hist-games: Hnefatfl, Tablut, etc.

Damian Walker damian at snigfarp.karoo.co.uk
Sat Aug 5 23:14:06 PDT 2006

Quoting Mats Winther's message of Yesterday:

> I have continued my little research on the Hnefatafl family. I have
> corrected a rather serious bug in my earlier implementation, improved
> its strength, corrected setup of Brandubh, and added Large Hnefatafl,
> and Alea Evangelii.
> http://hem.passagen.se/melki9/tablut.htm

It's nice to see your continued work on this.  I can't play it, as I 
don't have Zillions, or a Windows PC to run it on.  But it's nice to see 
the game have continued attention.

> I have tested the following rules, proposed by someone on the
> Historical Museum, Stockholm.

These rules are good, but it's important not to spend too much effort 
trying to discover the "correct" rules for this game.  There were none. 
It was a living, breathing game in those days, undergoing change, 
something obvious by the variety of boards and the discrepancies between 
the two rule sets that have survived.  There is no reason why this 
evolution shouldn't continue, so I regard modern reconstructions just as 
much a part of the game as the historic ones.  The true test is whether 
they play well.

> In order to capture the king both two-way and four-way interception 
> are used.

This is one example of the discrepancies.  In tablut, the king was 
certainly not captured by two men (Linnaeus states this explicitly). 
In tawlbwrdd, he was only captured in this way.  As for other games, we 
can only look to the example of these two.  The idea of two-way capture 
away from the central square is a good compromise.  I offer it as an 
option on the applet on my hnefatafl page (which currently lacks a 
computer player).

> Otherwise it would be very easy to capture the king on these four 
> squares as only one piece would be necessary.

Bear in mind that the central square wasn't necessarily used for capture 
like the corners.  The construction of the alea evangelii board 
described by the Corpus Christi College manuscript suggests captures 
against the corner squares (which have decorative men fixed to them) but 
not against the central square (which does not).

> It is not correct what they say everywhere on the Internet, that this
> game is lopsided.

It is true, perhaps, to say that bad reconstructions are lopsided. 
There are plenty which are evenly matched enough for an enjoyable game.

> The escape to the corner squares, and not merely the rim, should be 
> the correct rule, because it carries greater symbolical value.

I would argue that the escape to the corner squares is correct, 
historically, for boards which have them marked, like brandub (assuming 
that this is the game that the Ballinderry and Downpatrick boards are 
for) and alea evangelii.  On those boards which don't, like tablut and 
tawlbwrdd, we need to look to other ways to balance the game.

> I suspect that variants, unlike these, that seem clearly lopsided were
> actually played with dice. It is probably necessary to make the game
> favourable to black when using dice, because otherwise White could
> make better use of his winning strategies. One such game is Ard-Ri. It
> is evident that White will lose several pieces already in the opening
> (if the opening setup is correctly understood). White doesn't stand a
> chance. Perhaps it would be different with a die. We know, from fact,
> that these games were sometimes played with dice, on the British
> islands. I might implement the lopsided games as dice games to see
> what happens.

Ard Ri appears slightly more sensible if you only allow the pieces to 
move to an adjacent square.  Otherwise, you are right, white has no 
chance.  I don't think that dice balance this out, though they do 
provide a slight chance that black will be prevented from making 
sensible moves for several turns in a row.

> One curious historical fact that Alea Evangelii was actually played on an
> 18x18 board, that is, a Go board proper. The pieces were placed on the
> intersections, just like in Go. Pieces are captured by surrounding (only
> more extensive in Go). Are these mere coincidences?

Most probably.  Play on the intersections of points was used in Western 
games too.  Consider three- and nine-men's morris, alquerque and fox & 
geese.  There are also many Scottish and Irish hnefatafl boards of 
incised stone, with a grid of 6x6 squares, where the central 
intersection is encircled.  One of them, from Downpatrick, also has 
quadrants drawn inside the corner intersections, as in the Ballinderry 

Damian - http://damian.snigfarp.karoo.net/
Tafl: An Obsession - http://tafl.snigfarp.karoo.net/

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