The Arabic Game of Al-Qirqut

This may have been one of the most influential board games ever made.

Alquerque_in_Libro_de_los_juegos
A game of Al-Qirqut photo from WikiCommons

Not only was Al Qirqut popular for many centuries, but it produced a plethora of spinoffs and derivatives in many parts of the world, from Japan to Ghana to Arizona. It was one of the forerunners of Checkers or Draughts, and it also influenced the development of Chess. Variations of it are still played today.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, Europe entered a Dark Ages of political chaos and religious conflict. But in the Middle East, the Arabic Muslim world became a center for scholarship and trade, and the study of science, mathematics, art and astronomy would reach levels not found in Europe until the Renaissance.

During this time, the board game Al Qirqut appeared, and quickly spread throughout Arabia and into North Africa. It may perhaps have been a refinement of an earlier version of Nine or Twelve Men’s Morris, and may also have been influenced by astrological ideas. Arab traders from Baghdad carried the game as far as India, Indonesia, and the African interior. Around the end of the 10th century CE, Al Qirqut was mentioned in the massive 24-volume work by the Arab writer Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani titled Kitab al-Aghani (“Book of Songs”), though he does not give any of the rules. Later, extensive commentaries on the game were written by Arabs and Persians, using a mathematical notation to record and analyze various moves.

The game spaces are not all the same. The rules allow pieces to be moved only along the marked lines, and not all of the spaces are marked in the same way. Some of the spaces have all four diagonals running through them: these are known as “strong spaces”. Some on the other hand have no diagonals at all: these are termed “weak spaces”.

By the 11th century CE, French, German and English knights who had fought in the Crusades were taking the game back home with them, and after the Arabic-speaking North African Moors invaded the Spanish Peninsula and established a large Muslim province, Al Qirqut was distributed even more widely, adopted by the Spaniards, and became known as Alquerque. In 1283, the Catholic King Alfonso X of Castillo ordered that a list of games be compiled, and when Libro De Los Juegos (“Book of Games”) was written, Alquerque was prominently featured, with detailed descriptions of the game board and how it was played. Most of what we now know about ancient Alquerque comes from Alfonso.

After Columbus’s voyage in 1492, the Spanish, having only just succeeded in removing the last of the Moorish Muslims from Iberia, built an empire in the New World, and Alquerque reached a fertile new field. Versions of the game were adopted by Christianized Native Americans, and were also taken to Japan and China by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

In northern Europe, South America and Southeast Asia, the Alquerque board became the basis for many “hunting” games of the Hare and Hounds type, which then expanded into the larger Lion and Goats style “capture” games. When the Hindu Indian game of Chaturanga arrived in Europe, it adopted some of the conventions of Alquerque and eventually became Chess.

By the time the Tudors took power in England, however, the venerable game of Alquerque was already fading. In one of its versions, the game had become transferred from a board consisting mostly of intersecting lines onto a new board made up of an eight-by-eight grid of squares, and it evolved into what we now know as Checkers. As the popularity of Checkers (or Drafts, as it became called in England) increased, Alquerque declined, and eventually the ancient game was surpassed by its descendant. Today, although versions of Alquerque are still played in many parts of the world, it is virtually unknown in England or the US.

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Alquerque

If you would like to try out the Arabic game that swept the world, here is a version you can play.

Download the game board here:

www.flickr.com/…

Download the game pieces here:

www.flickr.com/…

And download the rules here:

www.flickr.com/…

Print the game out on 8.5×11 heavy cardstock paper, cut out the player pieces and game board, and you are ready to play using the  rules reference card.

3 thoughts on “The Arabic Game of Al-Qirqut”

  1. As an aside, I assume that in Roman alphabet transcriptions of Arabic, the Q is pronounced more or less like K. But K is also used in such transcriptions, so I wonder what the difference is between the pronunciation of Q and K…

    1. It’s the same sound. There isn’t any universally-accepted transliteration from Arabic script to Roman characters, so you’ll see it rendered both ways.

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