the account of the 'astronomical chess' and is thus on the very last parchment
leaf of the codex - on the recto side that is. On the verso side of this leaf
and therefor on the last page is the illustration shown in "Games of the world".

Those who try to play and judge the game I described above should keep in mind
that it seemed to have been invented and was in all cases very dear to this
remarkable king to which we own this magnificent codex!


Since the seven-sided backgammon is the last game in the manuscript its rules
aren't described in full and have to be completed from similar, earlier accounts.

That's also the case for the seven-sided dice: Their form and use has been
given in the part on the 10x10 chess where they were used to move the seven
different pieces that this 'middle' chess had. They're described thus:

"These dice are made in such a way that they consist of 7 faces ... .
And because their shape is "not even" [not symmetrical?] they fall always
so that two faces are visible. And the face showing toward him who has
thrown is counted. Should the dice fall lengthwise so that the throws cannot
be assigned, then should he whose turn it is throw until they can be
clearly assigned.
And there're also other dice for the same throws as above. And they got
the same points, and their form is thus: They got two (basic) faces,
the one with seven and the other on the opposite side with six points.
And each of these faces is five-sided. And if you throw one of the other five
throws with these dice, then they don't fall even but with a edge between
[that is: like the above dice]. And in one of these cases you do as stated
for the above said dice. And this is their illustration and how they're

The illustration following this text shows samples of the two kinds of dice,
displayed like usual from above.
The second kind is represented by two five-sided polygons with seven and six
points and one oblong shape representing on of the other 5 sides.
These are therefore the dice shown on the board of the seven-sided backgammon.

The illustrations of the first kind of dice aren't clearly discernible but I
don't doubt that the dice existed and I wonder if anybody has an idea as to how
they looked like and were used?


Schädler, Ulrich: "Das Spielebuch Alfons des Weisen von 1283."
   In: Spielbox 16, 1997, N. 4, p. 8-10; N. 5, p. 46-47.
Alfonso el Sabio: "Libros de Acedrex, dados e tablas. Das Schachzablebuch
   König Alfons des Weisen." Hg. und übersetzt von Arnald Steiger, Genf:
   Librairie E. Droz, Zürich-Erlenbach: Eugen Rentsch Verlag, 1941
   (= Romanistica helvetica, 10).
White, John G. (Hg.): "Das spanische Schachzabelbuch des Königs Alfons des
   Weisen vom Jahr 1283." Leipzig: Verlag Karl W. Hiersemann, 1913.
Grunfeld, Frederic V. (Ed.): "Spiele der Welt. Geschichte, Spielen,
   Selbermachen." Dt. Bearb. v. Oker, Eugen. Frankfurt: Wolfgang Krüger Vlg
   1976, 3-8105-1701-1; Pb-Ed.: Frankfurt am Main: Fischer TB-Vlg 1.–15. Tsd.
   1985 (= fischer TB 3074/5), 3-596-23074-8; Orig.ed.: "Games of the world."
   New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1975, 0-03-015261-5; ©1975 by Product
   Development Int. n. v. · Plenary Publications, New York; Dutch ed.:
   "Spelletjes uit de hele wereld. Fijn om te maken en te spelen." Amsterdam:
   Kosmos, 90-215-0529-0.
  [Yes, there's French edition, too, but I haven't seen it yet. :-) ]

**       Christian Joachim Hartmann 
**       lukian at Null.net
**       christian.hartmann at uni-duesseldorf.de

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