How Parcheesi Works


Can you spot why this board configuration would never happen during an actual game of Parcheesi and must have been set up by the photographer for aesthetics?
Can you spot why this board configuration would never happen during an actual game of Parcheesi and must have been set up by the photographer for aesthetics?
©iStockphoto.com/JackValley

Did you know that countries have official board games? It's true -- and India's national game of Pachisi not only carries that honor, it has also maintained worldwide popularity for hundreds of years.

Parcheesi is the copyrighted American version of the venerable game, nearly identical aside from the spelling. Both are cross-and-circle games, a name that derives from the board's cross (or plus) shape and the circular flow of play around it. Pachisi classically used a board made of cloth with a home space in the center, where the cross's arms met. Today, Parcheesi boards look similar but are usually made of wood or paperboard. The game can accommodate two to four players (one for each arm of the cross).

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In addition to the board, Parcheesi uses two sets of pieces for play: pawns and dice. Traditionally, pawns were small, beehive-shaped wooden pieces, although they may be made in different shapes and from different materials today. And while today's Parcheesi sets use the six-sided plastic dice that we see in many modern board games, Pachisi originally used either three elongated, four-sided wooden dice or six two-sided cowrie shells [source: Masters Games].

Since Parcheesi can be played with a small group, it's great for family game night or for playing with friends. The rules of Parcheesi, which we'll explore in more detail on the next page, also offer opportunities for parents and teachers to help children strengthen their skills in strategy and math.

Yes, we said the M word. But don't worry -- Parcheesi isn't the board game equivalent of sneaking broccoli into your kid's brownies. It's actually a fast-paced, fun way to pass a few hours -- with a rich history to boot.

Parcheesi's Rules and Gameplay

Parcheesi game
Here, the home rows are in white and the black spaces with white circles are safe. If the yellow player just rolled, he could move a pawn out into the safe space the dice are touching, then move it two spaces and knock the maroon player's pawn home.
©iStockphoto.com/icelandr

Each player in Parcheesi starts with four pawns in her home circle, and the first player to get all four pawns to the center of the board wins the game. To begin, all players roll the dice; the highest roller gets the first turn.

At the beginning of your turn, you roll the dice. Based on the numbers you roll, you'll have a few options.

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If you've rolled a five -- either on a single die or as the total shown on both of the dice -- and you have pawns in your home circle, you must move a pawn out of your home circle and onto the board. Pawns enter on the safe space directly to the left of your home circle. (If you roll double fives, you can move two pawns out to occupy the same safe space. We'll get into more detail about double occupancy on the next page.) If you did not roll a five and you have no pawns on the board, your turn is over and play passes to the left.

Once a pawn is on the board, it moves counterclockwise around the board based on the numbers you've rolled. You have two options:

  • Move one pawn the total number of spaces on both dice, or:
  • Move one pawn the number shown on one die and another pawn the number shown on the other die.

For example, if you rolled a three on one die and a four on the other, you could move one pawn seven spaces, or move one pawn three spaces and another four spaces. If you used a five on one die to move a pawn onto the board, you can proceed to move it the spaces shown on the other die.

If you roll doubles, you get to roll again. If you roll doubles when all four of your pawns are on the board, you get a bonus -- you use not only the numbers shown on top of the dice, but the numbers on the opposite side as well. This always adds up to a total of 14, and can be spread out among up to all four of your pawns. But three times aren't a charm in Parcheesi: Roll three sets of doubles, and one pawn gets sent back to its home circle.

Once a pawn circles the board once and reaches its home row (the center row to the left of each player's home circle), it cannot enter the central home space until you roll the exact number of spaces remaining. That is, if the pawn is four spaces away but you roll a six, the pawn cannot move [sources: J'Ollie Primitives; Robinson; Hasbro].

Parcheesi's reliance on dice may sound luck-based, but there are actually several mathematical principles at play. Read on to find out how probability and some strategic planning can help you turn luck in your favor.

Strategies and Mathematical Applications for Parcheesi

Rolling dice to determine an outcome seems like the epitome of chance, right? Well, that's true in many ways, but according to Karen Bell, associate professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, the mathematical principle of probability actually plays a major role in Parcheesi and dice play in general.

In a study she conducted on the use of Parcheesi to teach math, Bell and her students calculated the probability of rolling any given combination of numbers on a pair of six-sided dice during a turn. Rather than just looking at each roll as an unknown, players can use these calculations to anticipate opponents' moves and to plan their own several turns in advance [source: Bell]. Parents and teachers can mimic Bell's lessons to help teach concepts of probability.

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Also, the Parcheesi board itself is designed to encourage strategic play. In general, if you land on a space already occupied by an opposing pawn, you bump that pawn back to its home circle. However, each player's home row is safe, as are a few other spots on the board (usually marked by color or by circles within the spaces), including each player's pawn-entry space. While a pawn is on a safe space, it cannot be taken off the board by an opponent -- unless it's on an opponent's pawn-entry space and that opponent moves a pawn onto the board.

The exception to the bumping rule is when two of your own pieces land on the same spot. In this case, the pieces form what's called a blockade, which prohibits pawns from passing. This can allow you to move your other pawns ahead unencumbered -- an effective strategic move in a game that's all about being the first to reach the finish line. However, it's important to remember that no pieces, the blockading player's included, can pass a blockade.

So it's not all just a roll of the dice; Parcheesi is set up so that every move involves important strategic questions. Do I use the combined or individual numbers on the dice? Which pawn do I move? What are my priorities -- safety, blockading or bumping another player?

So where did Parcheesi's intricate rule and strategy sets come from?

A Brief Telling of Parcheesi's Long History

Ludo, a U.K. version of Pachisi, is played on a slightly simplified board.
Ludo, a U.K. version of Pachisi, is played on a slightly simplified board.

The West knows it as Parcheesi, but this game has its ancestry in India under the name Pachisi. One of the main differences between Parcheesi and Pachisi is that Pachisi is played in two teams of two players, each with her own set of pawns, which adds a new level of strategy as each player works to help her partner's pawns as well.

Pachisi is the younger sibling of a game called Chaupar, which was a slightly more complex and highbrow version of the game played by aristocracy like the Mogul Emperor Akbar (not from "Star Wars"). It's likely that Akbar and his contemporaries usually played on a traditional cloth board. However, one of the perks of being an emperor is that you can play games with a life-sized board built into your palace gardens and use your harem girls as pawns, which Akbar did -- you can still see his Chaupar court today in Fatehpur Sikri, India [source: Whitehill].

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Chaupar appears throughout Indian history and culture as well. For example, it got a sizable popularity boost when it was featured In the Mahabharata, one of India's classic epics believed to have originated between 540 and 300 B.C. [source: Internet Sacred Text Archive]. In this text, the character Shakuni uses Chaupar to defeat his enemy, Yudhisthira [source: Hindustan Times].

Historians believe that Pachisi originated in India around the 4th century A.D. [source: Whitehill]. It headed west in the 1860s, first traveling to England (which had taken over rule of India from the British East India Company in 1858) and then further into Europe. In the late 1890s, the English developed a simpler form called Ludo, which was primarily designed for and played by children. Unfortunately for Pachisi, this created an association primarily with the juvenile population and detracted from its success with English adults.

Pachisi first appeared in America between 1867 and 1870, where it took on the name of Parcheesi that we know today. The rights to the game went through a few changes of ownership, but they currently reside with Hasbro. As a result, while there are many games today that are similar to Parcheesi, only those sold by Hasbro can use that name. Games produced by any other company often give their products vaguer monikers, such as Milton Bradley's "The Game of India."

Parcheesi has continued to evolve during its worldwide spread. Here are a few of its relatives [source: Whitehill]:

  • United States: Aggravation, India, Sorry!, Trouble
  • France: Jeu de Dada
  • Germany: Der Weg zur Herberge
  • United Kingdom: Pig-a-Back, Homeward Bound, Patchesi, Ludo
  • Middle East and Asia: Nyout, Pat, Twenty-Five

Whether the versions your family plays incorporate Pop-O-Matic bubbles or background stories, Pachisi and its derivatives boast rules simple enough for a child to pick up and strategies complex enough to hold her attention as she grows up, earning this family of games its status as classics.

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Sources

  • Bell, Karen N. "Easy Parcheesi." National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. February 2006. (Feb. 1, 2012) http://www.nctm.org/eresources/view_media.asp?article_id=7311
  • Hasbro. "The Classic Game of India: Parcheesi." (Feb. 13, 2012) http://www.hasbro.com/common/documents/d994fb416bf710149832da38f6b0f2b2/1AA889AD5056900B10304E7F82B7EEAE.pdf
  • Hindustan Times. "Games from ancient India on display at Xavier's." Jan. 18, 2008. (Feb. 1, 2012) http://www.hvk.org/articles/0108/106.html
  • Internet Sacred Text Archive. "Hinduism." (Feb. 9, 2012) http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/
  • J'Ollie Primitives. "Parcheesi Board Rules." (Jan. 28, 2012) http://www.jollieprimitives.com/parcheesigamerules.aspx
  • Masters Games. "Pachisi." (Jan. 30, 2012) http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/lac-pachisi.htm
  • Robinson, Sheila. "Parcheesi Rules." Love to Know Board Games. (Jan. 27, 2012) http://boardgames.lovetoknow.com/Parcheesi_Rules
  • Whitehill, Bruce. "Parcheesi." The Big Game Hunter. Feb. 27, 2011. (Jan. 31, 2012) http://thebiggamehunter.com/games-one-by-one/parcheesi/