Monday 26 February 2018

A medieval 'ship' game

14th century games-board made from spruce. The other side holds a nine men morris board. Novgorod, Russia. Image from the book Wood use in medieval Novgorod by M. Brisbane. 

The games board above dating from the 14th century has already been shown in a blogpost several years ago, but at that time it was unclear (for me) which game this should represent. It has two rows of 14 columns, or 15 lines crossed by 3. Our visit to the re-enactors of Aisling 1167 with their huge collection and knowledge of medieval games, revealed what this game probably was: a tâb-like game, of which some ship-formed variants still are played in parts of Norway, Denmark and Finland (as Daldøs, Daldøsa and Sáhkku, respectively). The tâb game has its origin in the near east and Africa. It was already played in Egypt during the thirteenth century BC. In medieval times (1267) the game was mentioned in his poem Dıwan by the Muhammad Ibn Dâniyâl, a Persian poet and physicist. Tâb is a game of which the purpose is to eliminate the (pieces of the) opponent, while they are moved along a linear track depending on the roll of dice. The number of lines or points along the track for varies; most commonly they are 12, but examples as large as 17 exist as well.

A 13th century century games-board from Novgorod, Russia.

The barrel lid from the Mary Rose has two game boards, a nine-men morris game and a daldøsa board. Photo Mary Rose Trust. The measurements of the daldøsa board are from Daniel Diehl and Mark Donnelly in their book 'Medieval furniture. Plans and instructions for historical reproductions.'  Below: the board found on a 15th century ship from Newport

In medieval Europe several game boards have been found that could be boards for Daldøsa or tâb-like games. Two game boards in ship-form were found in medieval Novgorod, Russia, dating from the 13th and 14th century, which have 17 and 15 lines inscribed, respectively. Also a presumed board was found in Newport, Wales, in an excavated 15th century ship (1446-1468) with 11 lines. More game boards were found inscribed in stone at some British church sites, such as Lincoln Cathedral. A slightly later dated board was found on a barrel lid on board the Mary Rose, a Tudor warship that sank in 1545. This board has 13 lines, with an extra point along the central line. Finally, a mysterious games-board representing such a game was drawn in a manuscript dating from the 13th century. The manuscript belonged to a monastery in Cerne, UK but is now in the Trinity College Library in Cambridge, UK  (MS O 2.45; folio 2v). Likely these European tâb games were imported by Viking merchants or mercenaries from the Middle East and further spread during their conquests to the England. Interestingly, also the Libre de los Juegos of Alphonso X the Wise (1283) does contain an elimination game along a line. In the game of astronomical tables, seven players move their pieces along a circular line by dice throw, until one is left.

A (not very visible) daldøsa game board inscribed in stone at Lincoln cathedral, UK.
Photo by Mark Hall in Histoire et Images Medievales 28.

Folio 2v and 3r of manuscript MS O 2.45 (after 1248 AD) containing two chess boards, an alquerque, a nine-mens-morris and a daldøsa game board. The first moves of the game are already played. A part of folio 2v has been cut of.  Wren digital library, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, UK.

Making the games board

The games board is made from poplar, like most of our games boards with an walnut edge. The board was sawn in a ships form using a band saw. On the board twelve lines crossed by three were carved, with an additional line to a point in the prow of the ship, like the May Rose board. I also decided to drill holes at each point, like in the modern daldøsa games. Such a system of holes holding the game pieces is also known for early medieval boardgames, such as the Ballinderry and Waterford tafl game boards found in Ireland. Holes were drilled using a small Forstner drill and smoothed with a cross-hole countersink cutter.

The board is carved and the holes drilled for the game pieces, of which some unfinished ones are shown.

As the board resembles a ship, it became necessary to bend the decorative walnut edge. In order to do this, a small steam cage was built consisting of pvc pipes connected to a steaming kettle (the outer glue pot) on an electrical heater. Walnut proved to be hard to bend, and remained at least an hour in the steam cage. I had to directly glue the warm, wet and malleable walnut strip to the ship and clamp it with help of a counter-mould.Afterwards the board was sanded and oiled with linseed oil (including all the holes).

The steam-pipe consisted of several PVC elements connected to a wooden lid closing the glue pot. Having the steam-pipe at an angle ensured that the condensed steam flowed back into the glue pot.

Left: The gameboard and the walnut edge pressed into the counter-mould. Right: Some extra wedges were used for extra pressure in the counter-mould.

The completed game board.

Making the game pieces

The different steps of making the game pieces. 

The game pieces were made from hornbeam and walnut. First, long strips of wood were sawn which were cut into small pieces. Then a square pin was sawn, which was rounded using a file. A scrap piece of poplar with a 6 mm hole was used to test the roundness and fitting of the pin. Then the top was rounded using a stationary belt sander, and the head was formed using a triangular file. After this, the belt sander was again applied to create a man shaped game piece. Finally, all edges were rounded with files and smoothed with sandpaper, after which a coat of linseed oil was applied.

Left: The game piece was put into a vise when the pin was sawn and filed. 
Right: Testing the pin with a scrap piece of poplar with a 6 mm hole.

Left: the oiled game pieces. A few extra pieces were made in case some go missing or get broken.  
Right: The game pieces in the board.

An early medieval pin style game piece: the 'kingpin' of a hnefatafl game, 9th century. Image from Waterford Museum, Waterford, Ireland. The pin is large compared to the gameboard that was found as well at Waterford, and does not seem to fit it. Perhaps, it had some other unknown use.

Making the dice

Daldøsa and daldøs use oblong dice with values of 2-4, and the fourth side carved with an X or an A on it (which also represents the number 1). The sum of two opposite sides is different, i.e. 4 or 6, not 5. The two small edges are slightly pyramidal, so that they cannot stand on these sides and much fall to one of the oblong sides. The oblong dice are modelled after Scandinavian archaeological finds. They were made from scrap pieces of antler that were sawn into square long strips. These were equally flattened with a stationary belt sander; also the pyramidal tips were made by sanding, but with a circular sanding disc with a 90 degrees platform. The pips were drilled using a home-made pip-drill, while the X was sawn and filed. The pips and X were inked and the complete dice was smoothed using 400 grid sandpaper.
Different sides of the two oblong dice.

Dice on the daldøsa board.

Historic oblong dice from Vimose, Denmark, around 400-500 AD. 
Note that the number of pips on the sides are not 1 to 4.

Playing the game

 The game board and its pieces.

The gaming pieces are placed with the flat sides facing in the direction of movement. Two dice are used in turn by the players. ‘X’ stands for the number one, and is also called ‘dal’. If the result is two ‘dal’s’, the player has an extra throw. To start the game the players throw the two dice in turn, and the higher throw decides who starts.

First, to be able to move a man, it has to be activated. This is done by a 'dal' throw, after which the man is turned (so one can see it is activated) and moved one step forward.  All men must be activated in this way (i.e. turned and moved one hole), one by one from one end to the other before they can enter the game. As soon as a man is activated, it can start to move. All throws of the dice are invalid until a player has thrown his first X and thus activated a man, and an activated man can move as far into the middle row as the results of the two dice allow. If the first player’s initial throw does not result in at least one ‘X’, the dice are passed on to the opponent. For the next throws, one can use the X either to move an activated man one step, or activate an inactivated game piece. A throw can be used to move either one man or two. When only one man is moved, the results on the dice must be used separately (as in backgammon).

The pieces move in the direction of the arrow. The activated men first move to the middle row, after which they enter the 'enemy line' from behind. Then they continue until they again reach the middle row. They never return to their starting row. (white = movement white pieces, black = movement black pieces).

When a man has travelled to the end of the middle row it moves into the opponent’s home row and through it. Then, it re-enters the middle row and from then on continues to move in the middle row and the opponent’s home row, never to return to his own home row. A man goes on moving in these two rows until it is killed or the game is over. A man moving through through the opponent’s home row can ‘kill’ as many men, activated or not, as the dice allow for and cannot be ‘killed’, unless it is placed in the hole right in front of the man whose turn it is to be activated, or in any hole in front of any already activated man.

A player is not allowed to jump over his own men, but he can jump over the men belonging to the opponent. If a throw enables a player to land his man in a hole occupied by one of the opponent’s men, the latter is dead and taken off the board and cannot be brought back into play. The aim of the game is to kill all the opponents game pieces.

A strategy can be to combine his moves such that he always stands behind any activated men belonging to the opponent. It is an advantage to have an activated man ready at the beginning of the home row in order to chase the opponent’s men as soon as they move into the middle row. Also, quickly having an active man behind the enemy line slaughtering their men can be a strategy. The end game, with only a few pieces left, can take long as the the opposing game pieces have to land on top of each other.

Historic and alternative play


Above is the 'daldøsa' game from the 12th century manuscript. The game has already started here. Black has started. According to our daldøsa rules, black must have rolled an 'X' (activate and move one place forward) and a '2' (two extra pieces forward). Green has the next move. As it has moved, it also must have rolled an 'X'. The move forward by the X, places the green piece at the spot it is drawn. Thus, it must still have one dice move left.

All medieval daldøsa game boards have lines connecting points of both outer rows with points of the inner row. One can speculate whether the lines might have a function in the game. For instance, an active man in an outer row (e.g. both rows or only the opponents row) could directly move into the middle row, creating more challenging situations. Or the game board could shorten itself: if the three lines, as from the stern, all are empty, these spaces may not be used any more.  Thus the travelling circle becomes smaller. Both 'options' also explain why the middle row must be one point longer (i.e. 13 instead of 12), as otherwise minimal circular movement is not possible. Both 'options' also result in a faster and less boring end game.

Sources used:

  • Peter Michaelsen (2012) Un jeu medieval arabe en Scandinavie. Histoire et Images Medievales Thematique 28, page 25-29.
  • Alf Næsheim (2001) Daldøsa, an old dice game with an obscure origin. Board Game Studies 4, page 9-14.
  • Erik Østergaard and Anne Gaston (2001). Daldøs – the Rules. Board Game Studies 4, page 15-18.
  • Peter Michaelsen (2001). Daldøs, an almost forgotten dice board game. Board Game Studies 4, page 19-32
  • Alan Borvo (2001). Sahkku, the “Devil’s game”. Board Game Studies 4, page 33-52.
  • Thierry Depaulis (2001). Jeux de parcours du monde arabo-musulman (Afrique du Nord et Proche-Orient). Board Game Studies 4, page 53-76.
  • Thierry Depaulis (2001) An Arab game in the North Pole? Board Game Studies 4, page 77-84.
  • Wikipedia. Daldos.