Saturday, 26 October 2013

Byzantine Chess

Byzantine chess or Zatrikion is a chess variant that was popular in medieval times in the Byzantine Empire. It is played on a round chess board, where the game pieces face each other on both sides. The game is first mentioned in 947 in the Arab book Murûj adh-dhahab (The meadows of gold). The writer and historian Al-Mas'ûdî (died 956 AD) connected the origin of chess in Persia under the reign of Khosraw I Anushirwan with the book Kalîlah wa Dimnah, a collection of Indian fables. On chess, Al-Masûdî wrote: ‘by far the most frequent use of ivory is for manufacture of men for chess and nard’ (nard is the predecessor of backgammon). He also described five chess variants: oblong chess (al-mustatîla), decimal chess (at-tâmma or complete chess), circular chess (ar-rûmîya or Byzantine chess), astronomical chess (al-falakîya, celestial chess) and limb chess (al-jawârhîya, which is played over a 7x8 board with 6 pieces – tongue/eye/ear/hand/foot/heart – for each side; unfortunately the rules of this game are lost). No images of a medieval Byzantine chess board are known, and, as the playing pieces are identical to normal medieval chess pieces, no specific game pieces can be attributed to Byzantine chess.

The board 

Our board is made of poplar with walnut edges. The circles and radiant lines are carved in the wood with help of a sharpened compass. The board is finished in linseed oil; the incised lines appear to have a darker shade as they collected more linseed oil.

The Byzantine chess board and the set-up of the pieces.

Game pieces

Because the ‘squares’ have different sizes – the smaller ring, the smallest squares – on the board, the game pieces have to fit the smallest square. The game pieces made for 4-season chess and Grande Acredex were made of clay, and were too large for the smallest squares in Byzantine chess. Therefore, I made the chess pieces of this set from wood. The game pieces are carved from beech, and loosely based on the 12th century Sandomierz chess set found in Poland. The king and counsellor (ferz) are based on wooden medieval chess pieces found in Novgorod, Russia.

The Sandomierz chess set, carved from bone. The two sets differentiate from each other 
by the decorative double lines (see e.g. the knights at the front).

The separate chess pieces of the Sandomierz chess set. All have double/triple decorative lines at the bottom and belong to one playing set. First row: pawn (top view), bishop/elephant (side view), king (overview), counsellor (side view). Second row: king (side view),  knight (front view), pawn (overview) and rook (side view). All images of this chess set are from the Sandomierz museum website.

Three 14th century wooden chess pieces from Novgorod: a rook and two kings (they do not belong to the same sets). Right image from internet; numbered images from the book ‘Wood use in medieval Novgorod’, Oxbow publishers, UK.


For the rooks, I used a square piece of wood. For the knights and bishops/elephants, I used a piece of beech made slightly oval. For the pawns, a 12 mm beech dowel was used as a basis, while for the king and counsellor the basic shape was turned. All decorations on the chess pieces were carved with a carving knife, while the dots and rounds were hammered in the wood with specific punches. The white set was finished with linseed oil, the black set with linseed oil mixed with a small amount of bone black. 

The 'basic' turned king and counsellor still attached to each other.

The chess pieces, in alternating colours: pawn, rook, knight, bishop/elephant, counsellor (ferz), king.

The game pieces have their specific moves, identical to medieval chess, but unlike the modern variant:
  • The King moves one square in any direction.
  • The Counsellor moves only one square diagonally.
  • The Elephant/Bishop moves exactly 2 spaces diagonally. It can jump over other game pieces. This means it is not able to reach the inner ring; movement is restricted to only 8 places on the board.
  • The Knight moves like the modern chess knight: two spaces forward/backward or sideways plus one space at a right angle (an L-shape). The knight jumps over other pieces.
  • The Rook moves like the modern one: unlimited movement forward, backward or sideways until it has reached another piece. It cannot jump. In case of an empty circle, it is not allowed to travel a full circle, i.e. ending on its starting position.
  • The Pawn moves one square forward when not capturing. Capturing occurs one step diagonally. Unlike modern chess, the pawn does not have the two-square step as the initial move.  Because of the circular nature of the board, the pawns cannot promote into another piece as there is no opposite side of the board.  When two pawns of the same colour, but of opposite direction meet and block each other's progression, the player of the opposite colour can remove both pieces. This action does not count as a turn.

Playing Byzantine chess

The board is set up with the king and counsellor placed in the smallest ring; both kings facing each other, as well as both counsellors. Next to the king/counsellor is the bishop/elephant, followed by the knight and the rook in last ring. On each side are 4 pawns.

Lay-out of the game pieces.

The players decide who goes first, and the players take turns moving one piece in each turn. If a player’s King is threatened with capture, 'check' is declared, and the player must move so that his King is no longer threatened. If there is no possible move to relieve the King of the threat, he is in 'checkmate' and the game is over. Even if the King is not in immediate threat, but any possible move would subject him to capture (stalemate), he has lost the game.

Also, if one side is reduced to a king alone with no other men, he loses as a 'bare king', unless he can reduce the other player to a bare king on the very next move, in which case the game is a draw. Finally, if it can be demonstrated that neither side has enough power on the board to force a win by checkmate, stalemate or bare king, the game is a draw.

The citadel variant

The set-up of the pieces in the citadel variant of Byzantine chess. 
The white king has to move to the opposite citadel (orange dot) to obtain a draw.

There is a variant attested in the 14th century where the set-up is different. Here, the King and the counsellor are on the outer ring, followed by the elephant/bishop, the knight and the rook in the smallest ring, i.e. the opposite of the normal situation. In addition, there are 4 citadels (husûn), in shape of quarter of circle, in the centre. One can obtain a draw if a player succeeds to bring his King in a citadel (it is supposed, though the rule is not explicitly stating, that it was meant the citadel opposed to his starting sector). Play further follows the rules as in normal Byzantine chess.

This post benefited greatly from the information on the Chess Variants web page and the History of Chess page.


  1. Very, very nice board and chess pieces!
    We also share on medieval board games, especially from the XIIth century. On this byzantine chess, our reenacting met. I would be very pleased to share datas and point of view on this topic.

    Artaud (Aisling-1198)

    1. Hi Jonquay, I googled for 'Aisling 1198' and found your website. You have an impressive collection of games, including some form of chess played on a 4 X ?? board. What is this game?
      We would be happy to exchange view on the medieval board games. If you have not tried it, you should make the astrological checkers (escaques) from Alfonso X (the game on folio 96v). We found it very entertaining, even tough the game is based only on luck. We used shells for money.
      Should I use the email on that website to contact?

    2. I kept an eye on your blog and didn't see your answer. Of course, we are still interested to share on these games. Could you mail us ? (aisling @ Best regards,


  2. I was wrong to assume that no medieval images of Byzantine chess exist. In a medieval manuscript in the British Museum, MS Cotton Cleopatra B ix, written in Norman-French in the second half of the 13th century, is a diagram of a Byzantine chess board on folio 9a. The explanatory text for this diagram is erased due to fire damage. The other folios of the manuscript deal with other medieval chess problems and their solutions. Unfortunately, the British Museum had not scanned the manuscript, and it is unavailable as a digital image.
    Source: a History of Chess by H.R.J. Murray (1913 reprint)

  3. I live in Cambodia and want to commission a local craftsman to make me a tafl chess set, using the knight/horse and bishop/elephant designs pictured in this post (namely the wood-carved pieces shown in alternating colors). Would you be willing to provide me with a scan or photo of your sketches for these two pieces? Or do you have more detailed photos -- from close up -- at different angles? I showed a craftsman the photos posted here, and he said he couldn't figure out the detail just based on the photo.

    Thanks. -Josh

    1. hi josh, I have some close up photos of the chess pieces. I will need your email address to send them to you.
      regards marijn

  4. Where can I buy a set? My email is if anyone can help me I'd be very glad.

  5. I am interested in the game with the Byzantine corresponding panel. As you will obtain.

    Thanks for your time


    Salvador Juanpere i Aguilo


    This is the only place I have found that sells the game. Its sold as a leather pouch game made by Dark Ages Games LLC.