Wednesday 1 March 2023

Alquerque de doze setup of a game of alquerque in the Libro de los juegos of Alfonso X the wise (1283), folio f91 verso. It is difficult to distinguish the two colours of the gaming pieces here, but the orientation shows which belong to which side.

Alquerque de doze (also known by the Arab name Qirkat‎) is a strategy board game that is thought to have originated in the Middle East. It is generally considered to be the parent of draughts, having some similar movement of the tablemen. Many medieval alquerque game boards have been found in Europe, carved as graffiti in stones of churches, cloisters, cathedral, castles, etc. in Spain, Italy, France, England, Scotland, Switzerland. so far none has been found in the Netherlands. Some wooden boards were found in Greifswald and Lübeck in Germany. The game was popular from 1200 to 1500.

The game first appears in literature late in the 10th century when Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani mentioned Qirkat in his 24-volume work Kitab al-Aghani ("Book of Songs"). This work, however, made no mention of the rules of the game. Presumably when the Moors invaded Spain they took El-quirkat with them. Rules for the game were first described in the Libro de los Juegos commissioned by Alfonso X of Castile in the 13th century (Translation by Sonja Musser):

'And we will begin first with twelve man’s morris because it is larger and it is played with more
pieces. And we will tell in how many ways it is played, with how many pieces, and why it has in
it part of chess, tables, and dice. Chess has a part in it because it is played by intelligence and so is
mill. The pieces with which it is played resemble the pawns of chess. And it has some of tables
because of the tie which ties the game in the same way and because of the lines on which the
pieces are played. And it has part of dice in it due to luck, because as with the rolls of the dice
that are luck so in mill players roll to decide who plays first.

And it is played in this manner: on the millboard there are to be twenty-five places where the
pieces can be placed and there are to be twenty-four pieces. And they put twelve of one colour on
one side and the other twelve on the other in a troop formation. And one place remains in the
centre to allow play. And the one who plays first has a disadvantage because he is forced to play
in that empty space.

And the other player moves his piece to the space the first left empty and captures the one that
was first to move. That player captures the second player’s piece by jumping over it from one
space to another according to the straight lines on the board, and over as many pieces as he
should jump in this manner he will capture them all. And the other player does likewise.
And the one that plays first always moves first trying to capture some piece from the other side.
And the other player guards himself well from attack because of and by understanding the move
that he wants to make so that he guards that piece of his best. And the other does the same thing
that his opponent plans to do to him and therefore he is at a disadvantage, the one who plays

And the one who guards his pieces worse and loses them more quickly, loses. And if both
players know how to play it, they can both tie the game. And this is the mill, the pieces, and
how they are placed in their spaces.'

Miniature from the 14th century showing that Alquerque is still a popular game. 'The Romance of Alexander, folio 76v, Bodleian MS 264, Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK dated 1338-1344.

Playing the game

The game falls in the family of morris games in which the movement is connected by lines. The game is easy to learn and play (with children), and takes approximately 10-15 minutes from start to finish. Yet the game is not boring, like 3 men morris.

Starting situation of alquerque.

Before starting, each player places their twelve pieces in the two rows closest to them and in the two rightmost spaces in the centre row. The game is played in turns, with one player taking white and the other black.

First (white moves to the empty middle space) and second move (red jumps over white and captures white stone) of the game. First board of Aisling 1196, second board Thomasguild.

  •     A piece can move from its point to any empty adjacent point that is connected by a line.
  •     A piece can jump over an opposing piece and remove it from the game, if that opposing piece is adjacent and the point beyond it is empty.
  •     Multiple capturing jumps are permitted, and indeed compulsory if possible.
  •     If a capture is possible it must be made, or else the piece is removed (or huffed). (huffing is mentioned in some rulebooks)

The goal of the game is to eliminate the opponent's pieces.
Although not explicitly mentioned:

  •     No piece can return to a point it has previously occupied during their next turn. This avoids a never ending game.

End end situation: by moving one down the middle white stone forces red to capture it, thereby placing itself in front of another white stone. In the next move white captures red, and wins the game.
Gaming board carved on a stone window seat in Castle Falaise, France.

Making the alquerque set

This time, making the board and making the game pieces are not connected as they will become two separate alquerque sets. While the board was a few years earlier made and stayed at home, the bone game pieces were a gift to Sylvestre Jonquay of the French re-enactment group Aisling 1198, who specialises in medieval board games.

Making the board

The board for alquerque was made in a similar way to that of our other chess board games shown before (byzantine chess, grande acredex, oblong chess, and medieval chess. A poplar board was carved with the lines for the alquerque game. The sides of the board were made of strips of walnut glued to the edge of the poplar. The board was finished with a linseed oil coating. This alquerque board we usually play with red and grey-blue opaque glass stones.

The alquerque board.

Making historical game pieces for alquerque

The five antler anthropomorphic chess pawns/knights found at Chateau Mayenne. They have a bit oval shape, thus two sizes for width are given. [1] Height: 46.9 mm, Width: 18.9/18.5 mm; [2] Height: 36.9 mm, Width: 19.3/16.9 mm; [3] Height: 41.3 mm, Width: 22.4/18.9 mm; [4] Height: 47.2 mm, Width: 20.9/18.6 mm; [5] Height: 46.6 mm, Width: 21.7/15.8 mm. 
As already mentioned in the book of Alphonso the Wise, alquerque game pieces resemble the pawns of chess (although for play anything can be used). This can also be seen in the miniature of the game. A very nice set of chess pawns made from antler was excavated at Chateau Mayenne in France, and I decided to model the medieval alquerque pieces after them.

Actually many game pieces, among them other chess pieces, were found in this castle, as well as blocks of raw material (precut antler). Of these 'pawns' there were five, one of them unfinished. Personally, I think these 'pawns' more resemble knights, suggested by both the size of the game pieces and their similarity to other medieval chess knights from bone and antler. The fifth one probably was a failure and therefore unfinished, or it belonged to a next chess set to be made. The fact that also raw material was found indicates the presence of a workshop, dedicated to making game pieces. The deer hunt was a business strictly for the nobility, who lived inside castles. The ready availability of antler together with an antler workshop in Chateau Mayenne would not be coincidental.

The real pawns of Mayenne and the raw building blocks found at Chateau Mayenne, France. Images scanned from 'Echec et TricTrac - fabrication et usages des jeux de tables au moyes âge', Editions Errance, France, 2012.

Left: the two deer antler sets. Right: two finished game pieces and antler cuts for nine other game pieces. 

As the Mayenne pawns have a relatively small diametre, only the parts near the points of the antler could be used. I received two complete antler sets from 'Het Woud der Verwachting', another Dutch late medieval re-enactment group in return for making the Vatican Courier chess set for them. The two red deer were shot quite a while ago in Scotland, the heads returned as a trophy. Now they would serve as material for the game pieces.

The stationary belt sander (face mask and dust extractor necessary!).
First, 24 (and a few extra spares) roughly 6 cm long parts of the antler were cut using a diamond cutting disc on an angle grinder. Then the parts were rounded and smoothed using a stationary belt sander with a 80 grid sanding belt. This was followed by a second smoothing round with a 150 grit sanding belt.

Left: The Dremel bits used for shaping the game pieces. Right: the basic shape of the head, the line for the 'helmet' and the two bottom rings were cut first using a thin cutting disc for the Dremel.

Left: Then the area marked red (by photoshop) were gradually removed using the drum sander bit. The small drum sander was better near the edges. Right: The remaining rings were cut with the cutting disc. Note that the right game piece will get a different carved structure - less rings.

The face is drawn with a pencil.

Shaping the nose with a diamond-coated router bit.
Then the outline of the face of the tablemen was marked with a pencil, and the surrounding material removed with a small drumsander on a Dremel  rotary tool. Then the outline of the other lines was marked with the pencil. Lines were deepened with a cutting wheel on the Dremel and widened using an oval-shaped diamond router bit. The eye-sockets and the nose were carved with a diamond drum-shaped router bit. Finally the eyes were drilled by hand using a special ring and dot drill bit (see 'making the pips/eyes' in this blogpost on the Noyon chess set). The game pieces were given some final sanding by hand with a 325 and 400 grit sandpaper.

Left: All the carved alquerque game pieces on the board. Right: Front and back of a game piece. Note that there are still some pencil markings left. These will be erased with a pencil eraser and sandpaper.

Now half of the alquerque set of game pieces would remain a natural bone/antler colour, the other half was coloured using madder (see the blogposts Meddling with madder part 1 and part 2) following the instructions of the medieval monk Theophilus in his book. It happened that the madder test pieces were not exactly alike the game pieces. The game pieces had some fluctuations in constituency of the antler material, as well as some exposed more porose inside of the antler kernel. This resulted in game pieces with shades between pink and dark red. I decided to leave the game pieces in the madder solution for a second period, resulting in more acceptable dark and darker red of the game pieces.

Left: Weighing the game pieces: 177 gram. Right: pre-soaking the gamepieces.

The wet madder-coloured game pieces (alternated with the white opposing pieces).

Four game pieces with walnut oil coating.

The gift box, containing one reserve game piece of each side and an exact replica of a rectangular die found at Chateau Mayenne, France.

After drying for several days, all game pieces were polished and then coated with walnut oil as  Theophilus also recommended for bone and antler. Drying of the oil on the game pieces took several weeks.

Game play with the alquerque set with Sylvestre of the Aisling 1198 re-enactment groupand at Chateau Caen  in 2021. 
Sources used:
  • Alphonso X the Wise, 1283. Libro de los Juegos. Translation into English by S. Musser.
  • Grandet, M. and Goret, J.F., 2012. Echec et TricTrac - fabrication et usages des jeux de tables au moyes âge', Editions Errance, Paris, France. ISBN 978-2-87772-503-3.
  • Müller, F. and Jonquai, S., 2016. Les jeux au moyen age. 2nd edition. Edition La Muse, ISBN 978-2-9553607-5-0 . 
  • Murray, H.R.J., 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
  • Walker, D., 2011. Alquerque. Available at:

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