Ludus Latrunculorum is an ancient Roman game of pure skill. Two players face each other across a rectangular board which is marked with a grid of squares. The players each have an equal number of pieces, with one player's pieces differing from the other in colour. In some versions of this game, each player also has a "dux", a special piece with increased powers. Pieces move around the board and capture one another by surrounding; a piece of one colour caught between two of the other is removed from play. The winner is the player who captures all of the opponent's pieces.
History of Petteia and Ludus Latrunculorum
Neither chess nor draughts had been invented in the days of the Greek city states or the Roman empire. These peoples had instead their own games of strategy which were held in similarly high regard. Petteia was the Greek name, meaning “pebbles”, and ludus latrunculorum the Roman, meaning “the game of little soldiers”, for their principal board games of pure strategy.
References to petteia abound from Homer onwards, and it is known to have been played before the 5th century B.C. Greek authors thought it was of Egyptian origin. By the 2nd century B.C. the Romans had adopted the game, and they subsequently took it with them throughout their empire. References to ludus latrunculorum in literature suggest that it is identical to petteia, but some later pictures and archaeological finds suggest that changes were made, including the addition of a special piece to each side.
Petteia was last mentioned in the 2nd century A.D., and ludus latrunculorum at the end of the 4th. It seems that the game survived the fall of the Roman empire in some of its outlying provinces, and a 10th or 11th century Persian reference to a similar game, nard, gives some clue as to what the special pieces were for.
Rules for Petteia and Ludus Latrunculorum
These rules are pertinent to ludus latrunculorum when the dux piece is absent. Rules for games involving the dux are given elsewhere.
1. The game is played on a board of squares, of any size the players have to hand. 8 rows of 8 squares is the most convenient for today's players.
2. The pieces are laid out on the board as follows: each player has enough pieces to fill two rows of the board; each player's pieces are placed in the two rows nearest to him;
3. The players decide between them, at random or by agreement, who is to have the first turn.
4. A player in his turn moves a single piece from one square to another. All pieces move as far as the player wishes, in a straight line horizontally or vertically.
5. A piece cannot land on, nor jump over, another.
6. An enemy piece is captured by trapping it between two of the player's own pieces, in a straight line horizontally or vertically; the captured piece is immediately removed from the board;
7. If a moving piece traps two or three enemies between separate comrades, then those two or three enemies are all captured.
8. It is permissible, however, for a piece to voluntarily place itself between two enemies without harm.
9. The game ends when a player is reduced to a single piece, thus preventing him from waging war any further. His opponent is the winner
10. The game also ends if one player is completely trapped and unable to move; his opponent is similarly the winner.
11. Players may agree a draw if the game has no apparent conclusion in favour of one player or the other.
Rules for Ludus Latrunculorum (with Dux)
In some times and places, ludus latrunculorum was played in exactly the same way as petteia. Some sets have been found with special pieces, nowadays called by the Latin name for leader, "dux" (plural "duces"). Neither their name nor their purpose has been left to us by Roman writers.
These rules give one suggestion as to what to do with the dux, and are mainly taken from the derivative game nard, described in an epic Persian poem of the tenth century. All rules are exactly as those for petteia, except as follows:
2. The pieces are laid out on the board as follows: each player has enough pieces to fill one rows of the board; each player's pieces are placed in the row nearest to him. The duces are placed in the rows in front, each player's dux in the centre space or, if the number of files is even, just to the right of the centre line.
6. An enemy piece is captured by trapping it between two of the player's own pieces, in a straight line horizontally or vertically; the captured piece is immediately removed from the board; a dux may capture but may never be captured.
Strategy in Petteia and Ludus Latrunculorum
Wally J. Kowalski has observed that the game is prone to draws, and that there is much jockeying for position before a single piece can be captured. It may be that the Greeks and Romans knew strategies that we have not yet discovered. Since the rules are reconstructed with little certainty, little modern effort has yet been expended in this direction.