Fanorona is a game of pure strategy from Madagascar. Based loosely on alquerque, the game is notable for its unusual methods of capture. Whole rows of enemy pieces are captured by approach and withdrawal, where a piece moves up to touch the enemies or, when touching, moves away. The capture of whole rows of pieces gives the game a dramatic beginning, with a full board providing many targets for capture to each player.
Featured in A Book of Historic Board Games
This game is featured in A Book of Historic Board Games, by Damian Gareth Walker. That volume, available as a hardback or paperback, covers twelve games in depth. For each game there is an entertaining history, full rules, and a discussion of strategy, all in more detail than you'll see on this site.
History of Fanorona
The game dates to 1680. The Madagascans doubled the size of the alquerque board, along with the number of pieces, and altered the method of capture. Where these ideas came from is unknown; it could have been an original idea or an adoption from a now lost game.
Fanorona was a popular pastime, and was also used for divination purposes. When the French were invading the island in 1895, the reigning queen Ranavalona III is said to have put more faith in the outcome of a ritual game of fanorona than in the strength of her armed forces.
Knowledge of the game spread more widely in the middle of the twentieth century, when it was featured in a number of popular books about games. In modern times, it was embedded as an activity in the video adventure game Assassin's Creed III, making it popular among a new generation of gamers.
Rules for Fanorona
There are two ways to play fanorona. Games are often played in pairs, and in this case the second game adopts certain rules which put the winner of the first game at a disadvantage. This special game, called the vela game, is described at the end of these rules.
1. Fanorona is played on a board of lines which intersect at 45 points, these points being the playing spaces of the game.
2. Two players take part, each player having 22 pieces. They are set out as shown in the diagram.
3. The white player starts the game, black and white alternating turns thereafter.
4. In each turn a player may move a single piece. A piece may be moved from one point, along a marked line, to an adjacent empty point. Diagonal moves are not available from every square, as a closer look at the diagram shows.
5. If a player has moved his piece directly towards a line of enemy pieces running in the same direction, such that the player's piece is now adjacent to the enemies, the enemy pieces are captured by approach. The enemies are removed from the board.
6. If a player has instead moved his piece directly away from a line of enemy pieces running in the same direction, and the player's piece was adjacent to the enemies before the move, the enemy pieces are captured by withdrawal. The enemies are likewise removed from the board.
7. If a move qualifies for capture both by approach and by withdrawal, the player must choose which set of pieces to capture; one cannot capture by approach and withdrawal at once.
8. If it is possible to make a capture, then the player must do so, though where different captures are possible, the player has a free choice which one to take.
9. On a player's first move of the game, only one capture is allowed. On subsequent moves, if the moved piece may move and capture again, it must do so, and must continue to do so while further captures are available.
10. When making multiple captures, each capture must be along a separate line; it is not permissible to slide back and forth along the same line in a single move (which would otherwise circumvent rule 7 above).
11. The game is ended when one player has lost all his pieces, his opponent being declared the winner.
The vela game has a number of differences from the first game, with the additional rules as follows.
12. The loser of the previous game takes white and starts in the vela game.
13. The winner of the previous game refrains from making captures in the vela game until he has sacrificed 17 of his pieces.
14. The loser of the previous game captures only one piece each turn, that being the enemy piece nearest his own in the enemy line he approaches or withdraws from.
15. After the previous winner has sacrificed these 17 pieces, the game continues as per rules 4-11.
The imbalance of the vela game is not as extreme as it at first appears. The approach and withdrawal capture method allows the disadvantaged player to capture large numbers of pieces quickly, while not offering large lines of pieces for the opponent to capture.
Strategy in Fanorona
The early phase of the game is a bloodbath. The pieces are massed in blocks, which is more a weakness than a strength given the method of capture. Beginners will naturally favour the combination of moves which allows them to capture the most pieces, but as experience increases, it will quickly become apparent that one should look at where such moves will lead; sometimes the most aggressive moves will leave the player in a more vulnerable position.
As in all games based on the alquerque board, it pays to look at the peculiarities of the different spaces. The presence of diagonals at a point makes a piece there all the more powerful, as the pieces has more options for where it can move. In the later game, pieces are more easily trapped if they occupy spaces without diagonals.
In the end game, the advantage of a single piece is not enough to bring about a win. Draws, then, should be theoretically common. When the board is nearly empty, an advisable tactic is to move diagonally when traversing the board; this ensures that pieces remain on squares with diagonal routes available to them.