Writing the History of Hunt Games
Wednesday, 19th March 2014
Fox-and-geese style hunt games can be organised into three major categories based on board shape. There are cross-shaped boards like fox and geese. There are square-shaped boards like those in catch the hare. And there are triangular boards like len choa.
On all of these boards a similar rule set is played. Pieces move along the marked lines to adjacent points The "prey" piece is strengthened by allowing it to destroy the hunters, by jumping over them one, sometimes more, times. These common rules show that the games are related, despite their geographical spread from North America to south-east Asia.
So the question is, which came first?
The square games were first documented in 1283, when Alfonso X of Castile commissioned a book on games. That book contains a description of catch-the-hare, which is the first documentary evidence of any hunt game. Fox & geese is first documented nearly two centuries later, between 1460 and 1483. The triangular games are not documented till the nineteenth century.
If these dates are indicative of the order in which the games were invented, then it gives a simple history of their relationship. The square games were invented first, either in Spain or perhaps between there and east Asia; it could be that alquerque and catch the hare were introduced together into Spain by the Moors. The game spread east to the furthest parts of southern Asia, and west to the Americas with the Spanish conquests.
When catch the hare moved north, the cross-shaped fox & geese was developed from it, spreading throughout the Viking world and beyond into North America. That was eventually developed into games such as Asalto, by forming one arm of the cross into a fortress, and increasing the numbers of hunters and prey.
In the east, the square board was sometimes augmented by triangular extensions to provide more room for movement. At some time, the whole board was reshaped into a triangle, and on both shapes of board, the number of prey was increased to between two and five in certain variants.
This is a simplistic view of the progress of hunt games, and still leaves their place of origin a mystery. The square games almost certainly came first, as they occupy the whole geographical range (except northern Europe). But were they invented in Spain, the Islamic world, or the far east?