Retro Recall: Alquerque

February 5, 2019 by ludicryan

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Ohhhhhhhhhhh YEAH! It’s time to go straight back to hyper-retro!

Retro Recall: Alquerque

You have the great ‘fortune’ of being brought through the history of another interesting ancient board game! This time I’ll look at Alquerque which comes from the Arabic El-Qirkat. This game is the precursor to Draughts but because it’s played on a different board, the dynamic is wonderfully different.

First let’s look at the board! It’s different from a regular grid board which just contains horizontal and vertical lines. The Alquerque board contains a diamond and X amongst these regular grid lines which makes for fascinating strategic decisions during play (I may have talked too much about this board on my project blog for Bloom). The board was found on roofing slabs at the Temple of Kurna in Thebes, Egypt. This dates back to 1400 B.C. which I’m told is hella old!

Retro Recall: Alquerque

A carving of an Alquerque board at the Church of the Condemnation, Jerusalem. The carved paving stones are from the Roman Period 2nd Century CE

What’s interesting for our pursuit here is that this board travelled East to Asia where it spawned completely unique games like Bagh Chal (Nepal) and Rebels (China). At the same time, it travelled West across the Northern coast of the African continent and into Europe via Spain creating completely different games. 

Retro Recall: Alquerque

Alquerque board carved on stones at  Ermita de la Purísima Conceptión (a 12th century church) in San Vicentejo, Burgos, Spain.

It first has mention in the Kitab al-Aghani - a seminal Arabic encyclopedia of poems and songs from the 10th century by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani. But we know the rules because King Alfonso X of Castille was obsessed with writing things down (strange guy, I know).

How It’s Played

Each player starts with 12 pieces which are set out as in the picture below. Each player then takes a turn moving one of their pieces across one of the lines. That piece may only move forwards, diagonally forwards or to the side. Pieces can be leapt over a la Draughts and this must be to the side or forwards. Additionally, there must be a free space for the piece to leap into. Like in Draughts, multiple pieces can be leapt over in one move as long as the above rules are followed.

Retro Recall: Alquerque

There is a rule regarding ‘huffing’.(not quite what you think) that can add another strategic element. If a player fails to allows his piece to capture an opponent’s piece when it is possible then on the opponent’s turn they must huff (remove) the piece that failed to capture.

This can be quite easy to forget about but I understand the principle of why it exists. The first phase of the game is one where pieces are lost easily and toasts eagerly made about their sacrifice to the great abstract cause. The huffing rule can get rid of pieces quickly on both sides and can also reward aggressive play.

Retro Recall: Alquerque

Pieces that reach the back line cannot move unless to it is to capture sideways. The game ends when all of a player's pieces are captured or they cannot move. The winner is then determined by how many pieces they have remaining.

What Is It Like?

It’s a refreshing change from Draughts. And it’s the board which makes all the difference. Depending on the game played on it, there are interesting ‘high ground’ areas which afford a strategic advantage.

But for Alquerque, the game is naturally divided into certain phases. The first phase is something of a culling where many pieces from both sides will be captured. In this phas,e I have found it useful to keep your backline intact and unmoving as they form a solid defence.

Retro Recall: Alquerque

It’s in the next phase where the game really shines because you get to use the board in a freer way. We all might be used to square grids of movement where every square is equal. And it’s a fascinating change to have these kinds of ‘alternating movement option’ intersections: you can move in three ways on one and five in another.

I frequently forget to enforce the huffing rule and there are times where you can be a bit unsure of what to do because the rules of this ancient game can vary dependent on the source. The huffing rule does add an interesting dynamic but you won’t lose the experience of the game if you forget about it from time to time.

Alquerque is interesting for the legacy and impact it’s had on one of the most popular board games in the world: Draughts. But the board itself is the locus of so many interesting possibilities that I’ll be sure to revisit another game played on it in this segment.

Is there a particular version of Draughts you enjoy playing?

(Ancient carving pictures sourced from ancientgames.org)

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