Thursday, July 19, 2007

Game of the week: Latrunculi

One difficulty in writing a review for an ancient game that's no longer actively played, such as the ancient Roman game Latrunculi, is the fact that we don't really know for sure how the game was played! We saw the same thing with Senet a few weeks back.
Of course, a game that's been played over many centuries, across several thousands of miles in mostly illiterate or semi-literate societies probably had many variations anyway, so it doesn't pay to be too dogmatic.
Extant boards have come in varying sizes and with varying numbers of pieces. We do know it was played on a gridded chessboard-like gameboard. The Midnight Snacks magnetic version I own has a 7 x 8 field, but there are others and it can easily be played on an 8x8 checkerboard. Most sources seem to agree that the pieces moved one square orthogonally, but not diagonally. Capturing was via the ancient "custodial capture" rule seen in Seega and Morris and other ancient games. It's interesting that this formerly popular rule isn't seen in more modern games, which usually use "replacement" captures (like chess, backgammon) or "jumps" (checkers).
Some versions add a more powerful piece called a dux which has expanded powers of movement or capture (rules vary). The Midnight Snacks game allows the dux to jump, which provides a weak tool for avoiding stalemated situations.
The dux points out the biggest weakness of Latrunculi, which is that it can easily bog down into a stalemated position. This problem, combined with the way the game develops slowly and its general lack of dynamism probably accounts for its obscurity today. While the equally ancient Roman game of Tabula eventually evolved in Backgammon, Latrunculi fell out of favor. Although one might surmise that checkers is related to the ancient game, experts don't draw that link and instead trace the game's origins to about AD 1100, long after Latrunculi was forgotten.
Modern players of abstract games will find Latrunculi an interesting historical curiosity worth a few plays, but there's no prospect of a revival in interest. The game is simply too dry and slow-paced for modern tastes. The dux improves the game, but its just a single piece and not an especially powerful one. It's important to preserve your dux so long as your opponent has enough other pieces remaining to build a wall across the board in order to avoid being blocked or a stalemated position.
If you want to try the game out, you can simply use a checkerboard and pieces. The variation presented in The World of Games by Jack Botermans et al. allows all the pieces the rook's move from chess (while still having custodial capture) which will lead to a speedier game, although that may not be the way the Romans played it.

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