Sunday, 7 October 2012

The game of the Four Seasons called the World

The Libro de los Juegos by Alfonso X 'The Wise' from 1283 in Spain describes a collection of medieval games of the mind (chess), of luck (dice), and of a combination of luck and the mind (tables). The latter are an assortment of backammon, alquerque and nine-men-morris like games. But also some more 'exotic' board games are described like the Game of the Four Seasons, called the World. This tables (backammon) variant is special because it is played by four persons, uses a round playing field and seven-sided dice. Each player has 12 game counters that have colours that correspond to the seasons: Spring’s pieces are green; summer’s are red; autumn’s bare lack, and winter’s are white.

This is the board of tables of the four seasons, called the world

The illustration of the game of the Four Seasons, called the World on folio 89v. Note that here  six-sided die are shown, while the text refers to seven sided dice.

The complete text of the game is found on folio 89 of the book and is as follows: 
"This is the board of tables of the four seasons, called the world, which begins like this. Since we have told about the board of the four seasons [This is the four season chess described on the previous pages in the book], as the ancient wise mean ordered it, now it is fitting that we show the tables board that is played after that some manner. 
This board is squared and the points are placed in a circle. The circle is divided into four parts; each part has six spaces that are carved out in semi-circles in which the pieces fit. 
And on this board four men are to play, each with his pieces of his colour according to the colours of the chess that we have named. And each one of these players is to have twelve pieces of the  colours of the aforementioned chessmen which are these: green, red, white, and black – for a total of forty-eight. And they are played with the [7-sided] dice of this same chess and the players roll to see who plays first. And then the player to his right and so on around. 
And the first to begin is to place his pieces according to the rolls of the dice as in doze canes [another game described earlier] and all the others do likewise. 
And once they all have placed all their pieces each must bring his pieces to where the third player first entered which is across from his own, by playing around to his right according to the rolls of the dice. And when one makes a roll that he cannot use, let the player who to his right use it. And if he cannot, the third. And if he cannot, the fourth. 
And also in this game if a roll is made that allows the capture of an unguarded piece, it is to be captured. The one whose piece was captured must return it to where it was first placed.
And no pieces are to be borne off until each player has his pieces in the opposite quarter as is stated above.
And the player who first should bear off all his pieces will beat the player to his right and so on around.
And this is the explanation of this game. And this is the diagram of the board and of the pieces and of their colours and of the arrangement."

I thought this medieval Game of the World was quite interesting to make, because it had an unusual board, was using unusual seven-sided dice and was played by four persons. Not the usual medieval game. I also thought it was a project perfectly suitable to make during the summer. It proved however to be more challenging than I thought.

Part I: The board 

For the board basis I had some maple (which was a left-over from two other projects - two three-legged medieval/renaissance chairs and a rocking dragon) and some walnut for the circle and sides of the board. Walnut and maple, being whitish and dark brown, make a nice contrasting combination, which I also had used for the chairs and the dragon. The amount of walnut left was however limited. I had to saw the board into two by hand, before I could plane it to a thickness of 6 mm. The maple board basis had a thickness of 11 mm and was 33.8 cm square (= final sizes). Around it a walnut frame was added, also 6 mm thick, making the total game board size 35 cm square and 17 mm thick. 

Left: the maple board with the outlines of the outer circle on it. Right: sawing the walnut board into two halves.

Left: the two sawn pieces of walnut. Right: the same pieces now planed to 6 mm.

The two halves of the walnut board were glued together with modern wood glue (though medieval casein glue, according to recipes in Theophilus 'on divers arts' and the appendix in Henry Mercer 'Ancient carpenters tools' works equally well, but is more laborious to make). After smoothing the glued board using a scraper the circular ring was transferred by pen and compass. 

Left: drawing of the circle for the game pieces. Right: A pin in the middle of the circle also helps positioning the ruler.

The halve circular spaces in which the game counters would fit (six per square of the board) were drilled using a 35 mm Forstner bit in a machine drill. Forstner bits are ideal for this work as they are very precise and stable. A special jig was made in which the walnut board rotated on a pin in the middle, making the positioning of the drill for each space very easy and exact.

The drill jig for the "game counter half circles". The walnut board is fixed in the middle with a nail to another board which in turn is fixed to the machine drill. The walnut board can rotate, but the position of the drill bit to the centre remains the same. 

Left: positioning of the Forstner bit is very easy. Right: all the holes for the game pieces are drilled, the four places where the outer part is still attached  to the centre is the place where the pins dividing the season will be.

The outside of the circle was still roughly sawn and unfinished at this stage. I used a router which was fixed to the centre of the walnut board to make the circle perfectly round. Next I used a coping saw to cut the pins that divide de four seasons of the circle. These pins were smoothed with small needle files and a carving knife.  

The router rotates on the centre. The centre pin is also fixed to the work bench for stability.

Then, the walnut circle being finished, it was glued onto the maple board. The size of the maple board was then planed to exactly match the size of the circle. Then the four pieces of the side frame was glued to the game board, and the back of the board smoothed with a hand-plane. Finally, for extra fixation and for decorative effect, four small 6 mm maple dowels were added to the each side.

 Glueing the side frame of the game board.

Left: making maple dowels using a Lee Nielsen dowel plate. Right: Adding the dowels to the side frame.The protruding parts were cut off with a Japanese saw and smoothed with a plane.

At the end, the board of the Four Seasons, called the World was finished with linseed oil. Next post: will continue with part 2, the making of the 7-sided dice.  

The finished board, with linseed oil coating.

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