hist-games: The Ballinderry Board and Alquerque

Chas webmaster at historicgames.com
Tue Feb 27 06:13:50 PST 2001

Hall, Hayward wrote:
> Greetings all,
> I have been researching medieval games for a few months now, and just joined
> the list a few weeks ago.  I've built a 7x7 board hnefatafl-type  and a few
> other games and have quite enjoyed it (see below) - even taught some
> non-medievals to play it at work.  I've got a few buning questions for you
> all:
> On the Ballinderry board, Murray suggests that it was used for an Irish form
> of hnefatafl, most likely called Brandubh according to MacWhite, but I
> havent seen anyone give notice of the pointed markings on both 'handle'
> sides between the 3rd and 4th holes.  These look like they're in the right
> place to mark the staggered break in opposing pieces of alquerque.  I've
> never seen a reference to a 7x7 alquerque game either.  It plays very well
> in any case, but I was wondering if anyone else had run across it.  I
> believe I've hit every resource on the net, and most of the primary book
> sources as well.
> Thanks
> Guillaume dela Sudeterre
> Order of the Leather Mallet
> Oakheart, Calontir
> My board:
> http://www.evangel.edu/people/hayward/medievalstuff/ImageDsp.asp?img=27
> Picture of Ballinderry Board at http://www.historicgames.com/Fitchneal.html

I'ld love to get a copy of an official museum description of the board. In a
picture I saw recenlty it looked like the "peg" board playing surface  of the
Ballinderry artifact was a separate piece in a "frame" making up the
boarder,and have wondered if that's the case. Here's part of a rough draft of
an article I was writing on the Ballinderry board and some of the possible
related Celtic games

There are some dissenting opinions which argue that Fidchell was not a
Tafl-style game. One opinion is that it was simply not any game that is
currently known. (I haven't found this source to read the argument) The other
theory is that it was a British variant of a Roman game called Latrunculorum.
Although recorded as early as the first century B.C., Latrunculorum itself
seems to be a subject of debate. A number of Roman-era game boards in both
square and rectangular shapes and in varying sizes are saidd to be examples of
it. To add to the confusion, by the 15th century the Gaelic word Fidchell had
become commonly used to refer to Chess. In the modern Irish spelling,
“Ficheall” can now be used as a generic for any kind of wooden board game.
However, the Ballinderry artifact, with its clearly marked central hole as a
possible king’s throne (and quadrants marking the corners, which are the goals
for the defender in some versions), seems to suggest a Tafl game more than
anything else. 

	There are a number of games mentioned in British folklore that continue to be
mysteries to the modern gamer. Brandubh (meaning Black Raven) appears in Irish
sagas as early as the 12th century. One source describes it as using 5 men
against 8. (There's a mention of Brandubh in the hist-games archive about a
version being sold, but the rules seemed to be a modern invention if I recall
the discussion from a couple years ago) This would seem well-suited to a
Tafl-like game played on a small grid like the Ballinderry board, or similar
boards found on the Orkney Islands. “Buanfach,” “Cennchaem,” and “Conchobair”
are all mentioned in Irish legends but again, details about the games are
missing. There are also vague Scottish references to a game of “Ard-ri”, or
High King.

	“Gwyddbwyll” and “Tawlbyrdd” are both referred to in Welsh sagas. In one of
the Arthurian legends, the Welsh hero Owain had a magical army, and while he
and King Arthur are playing a game of Gwyddbwyll, Owain’s army had the upper
hand in battle as long as Owain was defeating Arthur in the game. Tawlbwrdd is
sometimes translated literally as “throw-board” and for that reason it is
believed by some to have included dice. Fortunately, a manuscript from 1587 in
the Welsh National Library solves the mystery in regard to Tawlbwrdd. The
description is unmistakably a Tafl-style game set on an 11x11 grid: “The king
in the center of the board and twelve men in the place next to him, and
twenty-four lie in wait to capture him” -with the 24 attackers equally spaced
on the four edges of the board. The term Gwyddbwyll seems to be older than
Tawlbwrdd. Part of the theory in regard to Latrunculorum is that Gwyddbwyll
may have been its Welsh counterpart, and that Tawlbwrdd may have been imported
by Norse and/or Saxon invaders and therefore gradually replaced Gwyddbwyll in Wales.

	In the end, we have to remember that these may have been “folk games.” Unlike
modern Chess, they may not have internationally standardized rules, and the
rules may have varied from one tribe to the next. Thus, it is possible that
all the names above were simply regional terms for just one or two related
games. That they appear so frequently in the surviving myths and legends does
suggest that they were a very important part of the culture, and no doubt more
than one ale was spilt, or clan feud begun, over the “correct” rules

MacGregor Games
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