Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations

Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations

by R. C. Bell

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There are many authoritative books on card games and chess, but only a handful on the dozens of other games known to mankind. This excellent handbook by R. C. Bell is a basic reference to board and table games from around the world, and one of the two or three finest books ever written on the subject. Originally published in two volumes in the 1960's, it is now


There are many authoritative books on card games and chess, but only a handful on the dozens of other games known to mankind. This excellent handbook by R. C. Bell is a basic reference to board and table games from around the world, and one of the two or three finest books ever written on the subject. Originally published in two volumes in the 1960's, it is now available for the first time in a corrected, one-volume edition.
Mr. Bell's encyclopedic work provides the rules and methods of play for 182 different games: Ma-jong, Hazard, Wei-ch'I (Go), backgammon, Wari, Continental draughts, Pachisi, Japanese chess, Bidou, Domino Loo, Cribbage, and many others. Volume one is divided into chapters devoted to race games, war games, games of position, Mancala games, dice games, and domino games; volume two follows the same arrangement and then proceeds to games with numbers, card games requiring boards, and games requiring manual dexterity. Additional information is furnished on making boards and pieces, and on gaming-counters.
Game players, toymakers, and historians of culture will welcome this guided tour of games from Egypt, Meso-America, the Orient, India, Persia, Rome, Africa, Victorian England, and many other societies. Over 300 illustrations, both photographs and line drawings, add an illuminating counterpoint to the text.

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BOARD and TABLE GAMES From Many Civilizations

By R.C. Bell

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1979 R. C. Bell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14557-0


Race Games


In 1949 North Korea invaded South Korea across the Thirty-ninth parallel and the war that followed made this obscure country a household word throughout the western world. The Kingdom of Korea was founded in 1122 B.C. and before the Christian era the Koreans were highly civilized. One of their games, Nyout, is an example of a Cross and Circle game that has survived unchanged down countless centuries.


The Nyout board consists of twenty-nine marks which are often drawn on a piece of paper. Those in the centre and at the four quarters are larger than the others. The mark at the top is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] CH"UT—Exit.

The pieces are called MAL or horses, and are made of wood, stone or paper and are moved according to the throws of four dice known as PAM-NYOUT. These are about 1 in. in length, white, and flat on one side, convex and blackened by charring on the other. They are usually made of the wood of a thick bushy tree like the prunus. Ebony makes an excellent substitute. To prevent cheating the dice are thrown through a ring of straw about 2 in. in diameter, which is fastened to the end of a stick a foot long which is stuck in the ground.

If a block falls in an upright position it counts as though it fell with the black side up.

Rules of Play

1. All the players throw the blocks in turn, the highest becoming the leader and the others follow in the order of their throws.

2. Throwing a five or a four allows the player another throw which is made before moving his piece.

3. The players enter their men on the mark to the left of that marked EXIT, and move anti-clockwise according to their throws. The object of the game is to get an agreed number of horses around the circle and out at A. If a horse lands on one of the cardinal marks it short-circuits along a limb of the cross.

4. If two play, each player has four horses; if three play each has three horses; and if four play the players sitting opposite are partners and have two horses each.

5. If a player's horse catches up with another of his own, he may double them up as a team and then move them around as one piece.

6. If a player's horse moves on to a mark occupied by an opponent's piece the latter is caught and must go back to the beginning and start again. When a player makes a capture he has an extra turn.

7. When a player throws a 5 or a 4 and has a second throw he may divide the throws between two horses.

8. A player may move his partner's horses instead of his own.

9. When a horse is about to enter the board a throw of 5 takes it to the spot marked B (fig. 1), and it may move towards the exit by the radius BE. If the throw is less than 5 but the next throw brings it to B it may travel along the radius BE and EA, otherwise it must continue on to C. If it lands on C it can travel along CE and EA, otherwise it must continue on towards A, the exit.

Nyout is popular among the Korean lower classes and is played as a gambling game for money in the public houses. There are records of a game similar to Nyout being played in Korea in the third century A.D.

There is considerable evidence that North America was populated from North-east Asia and this theory is supported by Amerindian games. Fig. 3 shows a drawing of a flagstone found by the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruiz in the temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, a Mayan city in Central America which was inhabited about A.D. 800.

Fig. 4 shows a tracing one-tenth actual size of a board cut into the stucco top of a bench in a gallery at the south-eastern corner of the market place in the ruins of Chichen Itza, Yucatan. The building is thought to have been used as a barracks or as a club house for the young warriors belonging to the military orders of the Jaguars and Eagles. The board is placed conveniently for the players to sit facing each other. The stucco is damaged in places but enough remains to indicate the likeness of this board to a contemporary one for Nyout.

The Cross and Circle pattern may be modified by omitting the cross. Many North American Indian games consist of a circle (often with vestigial remains of a cross) scratched on the ground, and the progress of the pieces is controlled by the throws of marked sticks. Zohn Ahl, played by the women and girls of the Kiowa Indians, Oklahoma, may be taken as representative.


The board is marked out on the ground with forty small stones, the points being the intervals between the stones. In the centre is a flat stone, known as the AHL stone, on to which the dicing sticks are thrown. The wide gaps at the North and South represent a river in flood, while those at the East and West are dry streams (figs. 5 and 148 on Plate XIV).

Runners. Each team has one runner and the moves of the runners are controlled by the throw of four dice sticks, the runners moving in opposite directions round the track.

Dice Sticks. These are flat on one side and round on the other. They are about 7 in. long, 3/8 in. wide, and 3/10 in. thick. Three of the sticks have a red stripe running down the middle of the flat side, while the fourth, known as the SAHE, has a green stripe, and its convex side is marked with a star (figs. 6 and 159 on Plate XXI). Scoring

Counters. Each team starts with four pebbles, shells, or white sticks which are used as counters.

Method of Play

1. The players are divided into two teams and a player from each team throws the sticks alternately, each player in a team throwing in turn and advancing her side's runner with her throw.

2. If a runner lands in the torrent at the North she must return to the start and her team must pay their opponents one counter. If a runner falls into the dry river bed at East or West the team loses one throw.

3. If the two runners meet on the same point the last to arrive sends her opponent back to the beginning and her side wins a counter.

4. When the first runner arrives back at the start the opponents have to pay a counter and the first lap is over. If the throw is big enough to take the runner beyond the start she moves the surplus number of points along the second lap. The runner winning each lap gains a counter.

5. The game ends when one side holds all the counters or, if a time limit has been set, the side holding most at that moment is the winner.


The Cross and Circle can also be modified by omitting the circle. This happened in Patolli, the favourite gambling game of the Aztecs. Unfortunately, the Christian priests with misplaced zeal destroyed the native records and manuscripts and no Aztec description of the game has survived. The earliest Spanish account is Gomara's (1552), written thirty-one years after the conquest in 1521 but unfortunately it is very short. He mentions that the Emperor Montezuma sometimes watched his nobles playing at Court.

Duran describes these Mexican gamesters walking about with a patolliztli mat rolled up under an arm and carrying a little basket containing coloured stones used as markers. Before a game they called for a bowl of fire and threw incense into it, or sacrificed offerings of food to their dice and then they would gamble with all the confidence in the world. The nobility played for high stakes in precious stones, gold beads and very fine turquoises.

The Mexican God of Sport and Gambling was Macuilxochitl, the God of Five Flowers, and as they played the gamblers invoked his aid by rubbing the five beans between their hands, and then, as they threw them on the mat, they shouted 'Macuilxochitl!' and clapped their hands together, craning forward to see their score.

The following description is based on four early works: Sahagun (c. 1545), Gomara (1553), Duran (c. 1560) and Torquemada (1615). Father Sahagun prepared his Historia universal de Nueva-Espana about 1545, but it was suppressed by the ecclesiastical authorities for nearly 300 years, finally being published in 1829 by Bustamente in Mexico. Father Diego Duran (1538–1588) wrote his history Antiguallas e Historia de los mejicanos about 1560. It was first published under the title Historia de las Indias de Nueva-Espana & Islas de Tierra Firme in Mexico (1867–1880).

The board was a thin mat and painted on it in liquid rubber was a great diagonal cross reaching to the corners. Each limb was divided into sixteen compartments. Some mats were decorated with the figure of fortune as a lucky device or with its symbol, two clubs.

Twelve small stones were used as pieces, six red and six blue, and if two played each took six. (This remark suggests that more than two could play, but it is not recorded if the players formed partnerships or were independent, and if they shared the twelve pieces or increased the total number.)

Five large black beans, called patolli, each with a hole drilled in one side to act as a white pip, were rubbed between the player's hands and then thrown on to the mat to make the cast.

The stones were moved along the divisions according to the throws. Little more is known about patolli and this is not enough to play the game. By comparison with other North American games it is probable that the marked squares were penalty areas and the player was penalized for trespassing on them—possibly a turn was lost, or a forfeit paid (figs. 7 and 144 on Plate XII).

Suggested Additional Rules (for two players)

1. The players put an agreed sum into a pool and decide on the size of the forfeits.

2. One player takes six red pieces, the other six blue.

3. Each player casts the patolli in turn and the higher scorer starts the game by casting again.

4. The opening player introduces a piece on to his nearest central square and then moves it the indicated number of compartments in either direction round the board, but whichever way his first piece moves the others must do likewise. His opponent at his opening throw also has a free choice of direction but having once chosen, the remaining pieces must travel the same way. The opposing forces may, therefore, be moving in the same or opposite directions.

5. After the entry of the first piece the others must enter the board on the player's nearest central square with a throw of 1.

6. No piece may move on to a compartment occupied by any other piece.

7. If two or more of a player's pieces can be moved to satisfy a particular throw, the player has free choice which it shall be, but if only one piece can move, the move must be made even if it is to the player's disadvantage.

8. If a player cannot move any piece he pays a forfeit into the pool.

9. A player landing on a compartment which has been reduced in size by the markings pays two forfeits to his opponent.

10. A player moving a piece on to one of the rounded compartments at the end of the limbs of the cross is awarded another turn.

11. Pieces travel round the cross and are borne off on the side of the fourth limb nearest the player with exact throws, as in backgammon. The four central squares, which have been traversed in the circuit of the piece, are excluded in the bearing off.

12. As each of the player's pieces leaves the cross his opponent pays him one forfeit.

13. The player removing all his pieces from the cross first wins the stake in the pool.

14. For three players it is suggested that each player should have five counters of his own colour making 15 counters in all. The rules remain unchanged.

15. For four players each player should have four counters, of his own colour, and the players may decide to play ALL AGAINST ALL, or that the players sitting opposite each other shall be partners and share the profits or losses of each hand. Cowrie shells, beads, dried peas, etc., can be used as forfeits.

In Asia the Cross and Circle game became variously modified as it spread westwards. The circle was invaginated against the side of the cross to form a bigger cross of three rows of squares. This increased the length of the track and removed the short cuts along the cardinals.


Pachisi, or Twenty-five, is the national game of India, and is found in palaces, zenanas, and cafés alike. The Emperor Akbar played in a truly regal fashion on courts made of inlaid marble. In the centre of the court was a dais four feet high on which he and his courtiers sat, while sixteen young slaves from the harem, wearing appropriate colours, moved about the red and white squares as directed by the throws of cowrie shells. Traces of these royal boards are still visible at Agra and Allahabad.

Modern boards are usually made of cloth, cut into the shape of a cross, and then divided into squares by embroidery (figs. 8 and 149 on Plate XV). The marked squares represent castles in which the pieces are free from capture. A castle occupied by a player's piece is open to his partner's pieces, but closed to the enemy.

Each player has four bee-hive shaped wooden pieces marked with his own colours (fig. 9). Six cowrie shells are used as dice.

The game is played by four players each having four pieces. The players sitting opposite each other are partners, and yellow and black play against red and green. Each piece enters the game from the central space known in Hindustani as the Char-koni, and travels down the middle of his own limb and then round the board, returning up the middle of his own limb back to the Char-koni. On arriving back at the middle row of their own limb the pieces are turned on their sides to show that they have completed the circuit. They can only reach home by an exact throw. The moves are controlled by six cowries.


1. The cowries are thrown from the hands. When 6, 10, or 25 is thrown the player has an extra turn and he continues until he throws a 2, 3, 4, or 5; when his turn of play ends. On finishing a turn the player moves his pieces before the next player begins his turn. Each throw allows the player to move a piece the indicated number of squares and if he throws more than once in a turn, the different throws may be used to move different pieces; but a single throw cannot be split, i.e. on a throw of 4, a piece moves four squares, the player is not allowed to move two pieces two squares each.

2. A capture is made by a player moving a piece on to a square other than a castle square, occupied by an enemy piece. The latter is removed from the board and must re-enter the game at the Char-koni, with a throw of 6, 10, or 25. A player making a capture has another throw.

3. At the beginning of a game a player's first piece may enter the board whatever the throw, but the other pieces can only be entered on throwing a 6, 10, or 25.

4. The pieces move anti-clockwise.

5. A player may refuse to play when it comes to his turn, or he may throw and then refuse to make use of it. He may do this to avoid the risk of capture or to help his partner. On reaching the castle at the end of the third limb, he may wait there in safety until he throws a 'twenty-five' and then move out in one throw.

6. Pieces may double up on any square, but doubled men can be sent back to start again if they are hit by an equal or larger number of men belonging to the enemy, unless they are resting on a castle square.


If a player's partner is behind in the game it may be wise to keep pieces back to help him by blocking the way to opposing pieces, or by capturing them if they threaten him. Both partners win or lose together and if one of them rushes ahead and out of the game the opponents have two throws to the remaining partner's one, and they can keep just behind him and then send him back to the beginning again with a capturing throw. Sometimes when a leading player reaches his own limb he will continue on a second circuit to help his partner instead of turning his piece over and moving up the centre.

The cowries may be replaced by three long dice (fig. 9) marked 1 and 6, and 2 and 5, on the opposing faces. If dice are used the game is called Chausar.


About 1896 Pachisi was modified and introduced into England as Ludo, patent 14636, a cubic die being used (fig. 10). The boards and rules are available in any games shop.


Excerpted from BOARD and TABLE GAMES From Many Civilizations by R.C. Bell. Copyright © 1979 R. C. Bell. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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