Monday, April 16, 2012


A Game of Calculi in Progress

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

Today we extended our study of the Games People Played in the First Century with the Roman game of Five-in-a-Row, often referred to as Calculi. Just as the attack game of Latrunculi is often called Roman Chess, people sometimes refer to Calculi as Roman checkers. This is done, in part, to differentiate it from Latrunculi. Just as checkers is chess’ kinder, gentler cousin, Calculi similarly lacks the war-like strategy of Latrunculi. If you missed the previous posts in this series, you can find Latrunculi HERE, and Hounds and Jackals HERE. 

In a world without iPods, Game Boys, X-Boxes, Cable TV and all of the other electronic distractions of 21st Century life, women as well as men played board games.  

Pliny mentions Ummidia Quadratilla in his letters. The grandmother of one of his friends, she lived to be eighty and amused herself playing ludus calculorum, or games of stones. Nearly all board games of the era employed polished stones or glass discs as game pieces, so it remains unclear which of them she preferred.   

Another Roman writer, Martial, says,  “A tavern-keeper, a butcher, a bath, a barber, and a game board with stones, and a few books... warrant these to me, Rufus, and keep to yourself Nero's warm baths.” 

As we learned from Pliny, ludus calculorum was a catch-all term. Calculi is a term that has come to be used for specific games of stones in which the object is to arrange five of your playing pieces in a vertical, horizontal or diagonal row. This prevents the game from being confused with other games that also utilized stone game pieces such as Latrunculi, Duodecim Scripa, and Tabula, among others.

Ancient Glass Playing Piece
 The ancient Greeks also played a similar game that required players to align five gaming pieces. While Calculi can be played on the Latrunculi board of 8 x 8 squares, something larger…say 8 x 12, allows for more flexibility and strategy. Calculi also requires more playing pieces than Latrunculi. Particularly when the size of the board increases since there will be more blocked attempts.  

The rules of Calculi are rather simple.
1.     Players each have an unlimited number of playing pieces.
2.     Black usually starts the game.
3.     The first person to make a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line of five playing pieces wins.
4.     If the board becomes filled, the game is a draw.

There is a qualifying restriction. A double open-ended row of three is illegal unless a player is forced to make the play. This refers to a row of three that simultaneously goes in two directions, forming a cross, an X or a T. Once constructed, such an alignment makes for an easy win.  

This rule leads to a strategy in which players try to combine a line of three with a line of four. Then, if the opposing player moves to block the row of four — which they must do to prevent a win  their opponent adds to the row of three, making it four. No matter which end of the row their opponent blocks, adding a piece to the opposite end now yields a win.

A standard checker board is an easy way to get a taste of Calculi. Keep in mind, additional checkers will be required, or something like pennies or poker chips can be substituted. Lacking that, the modern game of Connect Four makes an acceptable substitute. 

Next time we’ll examine the some of the largest ships of the ancient world - the Roman Stone Carriers. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

If you reached this post via a link, click the HOME tab above to see other posts and our archives.

No comments: