From popular Indo-Muslim game to Baltic obsession; the story of Novuss

Novuss is the national game of Latvia; Koroona is the national game of Estonia – same game, two names. That’s not the only unusual thing about this ‘gaming double agent’, royal Indian ancestry has been mentioned too. Guest writer, Geoff Chester explains …

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, in British-ruled India, a game played on a big wooden board using small round pieces, like those found in Draughts, became extremely popular in the royal courts of the Maharajahs.

The game, known as Carrom, used a large round ‘strike’ to push smaller ‘ghutis’ into four ‘pockets’; one in each corner of the square board. How Carrom was invented or by whom remains unclear, but its simplicity and potential for hours of fun, meant it eventually left the palaces to enter mainstream life. Soon it was being played in villages and towns up and down the Subcontinent to become one of the region’s most popular games. 

Village playersCarrom remains a favourite pastime in India today, and even more so in Bangladesh and Pakistan – the two Muslim majority countries carved out of British India. The game’s popularity is now crossing international borders too, with tournaments held all over the world.

One of the most fascinating features of these tournaments is the way Subcontinental diaspora communities in places like the UK, USA and Australia reconnect with people from their ancestral lands during the games, as they themselves represent their adopted homes.West

However, Carrom itself made its way out of India long before the diaspora. During the British reign, the game’s flat playing pieces and ability to withstand turbulence, made Carrom a popular pastime on the high seas among the empire’s nautical community. 

Trading places

By the early part of the 20th century, the new republics of Latvia and Estonia were regularly trading with Great Britain, and as with trade throughout history, it was more than just commodities that were exchanged.

Around 1927, the Baltic folk took a shining to the strange wooden board game so feverishly played by British seaman. 

remote beachUpon arrival on Baltic shores though, something strange happened and Carrom married the popular local game billiards and soon the child with two names was born.

Gaming matrimony

The rules of Novuss were first standardised in 1932, as was the size of the table – initially smaller in Estonia than in Latvia. Just like Carrom, Novuss is a two or four-player game, played on a wooden table, usually made from the Birch so abundant in the Baltics. The design of the tables are virtually identical to the original Carrom ones. Novuss is sometimes called ‘sea billiards’, acknowledging it’s maritime origins and because the object of the game is to ‘sink’ the eight wooden discs using a cue that pushes the biggest disc – Carrom’s ‘ghutis’ and ‘strike’.

Although initially serving only to entertain sailors, Novuss was quickly adopted by residents of the four major Baltic ports in Liepāja, Ventspils, Rīga and Tallinn. 

Tallinn view Riga statue Tallinn

The game caught on, and by the outbreak of World War II, it was being played in tournaments and competitions throughout the region, just in the way Carrom is played across the subcontinent. It became particularly popular during the Soviet era when every courtyard would have impromptu Novuss tournaments in the summer months and major companies would boast their own Novuss teams whilst newspapers ran updates on tournaments/leagues across the USSR.

Strike-ing a chord

I have been living in Latvia for the last 6 years, initially in the capital, Riga, and now in the city of Liepāja, on the country’s west coast. I found out about Novuss by chance, at a nursing home in Līgatne (which happened to have an emergency bunker for the elite of the Latvian SSR underneath it). I was intrigued by this game, and asked my friend what it was. Matter-of-factly, she told me the name of the game. My mind drew a blank.Novuss

It was only that evening whilst researching that I discovered not only was it from Latvia, but it hailed from Liepāja, the city where my grandmother was born, and that it had made its way from England (the country of my birth). I suddenly felt a strong affinity with Novuss.

All change

These days the game is sometimes found being played in old summer houses and cultural centres dotted around the countryside. Sadly Novuss can no longer be seen on the streets of Tallinn or Riga (unless you know where to look), it’s popularity declining in the post-Soviet era.

As with many things popular during Communist rule, the 90s were something of a rude awakening; a time when the old and familiar was swept away for the new and exotic with darts and snooker replacing Novuss, even in its home ports.

Social lubricant

It remains to be seen what the future holds for the game. Some believe its best days are behind it, but I am inclined to disagree. Novuss today, as in the past can be a social lubricant – just look at the way it’s ‘ancestor’ Carrom continues to bring people together in the villages and towns of the Indian Subcontinent, and how it reconnects diaspora communities with their ancestral roots at international tournaments. CarromLike any easy, simple game, Novuss offers a means for interpersonal connection, that is so lacking in the reserved and reticent Baltic.

The mere existence of such a game also serves as a reminder not only of the ties between the Eastern Baltic littoral, Western Europe, and Asia, but the spirit of a bygone era.  The 1920s were an unparalleled decade of progress, peace and prosperity in Europe, a time when imperial powers were waking up to their own moral inadequacies to find they had been permanently altered by the colonising experience. It was a period that Latvia and Estonia were able to take advantage of, and contribute to.

This game is a mute reminder of that age and a reminder that ‘play’ has the capacity to bring people together, across cultural, racial and even imperial boundaries.

This article has been adapted from the original published on Deep BalticGuest writer Geoff Chester is the owner of Novus Novuss, a company in Latvia seeking to modernise and popularise Novuss/Koroona. If you feel the urge to try Novuss/Koroona, you can check out the rules at novusnovuss.eu and contact Geoff for advice on where to find this game in Latvia.

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