A Fairly Quick Game – Nine Men’s Morris!

3.5 - 5

Number of Players: 2

Year of Publication: -1400

Creator(s): Designer is unknown and Dieter Zander is the Artist

Having taken a quick break from this chain of posts to write about Elixir, I’m back on fast games! This one’s all about Nine Men’s Morris. Another very old game, a board for which was found cut into a wall in the temple at Kurna, Egypt, that dates back to 1440 BC (although there is doubt as to whether this is an accurate dating of the carving as Coptic crosses were also found carved here that could not have been put there by the Egyptians at the time). Anyone who’s played Assassins Creed III might be familiar with this game – it’s one of the mini games available within the game. Variations of it are also Three Men’s, Six Men’s and Twelve Men’s Morris. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have copies of the others, so this post will mainly (but with some references to the others) be focused on Nine Men’s Morris.

A Nine Men's Morris board and pieces before a game begins.
A Nine Men’s Morris board and pieces before a game begins.

It’s a very easy game to learn, each player has 12 pieces in either black or white. The board is comprised of three squares inside each other, each with intersecting lines midway down each side. White plays first and you take it in turns to place pieces on the corners of the squares or the midway points created by the intersecting lines. The objective is to create lines of three, either horizontally or vertically, called mills. Once a player has created a mill they are then allowed to remove one of their opponents pieces from the board. If a mill is created whilst players are placing their pieces the player who created it is still allowed to remove one of their opponents pieces.

A game where all the pieces have been placed just before the moving phase begins.
A game where all the pieces have been placed just before the moving phase begins.

After all the pieces have been placed players take it in turns to move. Each turn you may move one piece one space. You cannot move, or create mills on, the diagonals. A player who has achieved a mill or two when placing their pieces is going to be in a stronger starting position than their opponent, as they will have more pieces left to manoeuvre round the board.

When a player has lost so many pieces that they have three or less pieces left on the board they are then able to move their pieces anywhere. They are no longer restricted to moving one piece one space. They can move one piece from any space on the board to any other space. This makes it considerably harder for their opponent to continue to make mills. Once a player has lost all of their pieces, or both agree that a point in the game has been reached where neither player can win, the game ends.

The end of the game and black is the winner having reduced white to less than three pieces.
The end of the game and black is the winner having reduced white to less than three pieces.

History Things:

These first five points are all about Three Men’s Morris, not Nine!

  1. In line for “oldest game in the world” – with Go, Backgammon and Chess.
  2. Noughts and Crosses or Tic Tac Toe are the same as the variation of Three Men’s Morris that involves the use of the diagonals for making mills.
  3. According to Thomas Hyde the Chinese played it in 500BC.
  4. Ovid mentions it in “Ars Amatoria” – the Romans played on wooden or stone boards, although occasionally more exotic materials were used.
  5. Three Men’s Morris was widely played in England 1300 AD – boards can be found carved, by monks, into the cloister seats in Norwich, Canterbury, Gloucester and Salisbury Cathedrals, and Westminster Abbey.
  6. Other Nine Men’s Morris boards have been found in Ceylon – carved in the reign of Mahadithika Maha-Naga (9-21AD), and European boards have been found in places like the first city of Troy, a Bronze Age burial site in Ireland and at the Acropolis in Athens.
  7. The game reached peak popularity in Europe in the fourteenth century.
  8. In old England the game was played with black and white pebbles on a board that was drawn out on the village green using a trowel, or drawn onto a pub or tavern table with chalk.
  9. Shakespeare references it in A Midsummer Nights Dream in Act II, Scene I – “The Nine Men’s Morris is filled up with mud!” ~Titania – this must be what happened to the boards drawn on the green whenever it rained!
  10. A version of the game called Morabaraba which is played using the diagonals on the board is still very popular, and played to a competitive level, in South Africa.

Because the game was popular in Medieval England there has been some speculation as to whether the name “Morris” is related to the English Morris Dance. However, Daniel King says that it is coincidence- the word Morris in this context actually deriving from the Latin “Merellus”, meaning a counter or a game piece.

I have, once again, achieved ten points of history about the game! I wonder how long this is going to last…
Pretty much everything I’ve put up about the history of the game I found here.
But I supplemented some of the points with information from our trusty old friend Wikipedia!

Definitely a Quick One! – Fanorona! (pronounced Fa-noorn)

3 - 5

Number of Players: 2

Year of Publication: 1680

Creator(s): Again, the designer is unknown, but Néstor Romeral Andrés was the artist for the modern board

It gets to be big and bold and exclamation marked in this sub-heading because it’s the first game we’ve managed to cross off our list of Games We Want, which is a noteworthy achievement in the limited history of this blog. Fanorona is also notable as having been bought to the attention of many through the PS3 and Xbox 360 game Assassins Creed III where you can play it as a mini game within the game along with Nine, Six, Three and Twelve Mens Morris.

Fanorona is currently down as the quickest game I’ve ever played, and that’s not only because I’m terrible at it (but better than my brother at the moment). It’s for two players and played on a rectangular board.

Our home made Fanorona board. Made on a chopping board using a soldering iron to brand.
Our home made Fanorona board. Made on a chopping board using a soldering iron to brand the markings into the wood.

History and Interesting Things: 

This is where I organize all the interesting stuff I found out about Fanorona, if you don’t want to read about the history of the game, skip down a bit and see more pictures of us playing and a bit about the rules and how to move!

10 Things I Found Most Intriguing:

  1. Fanorona is a strategy game, but, like Go, it’s considered a one-off. Not part of any other family of games.
  2. It is believed that it was developed from the game Alquerque, which is most commonly played in Arab countries and may date back more than 3,000 years.
  3. Fanorona comes in three varieties – Fanoron-Telo which appears to be identical to Three Mans Morris (another on the list of Games We Want) – Fanoron-Dimyand the board for which is identical to Alquerque – and Fanoron-Tsivy, more commonly known as Fanorona and the most well-known version of the game.
  4. It’s the national game of Madagascar and is so important there that they have a National Committee for the Coordination of Fanorona and an International Fanorona Society.
  5. The only recurrent story I can find involving Fanorona is the following about a King called Ralombo. He was sick and trying to decide what would happen to his Kingdom when he died, he did not want to divide the Kingdom between his two sons, so he sent for both of them. He reasoned that the son who arrived first was the most loyal to him and should therefore inherit the Kingdom. His oldest son was engaged in a game of Fanorona when the messenger came and was in a situation called telo noho dimy, a very difficult situation involving three pieces against eight. He was so absorbed in the game that he sent the Kings messenger away. He did not arrive at the castle until the following day, by which time his younger brother had already inherited the throne.
  6. I reach point six and find that, given the limited history that is known about Fanorona, I have nothing left to write, so pretend that this is ten points, and keep reading to find out about the rules and game play!!

Game Play:

Black and white playing pieces are used for this game, they are set up as shown in the picture below. There is one space left empty in the middle of the board, which allows white to make its first move. These pieces  we stole from a copy of Reversi (more commonly know as Othello) to go with our home made board.

The starting set up of Fanorona on or home made board.
The starting set up of Fanorona on our home made board using Othello pieces.

Anyone who’s familiar with Draughts will understand when I say that the game progresses quickly due to the compulsory taking rule. Also like Draughts, taking moves can be linked. A player can continue to take pieces with the piece they initially moved that turn for as long as there are legal moves available. The nature of the game is sacrificial, for the game to progress each player must lose a large number of their pieces.

To take a piece in Fanorona a player must move one of their pieces either towards or away from the piece(s) they wish to take on a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line. The player then removes the pieces they have taken on that line up to the point where there is a gap between pieces.

The starting position of a taking move.
The starting position of a taking move.

 

The white piece then moves forward to take the black piece in front of it
The white piece then moves forward to take the black piece in front of it.
It then moves to the left to take the line it moves away from and that is the end of its move chain.
It then moves to the left to take the line it moves away from and that is the end of its move chain.

Initially the game should progress very quickly, with each player taking multiple pieces each turn. When the board begins to empty, the rate of game play should slow as each player will have more options to choose from and cannot afford to be reckless with their remaining pieces.

The remaining pieces on the board after only a few minutes of play.
The remaining pieces on the board after only a few minutes of play.

The objective of the game is to either eliminate your opponents pieces from the board or force them into a situation where they cannot move.  If either of these situations arises you win the game. If you reach a point where neither player can move or take another players piece the game comes to a draw.

Once you’ve played maybe, twice, the game becomes easy and can be played in well under 20 minutes. After grasping the initial rules about moving and taking it is then only strategy that remains to be developed by anyone wishing to play regularly.

The game close to the end as black finds itself backed into a corner.
The game close to the end as black finds itself backed into a corner.
White is the winner having removed all of the black pieces from the board.
White is the winner having removed all of the black pieces from the board.

There will be another Fanarona post going up in the next few days where my brother shows you how he made the board and how you can make your own if you like. Considering that buying copies of this game appears to be rather expensive.

For anyone interested, I read about the history of the game here.