Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Latrunculi

By Dick Page 30 Aug 2017 0

In a story from the Stoic philosopher Seneca during the time of the tyrant Caligula, a Roman named Camus was sentenced to die over a disagreement with the mad tyrant. When the centurion came to collect him ten days later, he found Camus playing Latrunculi with his friends. Before leaving, Camus told his friend, "Mind you do not tell a lie after my death, and say that you won;" then, turning to the centurion, he said "You will bear me witness that I am one man ahead of him."

Seeing his friends were upset about his death, he asked, "why are you sorrowful? You are enquiring whether our souls are immortal, but I shall presently know," and he promised to report on the event of the soul leaving the body if he could find a way. This, Seneca wrote, was an example of a man perfectly tranquil in his mind.

Of course, he had to ensure he had won his game first.

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Ludus latruncolorum (latrunculi) - literally "the game of brigands" - was apparently widely played in the Roman Empire according to archaeological evidence. Like much of everything in Rome, it is based on an earlier Greek form -- the game petteia, which goes back to Homer. Plato called the opponents of Socrates "bad Petteia players, who are finally cornered and made unable to move." According to Plato, the ultimate origin of the game is Egypt, where a similar game called Seega is known to have been played.

Latrunculi is an abstract strategy game with as much in common with draughts (checkers) as with chess. The precise rules of the game are unknown, and have instead been reconstructed from a number of different sources. Some sources say that the game is played with two types of pieces: a pawn (or soldier, or footman) and a duke, while others say there is only one kind of piece. Even the number of pieces is in dispute, and may have varied from game to game depending on the players' preferences. The size of the board likewise is variable, from 8x8, to 8x12, to 12x12.

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Some interpretations of the rules allow players to place pieces anywhere they would like in the opening phase of the game, but no captures are allowed. Only then, after the pieces are on the board, may the players begin to move and capture the opponent's pieces. How do the pieces move? They might move orthogonally, like a rook in chess. Or, they might move one space in any direction. The duke suggests different problems. Clearly it is special is some way, but does it jump over other pieces? Or can it not be captured, only blocked? Or is it like the king in chess, meant to be protected?

Perhaps only one rule of the game is perfectly clear: pieces are captured by enclosing them between two pieces. Suicide by moving your own piece between two of your opponent's pieces is generally disallowed, unless it captures a piece. Often, the game is considered won either with the capture of all the opponent's pieces or with the pinning of the duke on all four sides.

Despite all this confusion, several bold developers have made mobile versions of this literally classic game, offering many different rule variations. One missing feature is the ability to play online - these apps are all single-player or local multiplayer only. Luckily they are all free! Perhaps there is an opening in the market for a daring developer to make a premium version?

Petteia [Android]

Petteia purports to be a recreation of the Greek ancestor to Latrunculi (although the store description calls it Roman). It has only an 8x8 board and 16 pieces, with no special duke piece.

Latrunculi [iOS]

This one is your best option for playing on iOS, but luckily it is pretty slick. It does make use of some of the more unusual hypothetical rules, like the 8x12 board and multiple captures, but It also allows two players over wifi. An "LE" version is also available with limited AI play only, if you just want to try it out.

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Latrunculi [Android]

This is the cleanest designed Android game, with a good-looking board and informative interface that shows clearly how the pieces can and have moved. There are no options to change the rules, but there are three levels of AI.

Mercenary [Android]

Mercenary lacks polish but offers the widest variety of rules changes, including free placement of pieces, infinite or limited movement, and even capture of multiple pieces in a line. There are some issues with the translation, and it is not clear which rules are compatible with which others. It also has two-player in pass-and-play form.

Ludus Latrunculorum [Android]

This Android implementation looks pretty good and allows two-player with pass-and-play. It also has two levels of AI and allows an 8x8 or 8x12 board.

Let us know if there are any other ancient games you'd like us to look into, or if you end up trying any of the above, post your thoughts in the comments!

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