The subject of today’s article has suffered a kind of identity crisis; none of the names applied so far have really stuck. It originated in Java, where it’s called permainan (“the game”) in Indonesian and dam-daman in Javan. (Funny side note: “permainan” is so literal that when I typed “history of permainan” into Google, I got the history of games.) It came to the western world as Surakarta (named after an ancient Javanese city) in 1970 in a French publication. Some western works use this name, but Sid Sackson’s Book of Games (1991) calls it “roundabouts,” apparently wanting the name to describe the game for English speakers. None of these names has really caught on, so the game continues to languish in obscurity.
At Kubiya, we agree with Sid Sackson that descriptive names are especially important when a game is less well known, but we absolutely adore this game to the point that not even the more descriptive “roundabouts” does it justice. With all that in mind, our illustrious founder Kobi Levi has dubbed it “Infinity Checkers,” in the hopes that this name will encourage more people to try it out. We understand there’s a risk of confusing the name situation even more, but that risk must be weighed against the opportunity to expand the game’s audience, and there was never a more worthy opportunity: if ever there was a game that truly deserves to be played, this is it.
Brother From Another Mother?
There’s speculation that infinity checkers is yet another lost child of alquerque, which gave rise to both checkers/draughts and fanorona. If so, this may be yet another case of geographic isolation leading to independent improvement on the same design, as I discussed in my previous article on fanorona. There’s certainly similarities: alquerque is played on a 5x5 board, infinity checkers on a 6x6. The Javanese are said to have drawn their original boards in the sand, but I can also see the possibility of someone improving alquerque by placing the board on sand and adding the curved corner lines around it as another method of capture.
Critics of this argument could point out that the method of capture more resembles the capture-by-contact method of fanorona than the capture-by-jumping method of alquerque, and it’s not like there was a lot of traffic between Madagascar and Java during the Middle Ages. If it’s possible for that innovation to occur independently in both areas, why not independent development of an entire game? We may never know, but I find it tantalizing that these curved lines (and slightly larger board) could represent a third solution to the opening-move claustrophobia that inspired the other two games.
Training Your Brain
Regardless of its origins, the game’s central conceit is an utterly unique method of capture where the capturing piece is required to leave the board and return (via one of the curved corner “roundabouts”) before capturing. The challenge of watching these avenues outside the board can’t be underestimated: perhaps it’s just the traditional square shape, but players have commented on how the square interior board draws attention from the curved lines, like the boundaries of a Kanizsa illusion. I’m sure there’s the making of a brain games episode there, but whatever you call it, it’s the source of a lot of frustration and confusion when we were learning to play.
Merely watching the curving lines isn’t enough, however, because nothing actually happens there, for all their critical importance in capturing. By the time a piece enters a curve, it’s too late to stop it. Pieces can’t actually stop outside the square board, and it’s even possible to play without physically moving your pieces through each curve, as long as your opponent can keep up with you. The action is still all taking place on the central square board, the lines only represent avenues in which pieces on the board can move around. So, if being aware of the curves is not the same as watching them, how are we to train our awareness?
“Like playing in three dimensions”
When testing it out, one of my friends commented on how it actually felt like the corner curves represented curved space, as if we were playing in three dimensions. I agree. While it’s not exactly the same as 3D chess, it’s that kind of struggle against all your previous training with board games, where you get blindsided again and again because you pay too much attention to the pieces right next to you and not enough to the ones that can swoop in by avenues that aren’t obvious to our normal Euclidian thinking. It could also be compared to video games with a fog of war, where all your attention is focused outward from the perimeter of the board, despite being targeted at the pieces around or even behind you.
Calling All Puzzlers
And while I’m calling for help, I might as well say that I’d love to talk to an expert in this game, by whatever name they want to call it. Infinity checkers deserves attention, recognition, even scholarship. As of this writing, it has not yet been added to the list of solved games under any of the names it normally goes by, which may reflect more on the need for someone to test it than on any special features of the game itself. Whether it can evade that kiss of death that has brought so many other games low, I cannot say, but it at least deserves a place among its potential lost cousins checkers and fanorona, along with nine men’s morris and many other regional and lesser-known games.
This summer, if you want to share a truly unique game with your friends and family, one that is easy for children to learn but difficult for adults to master, this is the one. Maybe our infinity checkers name won’t catch on, but as long as the game gets some more attention, we’ll be happy to do our part. Thanks for puzzling with me.
By Matthew Barrett