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Subject: Getting back to Latin gaming roots rss

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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Note: This is the same article as boardgamegeek.com/article/1899948#1899948 posted here to be more readily finable.

Historical context:

In ancient Rome, one game in particular [re-implemented by Oxford Games as Ludus Romanus in a cheaply made but cheaply priced set with rules slightly ambiguous but easily fixable by fairly obvious house rules] was known throughout the empire as "the thinking man's game". Properly it was called ludus latruculorum, the game of highwaymen [from the diminutive of latro] but often it was called simply ludus, i.e., the game, although by no means was it the only Roman game. As typical references to usage in the context of gaming, the Oxford Latin dictionary cites Seneca's Letters, as well as Varrho and Pliny. The usage as referring to a gamepiece is justified by citing the sentence, "Latrunculis ludimus" ["We played (with)...."]

The problem for a modern person who wishes to play the game lies in the fact that no one knows exactly how it was played. This is less surprising than it sounds for two reasons: First, to make a modern parallel, I have owned or seen countless chess sets in my lifetime-- my father collects them for one thing-- and yet I have only encountered an extremely small number that actually include a set of rules. Everyone is simply expected to know how to play already even though printing in the modern era is relatively simple and inexpensive--especially compared to the Roman era. Second, the rules seem to have varied a great deal both from place to place and over time.

Modern scholars strongly disagree on what we do in fact know about the game but the following are assertions I have seen made on seemingly good authority:

1. The board varied, although it was always some number of squares by some possibly different number of squares, pieces being placed on the squares rather than the dividing lines or corners. Extant boards are 8x12, 8x8, 9x12, etc., but I am under the impression that in the later Roman period 8x8 boards began to dominate.

2. Some state that game-play began with the pieces placed on the board [generally on the longer side if the board used is not square] in one row or others say in two rows; still others maintain that the pieces were placed on the board in an initial phase, but most disagree.

3. It is known that a dux ["leader"], a piece that could jump over other pieces was introduced at a later period.

4. Some say pieces were captured if jumped by the dux, but others either say they were not; I have gotten the impression that most say that this rule was in fact introduced but only at a much later period.

5. Some say pieces move like rooks in chess, and others say moves were limited to one square horizontally or vertically. Everyone agrees they did not move diagonally so far as I know.

6. Sone say a player who makes a capture moves again and others say that a player who makes a capture only goes again if he can move the exact same piece to make another capture.

The list could in fact go on.

What happened to the game?

The game was not recognizably extant to my knowledge in medieval Europe. Even if one supposes that the game magically vanished due to the collapse of the Roman Empire's Western portion, its eastern portion continued on until 1450 C.E., albeit that empire was called for political reasons the "Byzantine Empire" in Western Europe rather than the Roman Empire. It was nonetheless the same polity. Moreover, such cultural minutiae tend to have a life of their own. If [G-d forbid!] the world were subjected to a global nuclear holocaust, I strongly doubt chess would vanish completely without a trace.

My own strong suspiscion therefore is that the same evolution of the game that was on-going during the Roman period continued. Some have already suggested that Seega has its roots in the ancient Roman ludus, but I suspect influence also in Hnefatafl, Checkers and perhaps even Chess. The last of these is clearly a descendent of Chaturanga, but the predominance of 8x8 boards in the later period of ludus latrunculorum may have indirectly influenced the game by causing it to be played on a board that was already commonly available.

So modern players who wish to play ludus latrunculorum can either confront the qualifying question of "...as played where and when?"-- for which they would have no information to go on-- or can take the elements of the game either most commonly attested or most playable.

What do I recommend personally?

Version 1:

This sticks pretty closely the the rules set used by the Oxford Games edition. Players each start with 16 ordinary pieces plus a dux which begin off the board. In an initial phase, players place two of their ordinary pieces on the board in any space. [A variant could adapt a rules from Seega by which pieces in the center four squares are immune from capture and that these squares are initially left empty, but I would then recommend that these pieces also be unable to capture from these squares.] There is no capture in the initial phase of the game and the dux is placed last. In the second phase, pieces are moved one space in any non-diagonal direction. A player MUST move on his turn; if this is not possible, I would recommend a rule be borrowed from Seega that the player is allowed to remove-- and thereby capture-- one of his opponent's pieces. Otherwise, capture is made only by custodial capture which places a player's piece on either side vertically or horizontally of his opponent's piece; a piece must be moved into this position in order to capture. Thus, a piece placed between two of his opponent's pieces in the initial phase is not captured nor is a piece captured if it moves into a position between two of the opponent's pieces. The dux and only the dux can jump over a piece, either one's own or the opponent's, but the dux captures and is captured like any ordinary piece. [Whether or not to use a modified form of custodial capture at corners is something one should agree on before play; I recommend against.] A player who captures an opponent's piece must go again if by moving the same piece he can make another capture; that piece he moved to make a capture is the piece he then must move, but unlike in draughts [er, checkers] making a capture is not compulsory. The winner is the player who captures all-- or in practice all but one-- of the opponent's pieces.

Version 2:

The rules of this version are the same as those for the above except that the initial phase of piece placement is eliminated. Instead, 16 pieces are placed in two rows of eight on the side of the board nearest each player. The dux is then on the third row on the fourth rank from the player's left; the two players will each have their respective dux on a different rank therefore.

I would much less strongly recommend the versions below because I do not think custodial capture with rook-like pieces practical when few pieces remain, but they are possible:

Version 3:

This modifies Version 1 only by letting pieces move like rooks in chess; the dux must still be immediately next to a piece to jump over it however and jumps to the side on the other side [horizontally or vertically only] of the piece jumped. [A variant could allow the dux to jump any number of empty squares and one and only one piece; it would then land on the space just beyond the given piece jumped.]

Version 4:

Initial set-up is as described in version 2 but movement is like version 3. Thus, this is version 2 with pieces moving like rooks essentially.

Each of these versions can also be implemented with one one row of ordinary pieces [so that the dux if used would be initially placed on the second row from each player] and/or ommitting the dux. I however think the dux makes the game more interesting, as does the greater number of pieces.

There is a high probability any of these versions or variants would be recognizable to a Roman as ludus latrunculorum.
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Damian Walker
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On the survival of latrunculi: there's mention in Murray's History of Chess, and some other sources, of a poem the Shahnama, by Firdawsi (that should give you enough for a Google search). The poem mentions a game called Nard, which sounds very much like latrunculi. I can't remember the details now, but I believe capture was described, as was the presence of an invincible king and a number of soldiers on each side. The poem dates from about A.D. 1000.

When reconstructing latrunculi with a dux, I tend to take the simplest option, making the dux uncapturable, as the king in the poem. Other than that, he moves and captures like any other soldier.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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I saw that in your booklet but I have to disagree with you on a few points:

1. The ancients considered ludus latruclorum and Petteia to be comparable but distinctly different games. You make out the differences to be vary minor.

2. I describe custodial capture which is one of the reasons I would argue that this game probably did contribute to the development of the tavl games family BUT the uncapturable dux and rook-like movement seem to be later developments from my understanding. [Granted though that my Greek and Latin texts only refer to the games in passing if at all, but one can't genuinely study Homer without some discussion of Petteia. Likewise, ludus latruculorum gets plenty of discussion when treating Roman culture.

By the way, love the leaflets series you do! Good job; keep it up! I'd tip you but I've saving for an avatar.
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