Reconstructed rules of Liubo


Quoi de neuf ?

Mes livres

Histoire des échecs



These lines come from my paper "We played Liubo last night !" published in
Abstract Games, Issue 15 Autumn 2003.

See first the Liubo page !

My first step was to make a board and the necessary pieces and sticks. Then, every point of the rules was carefully play tested. Surprisingly, the results delighted my partners and me.

Click to enlarge

An attempt to see a circuit in the Liubo pattern.

The game material comprised two sets of stones, or qi - six white and six black - made from ivory, bone, bronze, or jade, and six split bamboo sticks presenting flat and beveled faces.

(Sometimes the material includes one or two complex 18-sided dice as an alternative to the bamboo rods; 20 additional pieces, the zhishi qi, or “fish”; and several counting tickets. I have chosen to ignore them in the first attempt to reconstruct the game).

It is clear that movement was not determined by a haphazard throw of all six sticks. Instead, the sticks were arranged in a manner reminiscent of the famous hexagrams of the Tao philosophy and the Yijing, or Book of Changes. These hexagrams, made of six continuous or broken lines, representing the yang and the yin principles, respectively, are a key component of Chinese astrology.

Suggested Rules

1. The game is for two players. One player takes the white stones, and the other takes the black stones. Each player starts with his six stones in front of him, the board being empty.

2. The stones are moved according to the throw of the six sticks, in which flat sides represent yang and convex sides represent yin. The sticks are thrown and read as two separate groups of three.

Assuming that the sticks should be read three by three, they form two trigrams. That could explain the role of the auxiliary surface, the boxi, often represented beside the board and between players. It could have been used to arrange in order the 2x3 sticks. The 2x3 sticks offer 2x8=16 possibilities. This would fit with the 18-sided die that is known to be an alternative to the sticks. The die has 16 numbered sides plus two special sides at its poles, engraved with ideograms for special functions. The numbered sides of the dice model the throw of the sticks, although the probabilities are not exactly the same in both processes.

3. One counts 3 points per yang, 2 points per yin, and subtracts 5. An equivalent way is to count 1 more point than the number of yang shown. Therefore, the point count for a group of three sticks varies from 1 (all yin) to 4 (all yang).

This way of counting is completely hypothetical. I have tried to accommodate the 3 and 2 points system traditionally employed for the Yijing divination process. The possibilities range from 1 to 4, with 1 and 4 three times less probable than 2 and 3. For my rules to work, it is necessary to have 1 achievable.

4. It is compulsory to move two stones at every turn, one for each stick group. It is not allowed to move the same stone twice, except if this stone is the last controlled by its owner.

Play testing has shown that it is not suitable that a single stone moves using both groups of sticks.

5. All stones enter the board on the same point (referenced with a “1” on the diagram above). The stones move counterclockwise around the board. The first count includes the starting “1” point. Stones can pass each other.

6. A stone that lands exactly on one of the first two cardinal points, "6" or "11", can, on the next turn, move directly across the board towards the opposite cardinal point, rather than continuing to follow the counter-clockwise circuit: from “6” it can go to “16,” and from “11” it can go to “1.” The stones continue moving counter-clockwise after crossing the board. The route across the board, including the central square as a station, is only six steps, whereas the roundabout route is 10 steps, so these shortcuts reduce the distance by four steps.

7. If a stone lands on a station already occupied by the opponent, the enemy stone is withdrawn from the board and given back to its owner. He will have to re-enter it again.

8. Two or more stones from the same side can occupy the same station. However, both may then be taken at the same time if the opponent lands on them.

The principle of a single entrance is copied from Yut, the Korean race game, called Nyout by Culin (1991/1895), Murray (2002/1951), Bell (1979/1960), and their followers. It is my personal intuition that Yut could be connected with Liubo. I find intriguing their common astrological symbolism, their apparent role in divination, the fact that each player has the same number of pieces as sticks, and their geographical proximity. Also, the Yut board has exactly one central region surrounded by 28 positions that are exactly arranged as in this reconstruction. This may be a coincidence, and I am not saying that Liubo was the ancestor of Yut. It could just as well be the opposite, or both may have emerged from an older game.

9. A stone that stops on the central station can be promoted to an owl, which is distinguished by standing it up. A player is only allowed one owl at a time, so subsequent pieces entering the central station will not be promoted while the first owl remains.

This is inspired by comments of "Zhao hun" poem in Chuci by Hong Xingzu (living under the Song), which quoted the introduction of Gubojing: “When a stone gets in the water, it is stood up and is called an owl” (Fu, 1986). There are other interpretations of this passage, which do not corroborate the way the owl is obtained. These other interpretations are related to the use of the 18-sided die, where the owl promotion is obtained by pure chance. However, several special things occurred then in the “central water,” like “eating fishes,” which probably meant getting a reward. I consider this promotion mode as a valid possibility. In addition, it makes the play interesting because the control of the central square becomes essential. No text never mentions more than one owl per player, so this is invention for playability.

10. The owl can be moved by one or two groups of sticks. The two numbers should be played separately, and it is forbidden to move the owl back and forth. The owl can move clockwise or counterclockwise, or cross the board in any direction without having to land first on a cardinal point and can even turn at right angles when it crosses the center.

It is logical, and confirmed by play testing, for the owl could move more easily than regular stones in order to catch them.

11. A stone taken by the owl is withdrawn from the game and kept as a prisoner by the taker.

This was inspired by many citations that led to an understanding that the powerful owl piece was eating the stones.

12. If an opposing stone takes the owl, the owl owner loses the game immediately.

The owl is both powerful and fragile. There are several allusions again. For instance, in the Han Feizi it is said, “In order to win, he must kill the owl.” This is an attractive feature of the game. The owl owner has an obvious advantage, but he is always under threat, and may have to decline a capture if he cannot place his owl in safety. Was the owl a model for the Chess king?

13. The owl owner also loses the game if, after his play, the opponent has five regular stones on the board and the opponent himself does not have an owl.

This is an attempt to accommodate a recurring comments, like the following in the Zhanguoce (Strategies of the Warring States): “If the owl is not able to defeat five opposite stones, clearly, then it has lost.” Practically, that means that the owl owner, who is leading the game, must pay attention at the beginning of the game. The danger is over a soon as he has captured a few stones.

14. If the opposite owl takes an owl, the game is not lost. The owl is degraded, removed from the board, and given back to its owner, who will have to re-enter it as a mere stone.

No text supports this rule, but it is necessary if one allows both players to possess an owl simultaneously. Such a capture cannot be the end of the game because it is rather easy to capture an owl with an owl. As a result, it turns out that the game is subject to very pleasant changes of fortune. The first player to promote to an owl does not have a guaranteed victory, for there is often the possibility for his opponent also to obtain an owl. The two owls never stay too long, and the second player has a real chance to seize the lead if he can capture the first owl.

15. When a stone completes its loop and lands on or passes first station (“1”), it stays on board and begins a new loop. At this time a prisoner is freed and given back to the player who completed the loop, who may reintroduce it to the board on a later turn.

This is a free interpretation of an obscure passage from Hong Xingzu's comments, which refers to “two fishes returned back.” My understanding is that captured stones could be freed if something was achieved. That thing could have been completing a full run: in the Yiwen leiju (557-641) it is said “stones must have gone over all ways on the board in order to succeed.”

16. A player makes an immediate extra throw after throwing a 1-1 or a 4-4, or after completing a full loop with a stone, or after promoting a stone into an owl.

These conventions are the results of extensive play testing. They make the game more dynamic.

17. A player wins by holding prisoner all six opposing stones. This is considered as a "large" victory.

This is inspired, again, by a passage from Chuci comments by Hong Xingzu: “If a party won six fishes, then that was the large victory.” My interpretation is too make a direct connection between the fishes earned and the stones captured. Another support for this rule is logic. Indeed, the natural purpose of the game to capture all the opposing stones in order to win.

Click to enlarge

Retrouvez le Liubo dans "Du Senet au Backgammon ; les jeux de parcours"