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Subject: Fun but not just for topologists rss

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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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1. Introduction

This game is another one I've been meaning to review for a while. Not only is it of my favorite genre of games, namely a two-player perfect information abstract, but it forces players to think differently in order to play it. Basically, the bard can be viewed as topologically non-trivial but only when capturing. That little point takes what might be an otherwise ho-hum mildly interesting game and makes it involve a lot more thought to play.

Traditionally, as I understand it, the game was played on the beach in Java with two sets of stones and a board sketched in the sand. More recently, even in Java, players used a more portable and permanent board and pieces. Were it not for this fact, I'd probably not be able to play it myself, but on the other hand it's still a pity; evoking a mental association with beaches in Java is a good thing for any game.

2. Rules

Yet in spite of historically recent developments, I've yet to find a commercially produced set for this game, although I gather that they do exist. I use this board which I've printed and mounted, along with some non-descript pieces I have (as I think every gamer should) for just such purposes.

The board is fundamentally a 6x6 grid of points, but that grid has been modified so that a line also connects the two points on the edge one away from a given corner and the two points two away from a given corner are similarly connected. This is done at each corner. Each player starts with twelve pieces on filling the two rows nearest to him as pictured.
The object of the game is to capture all of an opponent's pieces. The first player is chosen at random and then play alternates with each player moving a single piece each turn. A piece must be moved on a player's turn.

Perhaps the best way to think about movement in this game is to mentally separate capturing and non-capturing moves. For a non-capturing move, the board must be treated as a simple six by six grid of points with the extra connections at corners completely ignored. Then, for a non-capturing move, a piece moves one point in any direction horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Pieces cannot be jumped and no two pieces can occupy the same point at the same time. Capturing moves are fundamentally different. Capture is by replacement as in Chess so that a piece is moved onto the point occupied by an enemy piece and that enemy piece is removed from play. Yet the move itself of a capturing move consists of an arbitrary number of point in a straight-line-- at least within the base 6x6 grid-- but also subject to the condition that the move must pass over at least one of the outward connections at corners shown on the board by curved lines. One may move a piece over any number of such connections but a capturing move must involve at least one. For me, I find it mentally easiest to treat the outward connections at points as defined to be topologically "straight" so that for purposes of movement they continue the piece's direction of motion even though that piece re-enters the base 6x6 grid (apparently) moving in a different direction; so long as any change of direction comes only from following one of the outward-lying lines at the corners, for purposes of movement the motion is treated as having not changed direction. With this definition of a straight line on the board, one can then think of pieces as capturing like rooks in chess on a topologically modified board.

A good summary of these rules with reference to topology can be found here.

3. Game-play

Once players mentally adjust to the cool topological effects involved in capturing, the game has a strategic depth comparable to Checkers. That's decidedly not a bad thing, but it does mean that the game lacks the complexity of chess. Yet the same could be said of Go which many regard as a game better than chess for those who like such games. My experience is that this game won't get one's blood rushing with the thrill of the game, but it is fun nonetheless.

The attraction of this game lies perhaps especially in that it requires players to use a kind of thinking to play that all too many people never use. Therein lies the challenge for most players. To those at this level, the game is decidedly a brain-burner and can be both frustrating and exciting.

Yet even when a player becomes accustomed to seeing the capture possibilities in any board position, with suitably matched players the game becomes a battle of wits. Traps have to be more subtle because capture is not compulsory as in draughts. Due to capturing rules, the edges of the board play a strategically vital role, but captures will be made in the center of the board too. In fact, the only points on the board immune from capture are the corners themselves. So, the game resembles draughts but even for a seasoned player, it is never quite that simple.
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Roberta Taylor
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Thanks for writing this- I hadn't heard about Surakarta before, and it looks like a great game- another to add to my growing list of must-tries!
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Jon
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Traditional games that have survived the test of time and ancient games that have not are a part of our heritage.
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Quote:
Yet in spite of historically recent developments, I've yet to find a commercially produced set for this game, although I gather that they do exist.


There is a commercially produced version of Surakarta produced by a German company, Gerhards Spiel und Design. Cheers.

http://www.spiel-und-design.eu/en/
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Tony C
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It *looks* like it's still included in the Klutz "15 Greatest Board Games in the World" book/board set.
http://www.klutz.com/book/The-15-Greatest-Board-Games
They've made a few game swaps since I got my set for Christmas years ago (copyright 1991), and I'm not sure the pieces are still stones, but this could be an option to find Roundabout/Surakarta and a number of other games.
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Ralf Gering
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Sorry, Moshe, but there is no proof that the game was ever played in Java. It rather seems to be nice marketing lie. According to what I was told you won't find any Indonesian literature mentioning the game, nor ethnographic accounts about it.
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Russ Williams
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FiveStars wrote:
Sorry, Moshe, but there is no proof that the game was ever played in Java. It rather seems to be nice marketing lie. According to what I was told you won't find any Indonesian literature mentioning the game, nor ethnographic accounts about it.


Interesting. I see what you mean; some cursory googling only finds lots of pages selling the game or supplying programs etc, often just repeating the claim that it's a classic Indonesian game. But I don't see any primary sources or details.

Oddly, this link gives a little more detail: "Surakarta was first seen by Europeans in the 17th century" for verisimilitude... or could it be true? Or is that just repeating something from the Klutz book?

Also it's worth noting that in Wikipedia there are Indonesian articles for chess:
http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catur
and go:
http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Igo
and checkers:
http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dam_Inggris_(permainan)
but not for Surakarta, which would seem surprising if it really was a traditional Indonesian game - surely some Indonesian would have proudly made an article about a traditional classic game from their own country, one might think.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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FiveStars wrote:
Sorry, Moshe, but there is no proof that the game was ever played in Java. It rather seems to be nice marketing lie. According to what I was told you won't find any Indonesian literature mentioning the game, nor ethnographic accounts about it.

I am relying on the research given here which cites both R.C. Bell (Discovering Old Board Games , pp. 32- 33. Aylesbury: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1973.) and The Oxford History of Board Games. (D. Parlett, pgs 249-250, Oxford, Oxford U. Press, 1999.)
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Benedikt Rosenau
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According to a book by a certain Glonegger who used to work for the German publisher Ravensburger, Surakarta is a traditional Indonesian game just called the game in its home country. They chose to label it Surakarta for its publishment in 1970.

I suspect it is made up, too. Claiming that a newly invented game is traditional or even the oldest in the world is a common marketing ploy.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Zickzack wrote:
According to a book by a certain Glonegger who used to work for the German publisher Ravensburger, Surakarta is a traditional Indonesian game just called the game in its home country. They chose to label it Surakarta for its publishment in 1970.

I suspect it is made up, too. Claiming that a newly invented game is traditional or even the oldest in the world is a common marketing ploy.

Yet Bell (as cited in my own source) seems to regard the game as genuine.
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Benedikt Rosenau
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whac3 wrote:
Yet Bell (as cited in my own source) seems to regard the game as genuine.

Erwin Glonnegger used to be a major figure in the games department of Ravensburger, and he invented games himself. His Spiele-Buch is critical and sometimes even ironic with the claims of age and origin for certain games. This makes it look even stranger that neither a particular place in Indonesia nor an original term for the game in one of the Indonesian languages is given. But it is popular, he writes. If it does not need a name of its own, it must be the game indeed.

Bell and Parlett date after the publishment by Ravensburger and may not be independent sources. In any case, I have contacted Indonesian acquintances. So far, none of them knows the game or the game board. I will keep you updated.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Zickzack wrote:
whac3 wrote:
Yet Bell (as cited in my own source) seems to regard the game as genuine.

Erwin Glonnegger used to be a major figure in the games department of Ravensburger, and he invented games himself. His Spiele-Buch is critical and sometimes even ironic with the claims of age and origin for certain games. This makes it look even stranger that neither a particular place in Indonesia nor an original term for the game in one of the Indonesian languages is given. But it is popular, he writes. If it does not need a name of its own, it must be the game indeed.

Bell and Parlett date after the publishment by Ravensburger and may not be independent sources. In any case, I have contacted Indonesian acquintances. So far, none of them knows the game or the game board. I will keep you updated.

If you could track this down for certain, that'd be great.
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Russ Williams
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I have a friend who's moved there, so I emailed him as well.
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Alpha Mastrano
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Hmm, I can say I've never heard of this game before. Looks kinda cute though
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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russ wrote:
I have a friend who's moved there, so I emailed him as well.

Do you know perhaps a local historian, museum curator, etc?

I got the idea this was a traditional strictly Javan game but that like so much of Javan culture it basically has been vanishing since Westerners came.
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Benedikt Rosenau
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whac3 wrote:
If you could track this down for certain, that'd be great.

So far, all Indonesian contacts say they know neither board nor game. While it is strange that a game known as the game - a game that does not need a name of its own - is lost, the argument from silence is not fully convincing.

Hence, I decided to phone Glonnegger. Even after his retirement, he is active and happy to organize game events. I told him about BGG and that we have questions regarding Surakarta. His answer is: the name Surakarta is from him, Glonnegger. The game was described to him by a kind of colleague. All claims about the origin of the game and its supposedly being the game in Indonesia go back to that colleague. They did not verify anything, because the man did not want any money what he could have done if he had been the author. Glonnegger was surprised to hear that the game is likely not traditional, but he did not dismiss that out of hand. He also agreed to publishing the content of the conversation.

I am going to write a letter to Glonnegger. Maybe he will remember the name of that colleague.
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Russ Williams
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My friend came up with nothing also. Says he's never seen the game and locals he asked didn't know about it. (But he didn't pursue it with museums or historians or game specialists.)
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Does anyone have access to Bell's own writings on it to see what authorities he gives? He was after all a games historian.
 
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Jon
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whac3 wrote:
Does anyone have access to Bell's own writings on it to see what authorities he gives? He was after all a games historian.


In Discovering Old Board Games, Bell states, at the end of his description of Surakarta, "(Translated from a French text by Miss Fiona Brookes.)" (page 33).

Interestingly, Bell makes no claims as to the age and origin of the game in the text. It begins simply "Surakarta takes its name from the ancient town of Surakarta in Java. Each player had twelve pieces, usually stones for one side and shells for the other, and the board is drawn in the sand" (page 32). He then proceeds to describing the rules for Surakarta.

However, its inclusion in a book titled Discovering Old Board Games attests to him viewing this game as "old".
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George Leach
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Great bit of sleuthing there. It makes me wonder about the value of age in a game, there are certainly many rather dull games that have stood the test of time and if tales of their age are often overblown perhaps it should have a more tempered affect on opinion.

Looks like a reasonably interesting game too!
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Russ Williams
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I just got a followup email from my friend I'd asked about this question:
Quote:
after a long time of the Surakarta question posted, i got zero feedback from the indonesian facebook community. i suspect that it is only an indonesian game in the most technical sense (if at all).
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Chris Morrow
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Huh, this is an odd sort of letdown.

Unfortunately, non-facts that feel interesting have a tendency to stick around, like "glass is a liquid" and so forth.

A shame that someone would feel the need to lie; if they preferred fame to money, they could simply (and truthfully) say they invented it themselves, because it is a pretty neat game.
 
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Willgamer wrote:
Interestingly, Bell makes no claims as to the age and origin of the game in the text.


In "The Boardgame Book", the Surakarta article starts with: "This Javanese game ..." So that would seem to be origin attribution from R.C. Bell.
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Zickzack wrote:
Bell and Parlett date after the publishment by Ravensburger and may not be independent sources.


The referred-to Glonnegger book, "Das Spielebuch", has publ. year 1988, whereas R.C. Bell's "The Boardgame Book" has publ. year 1983. Bell starts his Surakarta article with: "This Javanese game ..."
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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Lenoxus wrote:
Huh, this is an odd sort of letdown.

Unfortunately, non-facts that feel interesting have a tendency to stick around, like "glass is a liquid" and so forth.

A shame that someone would feel the need to lie; if they preferred fame to money, they could simply (and truthfully) say they invented it themselves, because it is a pretty neat game.

Well, glass is functionally a liquid in some contexts due to the non-rigid crystalline structure.
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Benedikt Rosenau
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spasskyfan wrote:
Zickzack wrote:
Bell and Parlett date after the publishment by Ravensburger and may not be independent sources.


The referred-to Glonnegger book, "Das Spielebuch", has publ. year 1988, whereas R.C. Bell's "The Boardgame Book" has publ. year 1983. Bell starts his Surakarta article with: "This Javanese game ..."

I wrote publishment by Ravensburger, not that particular book being published. In the phone call mentioned, Glonnegger made it clear that the name Surakarta was chosen by him. This is strong evidence that everybody referring to the game as Surakarta without mentioning where that name comes from is just copying Glonnegger.

I yet have to write him that letter. Thanks for the reminder.
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