You never know quite what you might find in an Algarvian museum, so it was with some delight that we discovered the games room in Alcoutim’s second castle. The second castle – Castelo de Alcoutim – is the one that all visitors to Alcoutim see as it dominates the town. It dates back to the 14th century and was still in use as a military fort in the 18th century. These days the castle is a tourist attraction, popular for the views from its ramparts even on cloudy days! We’ve walked round the outside numerous times, but only recently did we take the opportunity to explore inside. To be honest there isn’t much to see apart from the views and the aviary is certainly best avoided. However if, like me, you have fond childhood memories of playing traditional board games then there is a treat in store for you.
The ‘Timeless Games’ exhibit is the work of Dr Helena Catarino who excavated all of the games from Alcoutim’s other castle – Castro de Santa Bárbara. Castro de Santa Bárbara, also known as the old castle (Castelo Velho), was the first castle in Alcoutim. It dates back to the 8th century, and many of the articles I have read about the castle indicate it was an ‘important military fortification’ for the Moors until they abandoned it in the 11th century. However other articles drawing from Dr Catarino’s archaeology dig indicate that Castro de Santa Bárbara was more of a fortified rural palace than military fort. Certainly the number and variety of board games now on display in Castelo de Alcoutim reinforces the view that Castro de Santa Bárbara was a residential home. And it is the games I want to tell you about today.
There are six different games being exhibited, and numerous versions of one or two of them. I found the exhibit fascinating because not only have these games survived all these centuries but archaeologists recognised them for what they were. And if I am really honest the real reason I liked it so much is that I played at least two of these games as a child, and still occasionally play them as an adult! Incredible to think that something that dates back to at least the Roman Empire is still being played in the 21st century.
The two I played lots were Tic-Tac-Toe and Nine Men’s Morris. The former is often called Noughts and Crosses in Britain and is a game for two players. When I was a child we played Tic-Tac-Toe using pen and paper, but the Romans and the Moors must have used counters when they played as there are no marks remaining on their stone boards. Nine Men’s Morris, known as Jogo do Moinho in Portugal, is also for two players but is a much more strategic game.
For those who have never played these two the rules are as follows;
- Tic-Tac-Toe – each player takes it in turn to mark one of the 9 spaces in a 3×3 grid. The player who starts uses X as their marks, whilst the second player uses O. The player who succeeds in placing three of their marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins the game.
- Nine Men’s Morris – the rules are quite simple when you know them, but surprisingly difficult to write down! Hopefully though this will make sense. The board consists of three concentric squares and four additional lines which interlink them; thus creating 24 points of intersection. Each player has nine pieces, or “men”. The game begins with each player taking it in turn to place one of their men on one of the 24 points of intersection. Only one man can be placed on each point. Once the men have been placed the players then try to form ‘mills’ by sliding their men along the lines to another one of the 24points. The aim being to line up three of their own men horizontally or vertically. If a ‘mill’ is achieved then the player can remove one of their opponent’s men from the game. The player who wins is the one who reduces their opponent to only two men, or leaves their opponent unable to legally move any of their pieces. The winning trick is to create a ‘mill’ which can be used again and again. This is achieved by moving one man to an adjacent point in one move (known as opening the mill); and then re-creating the ‘mill’ in the player’s next move by returning the same piece to its original position. Every time the ‘mill’ is re-created an opponent’s piece can be removed from the board. Even better is to have created two adjacent ‘mills’ where you shuttle one piece back and forth between two mills, removing one of your opponent’s piece every turn.
If games are not your thing but you are in the Algarve why not instead take the walk from the centre of Alcoutim and discover the lesser known Castelo Velho. There are board signs by the ferry crossing or if you prefer there is a leaflet click here . Before you go on the walk here’s my favourite photograph from the exhibit, which is of games you could play. I wasn’t 100% sure of the rules for these two at the time so we didn’t have a go ourselves. I plan to rectify that next time we visit!