Tuesday 19 August 2014

Alphonso's base 7 tablas game

A game of seven-point tables, using three seven-sided dice and seventeen pieces on each side. 
King Alfonso X the Wise is named as one of the players here. folio 85 verso.

The Libro de los Juegos of Alphonso X 'the Wise' from 1283 contains many medieval board games, both familiar and unfamiliar. The king invented the seven-sided and the eight-sided dice, and with it some games that use these dice. Among the games that use the seven-sided dice are 'The game of the four season called the world', 'Astronomical tables', 'Escaques' (or astrological checkers) and 'Decimal chess'. Alphonso also invented a tablas (backgammon type) game that used the seven-sided dice, which is described in this blogpost.

Making the game board

"Here begins the game of tables and how it is played with seven-sided dice. Now that we have shown you the dice for decimal chess, how they are made, and how they are used as we were saying above to play this chess, we want to show you here and now the game of tables that use these dice.
The board is to be squared with bars around it like the other boards and spaces for the pieces we have already said. In each quarter there are to be seven spaces, because that is the highest value on the dice, for a total of twenty-eight spaces.
The pieces are to be round and the spaces carved out like half-wheels to fit them better. Half of the pieces are to be one colour, the other half the other so they can be distinguished, for at total of 34."

A game board for tablas (backgammon or tric trac like games) is a large board and the 7-based board is an even larger one. As a consequence of their size, backgammon boards were (and are still) folded and usually part of a games box with a chess board on on of their sides. In fact, the name backgammon (back game) might be derived from these game boxes, where tablas is the 'game on the back of the box'. Our 7-based tablas board is no exception to this and has two chess boards on the other side. The reason for having two chess boards is that they can be used to play the medieval game of Rithmomachia. A future blogpost will be dedicated to that intriguing 'battle of numbers' game.

The outside of the games box consists of two chess boards (or one rithmomachia board). 
You can see that the middle bar is of equal width as the edges, but made up of two smaller parts.

Also this medieval game board uses a poplar panel as a base (in fact the poplar panels are all from the same tree). Pear was used for the edges, with a greater thickness of 5 mm for the tablas side. The rim was also twice as big (2 cm) as where the two boards connected (1 cm). When the two parts of the board are open, this would provide a middle bar of the same 2 cm width. The edges were first glued to the board, after which the half moon receptacles for the game pieces were fitted and glued. These half moon receptacles were made by drilling holes with a drill press in 6 mm thick pieces of pear using a 35 mm Forstner bit. The four pieces of pear were then cut at 2/3 along the length to get the half moon receptacles (i.e. the larger parts). The points of the receptacles were rounded with a file.
Pieces of triplex were used to press the half moon receptacles against the edge of the board. Two multiplex boards were used as a sandwich press. As the half moon receptacles were slightly higher than the board edge (~1 mm) only the receptacles were pressed. Afterwards, the receptacle was equalized with a hand plane.

Left:  The two multiplex press boards (for one of the two board parts). Right: The pieces of triplex board used to press the half moon receptacles against the edges.

The two board parts were connected to each other by three brass hinges, with brass nails (and glue) driven into the wood. As the board parts had to be connected without any space between the parts, an angled hinge recess was made to accommodate both the hinge and the pins. 

Left: The angled hinge recess. Right: The folded game box showing one of the chess boards.

Making seven-sided dice has been described in a previous post. As game pieces for the 7-base tablas commercial wooden draughts tablemen were used.

Playing the game

"The pieces are to be round and the spaces carved out like half-wheels to fit them better. Half of the pieces are to be one colour, the other half the other so they can be distinguished, for at total of 34. Seventeen of one colour and seventeen of another, so that if you put two pieces on each point of a quadrant, there are three left over to play or enliven the game because without them it could not be done. [i.e. 15 = 6x2 +3 for normal tablas and 17 = 7x2 +3 for the base 7 tablas] This is why the pieces are paired because as in this game of chess which a piece is found all alone away from the other pieces without anyone to guard it and it can be taken, it is taken as we said before.

Also in this game of tables if they are not doubled up as we said, the other player who throws dice that correspond to that space is to capture it since there is no one to defend it.
And the prime is one player takes so many of the other’s pieces that he then does not have spaces to enter them, he wins the game."

The starting position of the game of 'diecisiete tablas' as shown on folio 85v, now on our pear and poplar tablas board.

For the 6-based tablas the following is added, which also will apply for the 7-based tablas:
"And tying is that even if he has very few pieces and he enters them that neither one can play even if he wishes. Whence also for the prime because without these three pieces which are in addition to the first twelve [or fourteen for the base-7 tablas], it could not be done."

 The game of quinze tablas [fifteen pieces], folio 73v.

The base-7 tablas game shown above on folio 85v and our game board is an expanded version of 'quinze tablas' on folio 73 of the Libro de los Juegos, and could be named 'diecisiete tablas' [seventeen pieces]. It uses the same rules, and the same amount of dice. But instead of three six-sided dice, three seven-sided dice are used. 

According to Sonja Musser, quinze tablas could be an extremely simple game in which the pieces do not cross paths but both players race, first to move all their men into their respective inner tables and then to bear them off. I think this is very unlikely, as King Alphonso X (the Wise!) would certainly not be associated in an illumination (folio 85v) with such a simple game. The other option she presents is a game of contrary motion, a view that is shared by both H.R.J. Murray and David Parlett. Pieces should be beared off from the quarter of the table where the other player began. Single (odd) game pieces can be captured, and must be re-entered from their original starting quarter of the table.

 Movement of the pieces on the board. White follows the red arrow, black the black arrow.

I think that this game should be played differently. The seventeen (or fifteen) pieces of the starting position should be moved to a similar (double) position on the opposite side (i.e. not bearing them off) in order to block the entry points of the captured pieces of the other player.* During movement from one side to the other (via the other quarters of the board), single game pieces are vulnerable to capture by the other player. Captured pieces must be entered again at the starting quarter. If a player cannot do so, because all the possibilities are blocked by the opposite colour, he loses the game. This type of play also explains the occurrence of having a tie, when both players block each other, and the need of more tablemen than fourteen (or twelve). A maximum of two pieces (a double) can be in a half-moon slot (i.e. not three or more as in other tablas games).
Presumably, die rolls that can not be used are lost.

* Which also explains the second sentence of quinze tablas (folio 73): "The first game of tables is this one that they call fifteen pieces or six [double rows, i.e. the blockade] and however many they can place there from fifteen to one."

Black wins. White cannot enter its two captured game pieces as its quarter is 
fully occupied by double black game pieces.

Two versions of a draw. Left: Black cannot move in, as the position is blocked by white, which cannot move out of the black blockade. Right: Both white and black pieces cannot leap over the other colour, as they would need a roll of 8 (seven being the maximum on the die).

The Libro de los Juegos concludes on the 7-base tablas game by mentioning that all the normal base-6 tablas games can be played as well on the board, with the extra game pieces added and using seven-sided dice.

"On this board for tables can be played all the games for the other board which uses six-sided dice, as we said above, noting that on a six-sided die six is the highest roll and on the dice of great chess eight is the highest, that on these dice seven is the highest. And that with higher or lower rolls any moves can be made according to the roll of the dice.
This is the explanation of this game and the diagram of its arrangement and how the Emperor [i.e. Alfonso himself] plays on this board and therefore his figure has been shown here.


  • H.R.J. Murray, 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
  • S. Musser Golladay, 2007. Los Libros de Acedrex Dados e Tablas: Historical, artistic and metaphysical dimensions of Alfonso X's book of games. PhD Thesis, University of Arizona, USA.
  • S. Musser Golladay, 2007. English translation of Alfonso X's book of games.
  • D. Parlett, 1992. The Oxford history of board games. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 

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