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5000 Years of Board Games (Part Two)

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This week, Keith Law is taking us though the evolution of board games. If you missed yesterday's installment, you might want to read that first.

While modern western board games trace their lineage through Europe to the Middle East, Asia has its own long history of board games, dating at least back to 300 A.D., where we find the earliest references to a Korean game called Nyout, first described in English by Stewart Culin in 1895. Nyout, one of the earliest of a style of game now known somewhat pejoratively as “roll the dice, move your mice” games, involved a game board with a circular track circumscribing a cross, where the goal for any player was to have his or her pieces (called “horses”) make complete circuits around the outer track. Horses can be captured by another player's horses should they land on an occupied space. Although the game itself is Korean, Culin argued that its roots were Chinese, and early Nyout boards included Chinese characters. Within Korea, the game was associated with gambling and considered plebeian.

Go (I-go) is a classic Japanese game of placement, originally known in China as wéiqí, and is described by Parlett as the oldest extant board game in the world, with its rules nearly unchanged for several thousand years. In go, each player places stones with an eye toward surrounding as much space as possible. While the earliest reference to wéiqí appears in 548 B.C., the game's popularity in China soared during the T'ang dynasty of 618 to 906 A.D., as Taoism rose in importance. [Image credit.]

A similar traditional game called mig-mang or ming-mang, meaning “many eyes,” is played in Tibet; the board is 16x16 and all pieces start on the perimeter, with each player occupying two adjacent sides of the square.

Wéiqí moved to Korea some time in the second century B.C., when the Han Dynasty expanded into the Korean peninsula, where the game, called baduk, remains extremely popular. Go arrived in Japan in the 5th or 6th century A.D., and by the end of the first millennium was an essential part of Japanese culture, factoring strongly in two great Japanese novels of widely different eras: The Tale of Genji, which was written around 1000 A.D.; and The Master of Go, written in 1951 by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Go became a favorite game of the learned classes of medieval Japan, as well as of warlords and military tacticians. When Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun in 1603, he created a government office for the regulation and development of go (as well as one for shogi, or Japanese chess). His first principal, Honinbo Sansa, also known by his Buddhist name of Nikkai, established a nationwide system of rules and four major go “houses” or academies, one of which, the eponymous Honinbo, lasted until 1940.

At first glance, the go board resembles a super-sized version of Reversi, but go is played on the vertices of a 19 by 19 square surface, and pieces are captured not through a line but by surrounding them on four sides, or on two or three sides at the board's extreme corner or edge. Any piece that is not yet surrounded by the opponent's color is said to have “liberty,” and thus the object is to take liberties from – rather than with – one's opponent. Due to its simple rules, zero-sum nature, and extremely high number of legal game positions – about 2.08 x 10170, roughly the estimated minimum number of atoms in the known universe squared – go has attracted attention from mathematicians and game theorists, and even led to the creation of an arithmetic continuum called the surreal numbers.

In India, Pachisi – bastardized in name and form for westerners as “Parcheesi” - is considered the national board game, due to its long history and mention in the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. The name Pachisi comes from the Hindi word “pachis,” meaning twenty-five, the highest possible score that a player can achieve by throwing the cowrie shells used as a sort of binary dice. [Image credit: Micha L. Rieser.]

The game board resembles the cross found on Parcheesi boards, but pachisi is a four-player game involving two partnerships, as in bridge. Players attempt to move their pieces around the entire perimeter of the board and back into the board's center, with victory going to the partnership that has all eight of its pieces complete the route first. The board is similar to that of Nyout, and Parlett theorizes that the games may have shared a common ancestor.

Chaupar is a more complex variant of pachisi using different dice substitutes and giving players more flexibility in using the results of their rolls; chaupar was seen as the rich man's game, while pachisi was the peasants', although the popularity of both games has declined in India in the past century. Further simplified versions of the game called Ludo and Sorry! have found commercial success in the West, although they bear only a superficial resemblance to their grandparent.

The most popular game, or more properly style of game, in traditional African cultures is mancala. The game's name is derived from the Arabic word naqala ('to move'), where two players attempt to capture neutral pieces from a playing board of two tracks of cups or containers. Like go and mig-mang, mancala games involve no luck or chance, but unlike contestants at go, mancala players move quickly. The earliest Western reference to mancala came nearly 500 years ago, although the game is likely much older than that, with mancala-like boards appearing in Egyptian temples and pyramids, on Neolithic tablets found in Kenya, and in once-fertile areas of the Sahara that may date back to 3000 B.C.

Although hundreds of varieties exist up and down the continent and wherever African slaves were taken, including Wari/Woro of West Africa and the Caribbean and Endodoi of Kenya and Tanzania, the basic principle involves taking all of the stones in one hole/cup and moving them forward, dropping (or 'sowing') one stone per cup. The rules for capturing the stones in any cup vary depending on the game, but may depend on how many stones were in the cup at the point of sowing, or whether the cup across from it was empty, but the objective remains the capture of the majority of the pieces on the board.

Tomorrow: Backgammon, Scrabble, and more!

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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