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The Lukboc Game

Chapter 1 The Origin

Lukboc (or "Liubo") was the most popular board game invented at around 500 B.C. in ancient China. Based on archaeological dating, the earliest copy of the game had appeared around the end of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The game had reached its immense popularity during the Han dynasty (220 B.C.-280 A.D.) where all levels of the society including aristocrats, officials, merchants, scholars, and peasants were all indulging in the Lukboc craze. Surprisingly, its social significance had suddenly diminished after the period of the Three Kingdoms. Before the invention of writing paper in the late Han dynasty, game rules would have been carved on bamboo tablets or passed down through game demonstrations. Between the period of the Seven Warring States and the Qin dynasty (270 B.C. - 206 B.C.), many last remaining tablets would have been destroyed by countless battles. By the time of the late Han dynasty, rival state leaders had once again waged wars against each other, causing a big drop in the overall population and a wide-spread of poverty. Thereafter, Lukboc had disappeared from the Chinese society for nearly 1,500 years until now. Numerous copies of the game had resurfaced in a series of archaeological excavations that took place in between 1970 and 2000. As more copies of the game were found, attempts were made to reconstruct the rules from remnants of discovered artifacts, paintings, sculptures and poems in the recent years. Various designs among tombs from different geographical regions were unearthed. Because these burial sites were scattered all over China, archaeologists believed that Lukboc was once a common household item to own during the period. A similar game found in India has suggested that Lukboc was first brought to India by early nomad traders and Buddhist pilgrims. Indian traders might have spread the game to the Parthian Empire and as far as the Hellenic (Ancient Greece) regions. Lived between 287 B.C. to 212 B.C., Archimedes of Syracuse who was both a scientist and philosopher, had studied a great deal on the geometry of the polyhedrons. Perhaps inspired by the ingenious designs of Lukboc bone dice, his cuboctahedron and rhombicuboctahedron (two of the 13 Archimedean solids) were very similar to their Chinese counterparts. Based on these excavated polyhedral dice made of bones alone, we have reason to believe that they were first invented and used in ancient China. They had once represented the pinnacle of Chinese mathematics in the areas of geometry and combinatorics.

Lukboc had undergone several improvements in its designs, rules, and dice mechanics over the course of its development. Today, researchers and hobbyists can only decipher a rudimentary understanding of how the game should have played in the past, leaving us countless questions on the finer interpretations of its rules, while the quest for the original rules continues. Recently, Chinese historians have discovered rules written for a related game of Lukboc "Yueqi" in which both games may have shared a common set of playing rules. Just like in any modern board games, rules would change over time in adapting  to the changes of our society. Lukboc's success had come at a time during the rise of three separate religions in China - Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism from India.  Lukboc was viewed as a game of violence, according to the great philosopher Confucius. He had explained to his students that he would not join the social craze of Lukboc due to morality issues.  In a typical game, a player would use his "hawk" piece to kill his opponent's pieces to win. Because the game endorsed the notion of "killing", he sensed that it could provoke violence in the society of which contradicted his ideology. As recorded in history, indeed there were several high-profile murders related to the playing of Lukboc, some had led to royal rivalries and even wars among states.

Chapter 2 The Rise and Fall

The popularity of any game will depend heavily on a group of instigators and promoters. The aristocrats and elites were the main driving force behind the success of Lukboc. With simple to learn rules, easy to carry parts, and able to gamble with money, Lukboc was quickly becoming their game of choice to show off their wealth. Some had their polyhedral bone dice decorated with colorful gemstones, pawns made of precious jade, and carrying box made of red lacquer with ivory inlays. They loved the game so much that they would bury their favorite Lukboc along side with them in their tombs, perhaps to keep them entertained during their afterlife. With a lack of nightly family entertainment, Lukboc was quickly spreading among all members of the community. Peasants would make crude copies of the game using abandoned sundials, pebbles and animal bones. Children were chanting nursery rhythms on the streets with verses depicting the rules of the game.

Could the gambling aspect of Lukboc brought its demise in the third century ? Ancient Chinese history did not say. However, we do know the countless battles fought between the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period could have destroyed much of the last remaining written rules and killed the last surviving clan of Lukboc experts in China. Thus, leaving behind a few poetry verses that briefly described the nature of the game. 

Chapter 3 Game Evolution

As a common misconception, Lukboc is nothing like Weiqi (Go), Xiangqi (Chinese chess) or Mahjong. The oldest Weiqi game board discovered today dates back to about 206 B.C. of the late Warring States period. The oldest scriptures describing the rules of Xiangqi and the earliest form of Mahjong named "Yapei" have only appeared during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.). Lukboc has its deep root in Taoism. The throwing sticks and dice of Lukboc, the elements of randomness, have fulfilled the public in their beliefs of fortune-telling and superstitions. Back in those days, Lukboc players would conduct fortune-telling activities for themselves and others based on the outcomes of their games. Such tradition has continued in many of the games invented during the Song dynasty period. In between the Han and Tang dynasties, there were many games brought into China by traders and Buddhist pilgrims. Chaupar, Chaturanga, and Backgammon were among some of the most popular games introduced to China. Despite these games have greatly influenced the future game development  in China, the homegrown game of Weiqi has replaced the "randomness" and "luckiness" factors with "tactics" and "mental skills" in games. Using simplified game components and playing mechanics, the strategic complexity of new games like Weiqi and Xiangqi has actually increased in many folds, bringing more enjoyments for the upper classes. Perhaps these new games had the intention to separate strategy games from traditional dice-based games, but the nobles and scholars were actually using them to distance themselves from the gambling mass. Unexpectedly, their new games had quickly spreading to the public and again turning into instruments for gamblers in reaping huge illicit profits from the poor. Consequently, the advent of Weiqi and Xiangqi had the profound effect on the proliferation of gambling games in China during the first millennium.


Amongst all games, Backgammon was the most favorite dice-rolling gambling game played in the imperial palace during the Tang Dynasty. By the time of the early Song dynasty, there were many dice games invented not just for recreational relaxation, but for hardcore gambling purposes, "Chai Xuan" (Lucky Choice), was a fantasy game of using dice outcomes to promote or demote actual government officials; "Da Ma" (Horse Whipping), a crowd gathering horse racing board game that accommodates two to five players using three dice; "Chu Hong" (Off Red),  a game similar to the modern "Liar's Dice" with emphasis on the "Red 4" on the dice; "Xuan Hu Pei" (Tiebreaker Tiles), the predecessor to the popular Chinese "Pai Gow" game; "Xiang Xie" (Sandal Clacker), a dice-based war game based on the Chinese warring states of Wu and Yue during 500 B.C.; "Ya Pei" (Elegant Tiles),  a tile game made of wood and ivory which resembled some of the present-day Mahjong tiles; "Guan Por" (Coin Toss), the most popular form of gambling used for the exchanges of goods and services between buyer and seller of which a deal would be finalized by the tossing of coins with one side being rubbed off to a blank. As the Song society being impaired by a massive number of compulsive gamblers at all levels of the community, the nobles and scholars had asked the government to take drastic steps in banning all forms of public gambling. Unfortunately, the prohibition policy on gambling was only targeted the military and the operators of illicit banks with covert casinos called the "Money Counter"; moreover, members of the imperial family and all levels of government officials were also infatuated with these mass-appealing gambling games themselves. Miraculously, it was under these bad situations that had led to the refinements of many games in the next 800 years. Weiqi and Xiangqi had remained as pure strategy games while hybrid forms of dice-based gambling games have continued to dominate the society. Until the arrival of Mahjong in the 1600's, China was finally able to strike a balance between strategy versus gambling on the game development continuum. Despite these games have rivaled the western version of chess and playing cards in both complexity and intellectual skills, we can still find many similarities between Mahjong and Lukboc as well as Lukboc and Backgammon.

Chapter 4 Common Ancestry

Based solely on complex mathematical combinatorics, probability and randomness, Mahjong is continuing to be one of the most popular board game in China today. Both the game of Mahjong and Lukboc has shared many resemblances. The placement of tiles is uni-directional and both games required their players to start with a fixed quantity of gambling tokens (counting sticks). Both games require the use of dice to begin each game. Mahjong has maintained the symbolic notion of "two eyes" or "two fish eyes" used in early Lukboc. The concept of fishing from the central square pond of Lukboc is same as to Mahjong where players will take possession of the tiles from the central square to build their winning combinations. The winning mechanism of Mahjong is similar to Lukboc when a player with an erected eagle piece has "eaten" its counterpart. In Mahjong, players' combination tiles are usually erected until someone "claims" the game. For a win by the claiming player, he is in fact, taking possession of the discarding player's tile. This discarding player will lose double comparing to other two losers. With Mahjong, players no longer need to use dice to determine their move in every turn. The "pung", "chow" and "kong" are unique movements of pattern building which involved tiles of three main suites plus wind directions and three text symbols. Bamboos, characters, and dots have their origin associated with monetary units. Bamboo sticks were used as a monetary unit in Lukboc. The Chinese character of "ten thousand" clearly denotes monetary values and the dots symbolize either copper coins or dots on dice. The wind direction tiles retained the concept of the four circle areas of the Lukboc game board. Mahjong is also named the game of "Sparrows", a perfect analogy to the game of Lukboc. Even the Mahjong table has a lot of resemblance with Lukboc. Players will usually put their "pung", "chow" and "kong" set in corner positions next to each player. You cannot move them until you have actually claimed a winning game. In addition, Mahjong players take their turns in the counter-clockwise direction, but draws the tiles from the four walls in clockwise direction. This resembles the outer square rotation path and the inner square rotation path of Lukboc. The middle square pond of Mahjong is like a fish pond in Lukboc, ready for players to claim.

We have seen the many similarities between Mahjong and Lukboc, but all we can say is that Mahjong represents the ingenious creation by a group of board game enthusiasts who had successfully integrated the best features from several famous games from the past. If we look further, we would find another ancient game which has shared many characteristics of Lukboc. Backgammon, one of the oldest board game known in the Western civilization and appeared at around the Roman and Byzantine Empire (around 480 A.D.), have identical playing mechanics as in the game of Lukboc. The only difference was in the layout of the game board. Some of the excavated Lukboc game boards were in rectangular shape with extra moving spaces on the long sides and were built as a table top. Both were duo player games and used dice to determine movement following an unidirectional path (Backgammon players goes in opposite directions). Players will offset enemy tokens back to its beginning position through dice rolls. Similar to Lukboc, the first person who completes a full rotation on the Backgammon game board wins the game. Were all these ancient games shared their similarities by coincidence? Lukboc is certainly not the first game invented by mankind. The ancient Egyptian have been playing the earliest form of board games named "Senet" in 3000 B.C..  For thousands of years,  games have been serving our society with multiple functions besides alleviating the boredom of our rulers. Gambling games had  often appealed to the mass in many cultures because they do not require the sophisticated thinking skills as in strategy games. A roll of the dice will determine the outcome for a large group of participants. They promote social gathering in the form of interactive entertainment, helping players to relieve their stresses while bringing social problems to the ancient world. Quite often, rulers had to take actions to balance the stability of their countries versus their popularities. In the beginning, strategy games have given the monarchies and upper classes the means to distance themselves from the general public. But once gambling games have taken over the entire society, the negative consequences can have prolonged effects on the economy. In ancient China, Lukboc was instrumental in the future development of many popular Chinese board games for over 2000 years. Amongst the four major artistic studies of ancient China, namely music, strategy game, calligraphy, and painting, the study of chess games ranked in the second place. Games such as Weiqi and Xiangqi have taught the Chinese emperors on how to handle political, military and philosophical issues. Instead of relying on superstitions and divine power, subsequent rulers have promoted the teaching of strategy games in the imperial courtyards as well as the academic communities. 

Aside from the invasion of the Mongols and the Manchurians, Chinese society has enjoyed a relative long period of peace and prosperity during the Song and Ming dynasties. The rising of Mahjong during the Ming and Qing dynasties helps to bridge the social gap among players from all levels of the society. Unlike the traditional dice-based gambling games, Mahjong strikes a perfect balance among mathematical probability, tactical skills, pattern matching, macro and micro strategic planning, and gambling with controllable monetary loss. It has fulfilled the missing evolutionary gap in the game design continuum, a four person portable game that satisfies the curiosity of both the classic chess strategists and hardcore gamblers. As a successor to Lukboc, Mahjong has inherited many traits that were strikingly similar to several popular games dating back to the beginning period of Chinese board game development.  

Chapter 5 Inspiration

What started out as a simple game of luck and movement, Lukboc had gradually evolved into a complex mathematical strategy game playable by two or four players. Since the game had appeared at least 200 years before the invention of writing paper in China, Lukboc's counting sticks and cutting tools were evidence of an effective score keeping mechanism ever included in a portable board game. By replacing the bamboo throwing sticks with polyhedral dice, the game has become highly portable, efficient and convenient for players. It has transformed the gaming culture of the Chinese society for the next 2,500 years. Today, we can only witness the once great game of Lukboc through stone statues, sculptures  and paintings displayed in the museum behind sealed-glass cabinets. Hopefully in the near future, we will unlock the great secrets behind Lukboc and reintroduce the game to the world with rules adapted to the modern era. Based on years of strategy game research and the study of Lukboc, Quxacto Games will soon unveil this popular game from a gamer's perspective. Historians, hobbyists, and researchers have always overlooked what makes Lukboc fun to play in the first place. Just like the ancient Lukboc, there is more than one way to play the game.


We will freely provide all game rules and components in 3D printing files for you to test play the game using our Qu-MAT or drawing your own board on paper. And of course, you can enjoy many more games besides Lukboc on our Qu-MAT. At Quxacto Games, we are constantly developing games that can bring the entire family together without age boundary. Subscribe to our newsletter today, and you will be able to download the physical game of Lukboc to your desktop. We strongly encourage teachers, students, and gamers to participate this historic event, to share their feedback online and to continue the evolution of Lukboc into the future. 


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