In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton recommended to those seeking a cure for melancholy to play the Astrologers’ Game. He wrote:
“… D Fulkes Metromachia and his Ouranomachia, with the rest of those intricate astrologicall and geometrical fictions, for such especially as are mathematically given.” (p416)
One of the books he refers to is William Fulke’s Ouranomachia, hoc est, Astrologorum lupus, Londini : Per Thomam Eastum & Henricum Middeltonum, impensis Guilielmi Iones, 1572.
Therein Fulke closely compares the Astrologers’ Game to Rithmomachia, the Philosophers’ game, which is still played today. (For more on Rithmomachia, see the Wikipedia entry here: Rithmomachy – Wikipedia ). He claims that the Astrologers’ Game was created for the exercise of the mind, and of the art of astrology, as well as for scholarly relaxation. In Metromachia, the other book mentioned by Burton, Fulke writes that he gave copies of his Astrologers’ Game to Guillaume Postel and Petrus Ramus. He also seems to have given a copy and a game board to Queen Elizabeth I.
We do not know much about the origins of this game, but one of the same name was found in a Spanish games manual belonging to Alfonso X.
A similar game was known as al-falakiya in Arabic, and kawakib in Parsi, which was played by seven people. At the beginning, each player choses one planet and positions it in a sign of its rulership. The moves are determined with the rolls of a seven-sided die. It is believed that payments to the other player(s) have to be made when one player’s planet applies to a hard aspect with another’s. Money is earned when the planet of the player whose turn it is to roll the die applies to a beneficial aspect.
Fulke’s game was much more sophisticated! It was only meant to be played by two players, who controlled seven planets each. As can be seen from the picture of the board, shown below, each player ‘owns’ a full circle of 12 zodiac signs. The two circles are lined up in a way that each player’s sign is in opposition to the other player’s (Aries/Libra, Taurus/Scorpio, etc).
The two players are moving in turns, whereby their pieces move just as the planets they represent would move in the heavens, as described by Ptolemy in his Almagest. The Sun is only allowed to move one degree at a time and only in one direction, because of his lack of epicycles. The Moon moves between 12 and 15 degrees each time in a regular ascending and descending pattern. The other planets move in a similar way, taking into consideration the maximum number of degrees they can move and the maximum number of degrees they can be distant from the Sun (Venus and Mercury).
At the start of each game the pieces are located in their signs of rulership. There are specific rules, stating that the Sun is placed in the 16th degree of Leo, the Moon in the 8th degree of Cancer and Saturn in the 20th degree of Capricorn. As the players move their planets around the board, they try to capture pieces of each other’s planetary set. This is achieved by trying to gain power over the opponent’s pieces. Once a planet is getting into the orb of one of the opponent’s planets, a ‘battle’ ensues’. The players assess the individual strength of the aspecting and the aspected planet, according to their essential and accidental dignities or debilities. The player whose planet has a higher dignity count can then either add the difference to his own overall count or capture the piece if the other player’s planet is completely wiped out.
Adding to the rules described above, and to its difficulty, the game also took the concept of cosmic rays into account. This meant that if one player’s planet was getting into close contact with another one of his own set, he could add levels of dignity, therefore increasing its strength.
The players move their pieces around the board, counting their accumulated level of dignity, until one player manages to capture the other’s Sun, thus winning the game.