If you play board games, chances are good that you've seen or played at least one game in the “Cross and Circle” family of board games (so called because they feature a track of spaces shaped like a circle or a cross that makes a circuit around the board). Americans will no doubt be familiar with the Hasbro game Sorry! or with the game Parcheesi. Our readers in the UK may be more familiar with Ludo (part of a proud tradition of naming your game “game”), and of course our Indian readers will be familiar with the older forms of Pachisi and Chaupar. What these games have in common is a similar board structure and win condition. The board always features some kind of track along which the pieces move, and a “home” base the pieces need to return to. Other common features include dice, the ability to knock an opponent's piece back to its players start by landing on them, a rule requiring an exact number to be rolled to either begin play, return home, or both, and safe spaces on the board, where pieces are immune to capture.
This article is my first contribution to this blog, and when I was informed that I would be starting with Ludo and its relatives I could hardly contain my excitement. That's because this game is related to the Indian game of Pachisi, a game that plays a crucial role in one of my favorite ancient literary works. If you're not familiar with the Mahabharata, it's an ancient, epic poem roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. In short, there's no way I could summarize it here and do it justice but if you're looking for something to do during the Coronavirus quarantine, it could certainly keep you occupied. I will, however, touch on the part of the story which involves this great game. The Pandava brothers (our heroes) are in a struggle with their cousins the Kauravas over the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapur. Shakuni, uncle and advisor to the Kauravas, is an expert dice player. He suggests challenging the eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, to a game. He knows that Yudhisthira cannot refuse the challenge because he is of the Kshatriya, or warrior caste, and to refuse any challenge would bring dishonor. Yudhisthira accepts the challenge and even allows Shakuni to roll on behalf of the Kauravas. Before all is said and done, Yudhisthira has lost his belongings, his brothers, himself, and even his wife Draupadi in the game.
The Importance of Games
It's never specifically stated in the Mahabharata what dice game is being played, but based on the description it's thought to be some form of Chaupar or Pachisi, the ancestor of modern circle and cross games such as Ludo and Tock 4. What the story above tells us is that for ancient people, games were serious business. It's clear that these games began as a form of gambling. The fact that refusing a game is treated with the same gravity as refusing a duel tells us that these games were associated with courage and that oftentimes a person's reputation would be at stake at the table. In fact, my research into the game revealed that taunting your opponent, casting aspersions on his manhood, and mocking him viciously if he rolled poorly were all considered important aspects of play. In the oldest forms of the game, capturing pieces was a vital part and in Chaupar it was required. There was even a word for going an entire game without a capture (bay-thoree) and it amounted to calling your opponent a failure.
How the Game Has Changed
The oldest versions of the game were played on a cloth “board” which consisted of the cross shape, with the spaces embroidered on it. Originally the game was played by rolling seven cowrie shells which would be read as either “face up” (where the opening in the shell was visible) or “face down” (where the smooth side of the shell is seen). Different combinations of face up and face down shells were assigned numerical values and the player would be able to either move a piece onto the starting space or move a piece already in play forward a number of spaces. Most of the familiar elements of this family of games were already in place, such as capturing pieces, or needing exact rolls. Another early version of the game, Pachisi, introduced the use of long, rectangular dice. Modern versions of the game, such as Tock 4 and Sorry! swap cards for the dice, with Tock 4 using standard playing cards. Tock 4 is perhaps the most innovative variant of the game, with some versions of the rules allowing players to swap places with their opponent's piece, or even move backwards, depending on what card is played. Another innovation was the replacement of the cloth for a solid cardboard (as in Sorry!) or a wooden board (as in the versions sold here at Kubiya).
How to Play Like an Epic Warrior
Hopefully nobody reading this is considering staking their kingdom on a board game, but just in case, let's talk a little bit about how to play like a true warrior. First, look your opponent in the eye when you roll. You want him or her to know that you feel no fear. The secret to cross and circle games is knowing how to mitigate bad rolls and capitalize on good ones, so keep track of the number of spaces between pieces on the board. When the opportunity comes to vanquish your opponent's piece, and send him crying back to start, you don't want to miss it. Also remember, although the game can be called a “race” it's not always the fastest player who wins. Just as an exact roll is needed to begin the game, often an exact roll is needed to move your piece home. So try to set yourself up for success by positioning your piece so you can get home when the opportunity arises. Finally, if you must accept defeat, bow to your opponent gracefully, look him or her in the eye, and calmly say, “Take my kingdom. Please”.
By David Whatley
Kubiya Games is happy to host our first guest blogger, David Whatley. David’s love of classic puzzles and games began when he received his first set of wooden tangrams as a child. These days he spends much of his free time researching the history and development of games, when he isn’t trying to convince everyone he knows that they should play Go.