Traditional Board Games

Respect for Pachisi

Drawing of a pachisi game in progress.
Drawing of a pachisi game in progress.

Thursday, 5th June 2014

When most westerners see this game, they dismiss it as the children's game they once played in childhood. Americans will no doubt think it's just Parcheesi with a funny spelling. English readers will mistake it for Ludo, an even simpler game than Parcheesi. Plenty of equivalent games have been marketed in mainland Europe, all simple race games for children.

Pachisi is none of these. It's a race game of a type that has been in existence for over a thousand years, which was played everywhere from palaces to bazaars to village squares where boards were scratched into benches and pavements. For adults, it has more going for it than its degenerate descendants; some writers put it on a par with backgammon.

The main strategic interest in the game lies in its partnership play. Instead of all-against-all, pachisi is played, like bridge, by two partnerships with the allies sitting opposite one another and alternating turns with their opponents. Games are won and lost by partnerships, not players, so the simple race strategy of getting one's pieces to the finish line as quickly as possible isn't sufficient for this game.

Pachisi gives opportunities for partners to combine their resources against the enemy. Pieces may be doubled up, or massed in larger groups on a single square; these larger groups move faster than individual pieces and are better protected against capture. And in the true spirit of partnership play, these groups can be made up of the pieces of both partners.

Getting out of the game quickly would leave your partner alone against two enemies, not a good thing since they have two turns against your ally's one. So pachisi allows you to slow down to help your partner. You can miss a turn if you think you're too far ahead, or you can throw and then decide not to move, if the move would put you or your partner at a disadvantage. You can also opt to make an extra circuit of the board with one or more of your pieces to chase down enemies who are threatening your partner.

The game has other advantages over its western descendants. Cowries are thrown instead of a single die, meaning that the probabilities of the various scores are different, knowledge that you can use to your advantage. And unlike many European variants, there are safe castles or forts on the board, where a piece can rest in safety, immune from capture. So you can lie in wait for your enemies to rush past and, if the throws allow, sally out of the castle to capture them.

So pachisi gives you quite a bit of meaningful choice to make, compared to the games you think you're looking at here. It may be worth obtaining a set and giving it a try. There's a print-and-play version of the game on this site (see "related downloads" elsehwere on this page). So there's no excuse not to try it out and give some respect for pachisi.


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