The Greek game Petteia (aka Poleis, Polis, City, Cities, Pessoi, or Pebbles) is played on boards of varying sizes with black and white stones initially lined up on opposite sides. The objective is to capture or immobilize an opponent's stones by sandwiching them between two others. Above is shown the starting arrangement for Petteia on an 8x8 board. This military style game that Plato called Petteia (meaning pebbles, stones, or pawns) is also sometimes called 'Poleis' or 'Polis' which means 'city' or 'cities' although these terms may have actually referred to the board itself, or the spaces on the board. Aristotle and Polybius also called this game Petteia, although some other writers used different names for it, including 'pessoi' (pebbles). Some later Greeks seem to have used the name Petteia to refer to Tabula, leading some modern sources suggest that Petteia may have been the name of a class of board games. In ‘The Republic’ Plato compares Socrates' victims to “bad Petteia players, who are finally cornered and made unable to move by clever ones.” In the same work Plato quite clearly tells us that Petteia involves long training if skill is to be achieved. Polybius said of Scipio that "he destroyed many men without a battle by cutting them off and blockading them, like a clever petteia-player." Aristotle, tutor to Alexander The Great, wrote “a citizen without a state may be compared to an isolated piece in a game of Petteia”. The game is said to be very similar to the Egyptian game Siga (or Seega).

    The images shown above and below show Greek Attic vases with images of Ajax and Achilles playing what is most probably Petteia. Although some scholars dispute that this game was played by these heroes, a fragment of a playing board was found in the excavations of Troy. The Trojan War was fought from about 1154 to 1164 BCE, a time during which board games were already popular in Egypt. In fact, at least nine Greek vases and one cup have been found that show variations of the image of Achilles and Ajax playing Pettiea while dressed in armor. It is believed that a lost epic poem described this situation, in which the heroes were so absorbed in the game they forgot about a critical battle that was raging.

    In a book called Onomasticon by the Greek writer Pollux, he describes Petteia as follows:

      The game played with many pieces is a board with spaces disposed among lines: the board is called the 'city' (polis) and each piece is called a 'dog'; the pieces are of two colors, and the art of the game consists in capturing pieces of one color by enclosing them between two of the other color.

    The Egyptians were probably playing this game in the time of Ajax and Achilles. The images from the vases may be fancy or fact, but the suggestion that the game involved military style strategy is inescapable. In some of these images, there are 11 stones lined up on one of the boards, and 9 or 10 on the other, which are suggestive of the board lengths. This number of stones virtually rules out the possibility that the game on the vases is pente grammai.

    In the basic version, an 8 by 8 board was used. They were lined up in the eight squares on each player's side. Similar complete or nearly complete sets of glass stones and boards also suggest that the number of stones matched the number of squares on each player's side, regardless of the board size. We can be very certain, therefore, of this as the starting arrangement in Petteia. We can assume, from the Essex find of the Latrunculi board, that Black plays first.

     The objective is to either capture or immobilize all the enemies stones. The principle of play is to surround an enemy on two sides, in a horizontal or vertical line. Multiple stone captures are probably permissible if we take Piso's words literally when he said, "You win and both your hands rattle with the captured group."

     Petteia bears a strong resemblance to the Japanese game Hasami Shogi. Hasami means 'sandwich' and in Hasami Shogi a piece is removed from the board when sandwiched between two enemy stones. Hasami Shogi, although a different game, offers clues to the rules and the style of play may be derived accordingly. For example, a stone placed in the corner in Hasami Shogi can be captured by two stones placed diagonally across (as if the corner were a straight line on the side). It is most reasonable to assume this would be the rule in Petteia also, as it overcomes the problem of what happens in the corners. In Hasami Shogi you may move a piece inside two opponent's pieces without having to remove it from the board. This makes sense because a piece can only be removed by an opponent's move (i.e. you can't remove your own piece). It is reasonable and logical to assume this would apply in Petteia also. The alternative is to ban such a move, which would probably slow down what is by nature already a slow game as anyone who's played it will understand. There seem to a few variants of Hasami Shogi, including one in which it is played (apparently) as 'Five-in-a-Row' in addition to capturing stones (experts who know may verify or correct me on this). In one version of Hasami Shogi a player wins when the opponent has only one stone left. In another version a player wins when the opponent has only four stones left (perhaps because he can no longer get five in a row?). Yet another variation starts with a double row of pieces.

     From all the above, a simple set of rules for Petteia can be extracted or inferred, and are summarized as follows:


    1. Use either an 8 x 8 board or a 12 x 8 board.
    2. Stones are lined up on the first line as shown on the board diagram, and Black plays first.
    3. Stones move as rooks in chess; orthogonally (horizontal or vertical, but not diagonal). They cannot skip over other stones (i.e. as in Checkers)
    4. A single stone is captured when it is surrounded on two orthogonal sides. A stone in the corner can be captured when two stones are placed across the corner.
    5. Multiple stones can be captured when surrounded on two orthogonal sides.
    6. A stone can be played inside two enemy stones without being captured.
    7. The outside walls cannot be used to capture men.
    8. First player to kill all his opponents stones wins, or...
    9. A player can win by blocking up the enemy stones such that they cannot move.

    The above rules seem to work, yet the game lacks real dynamics. Unless mistakes are made, neither player seems to be able to make much progress. Curiously, this very same comment is made about Hasami Shogi in its most similar (nearly identical) variation. It is said to be a "child's game" in Japan for this reason. In Latrunculi, the extra playing piece (the Eagle), changes everything and it truly seems to be an adult game of strategy.

    Principles and Strategy -- Petteia

    In the image shown at the left, the stone at 'a' must be removed -- it has just been captured by the blue stone below it.

     A play by white at 'b' will capture the stone next to it. The white group in the lower right, a mandra, has been surrounded and immobilized, and unless white can capture a stone, for example at 'c', then the game is over. If the enemy is completely penned up then this would presumably represent defeat, but the question of whether internal spaces can provide for movement (and prevent absolute immobilization) is unclear.

     Experimental play suggests that considerable jockeying for position could occur before either player might gain any advantage. The capture of a single stone proves to be a difficult affair, unless his movement is restricted by the surrounding position or strategic situation. Undoubtedly the Greeks were familiar with basic opening positions and knew the most effective strategies to pursue. These strategic principles of play remain yet to be rediscovered, but they must exist if the rules of the game are correct.


     Below is shown the recurring image of Ajax and Achilles playing Petteia while the Trojan War raged on. In this image they wear no armor and behind them stands Athena with her arm raised in a signal of alarm. There are 24 stones on the board counting the two in the players hands. Strangely, the Greek (servant) next to Achilles(?) on the right holds three additional stones. Perhaps the game depicted, at least on this cup, is not Petteia after all, but maybe a game in which stones are laid down on the board in successionlike Seega, Five-in-a-Row, or possibly Pente Grammai. It may also be that this Greek artist, Douris, misinterpreted the exact game they were playing. There are at least ten images on Greek pottery showing this particular famous scene but this is the only one known on a plate and in which they do not wear armor. This cup is dated 490 BCE and is in Vienna in the Kunsrichtoriches Museum.

     Below is a vase called a hydriai (a water jar) attributed to the Leagros Group showing yet another image of Ajax and Achilles at play. Athena stands in the foreground in this image and is said to be intervening to warn the Greeks of a Trojan attack on the Greek camp, her left arm raised in a gesture of alarm. The warriors don't notice Athena yet but will shortly arise to attend battle. This jar is estimated to have been painted about 515 BCE some 15-20 years after the most famous amphora by Exekias from the Vatican collection (see the image at Latrunculi).

     The following black figured crater is attributed to the Rycroft painter and shows the same famous scene described above, with Ajax and Achilles playing while Athena comes to alert them to a Trojan attack.

     The following column crater is attributed to the Hephaistos painter and shows a variation of the same famous scene described previously, with Ajax and Achilles playing while Athena comes to alert them to a Trojan attack. In this image Athena holds winged Victory in her hand, much like at the Parthenon in Athens, presumably offering the heroes victory if they will quit the game and fight.

    Below is a photo of the author's home-made game board with a Petteia game in progress. It is made from a 10x1 pine plank section. Lines are inscribed 1" square and painted black. The board was then lacquered. The stones used are Japanese Go stones.

      Additional information is available from the following websites:
      Greek Board Games
      A View from the Dawn of the Last Century
      Antichi giochi greci
      Greek Board Games