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Five Medieval Games to Get You Through Long Winter Nights

By Danièle Cybulskie

On cold winter nights, medieval people did the sensible thing and stayed indoors, passing the time by playing games together by candlelight. Here are five games that date back to (at least) the Middle Ages that you can stay in and play on these long nights of winter.

Chess

Chess is a very old game, with disputed origins. It seems to be agreed upon, though, that chess came to medieval Europe via India and Persia, at which point some of the pieces changed from elephants to bishops, from counselor to queen, and from chariot to castle (rook). In Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures, Sally Wilkins notes that changing a chariot to a rook explains something that’s puzzled me for a long time: why a stationary object like a castle can move so quickly across a game board. The world’s most famous medieval chessmen are probably the Lewis Chessmen: ivory figurines discovered on the Scottish Isle of Lewis. (Check out Nancy Marie Brown’s book Ivory Vikings for more on their possible origins.) Whether you play with ivory or plastic, to play chess is to get medieval.

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Backgammon

Another very famous game which came to Europe alongside chess is backgammon, a relatively simple game played with two dice, some flat discs, and some triangles drawn on a board. This made it possible for backgammon to be played anywhere from a fancy, decorated table, to a patch of sand. Backgammon (or “tables”) was popular enough that other games were invented which could make use of the same distinctive board. It’s also a lot more fun to play than this fifteenth-century book of hours illustration suggests.

Medieval Game playing from a 15th century Book of Hours - image courtsy Walters Art Museum
Medieval Game playing from a 15th century Book of Hours – image courtesy Walters Art Museum

Halatafl

For those of you who would like to get in touch with Viking roots, you can play halatafl or fox-and-geese. Unlike in other games in which both players have equal pieces, a popular version of halatafl involves one player with one piece (the fox) trying to capture all thirteen of the other player’s pieces (the geese) without getting captured himself. According to Wilkins, this Viking game has been found “scratched in stone in ancient buildings and painted on boards,” because like checkers, halatafl involves no special technology: just some stones, a drawn “board”, and an opponent.

Queek

Queek is a game I hadn’t heard of before, and its name is just so fun to say. To play queek, all that’s needed is a checkerboard or cloth (or a checkered drawing) and some stones. Play involves betting on how many thrown stones will land on black squares and how many will land on white squares. The person who’s right (or close enough, depending on how friendly the game is) wins. It’s as simple as that – or would be, that is, if sneaky medieval people hadn’t found ways to cheat, like making some squares marginally deeper than other squares.

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Raffle

Wilkins calls raffle “a three-dice game that might be considered the ancestor of the modern slot machine.” To play raffle, all that’s needed is three dice. The object of the game is for players to take turns rolling the dice until a player gets all three dice to come up with the same number. This is the type of game I imagine medieval soldiers playing in their downtime, as it would have been easy to carry around, and easy to bet on, but not so easy to win. When playing raffle with your friends, be sure to watch for weighted dice.

For more on the Persian roots of chess and backgammon, check out “The Games of Chess and Backgammon in Sasanian Persia” by Touraj Daryaee. For more about halatafl, queek, raffle, and other games, check out Sally Wilkins’ Sports and Games of Medieval Cultures.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: 15th century image of a King and queen playing chess – from British Library

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