Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Imperial Contest

Imperial Contest diagram
Imperial Contest diagram

Produced by Jaques in 1855, Imperial Contest was the first commercial hnefatafl set to be sold. One side consisted of the Russian emperor and an army of eight defenders. The sixteen attackers, though forming one side controlled by one player, were divided among four allies: England (sic), France, Turkey and Sardinia. The Russian emperor had to escape from the field with the help of his defenders. The attackers had to capture the emperor.

History of Imperial Contest

Jaques is a company who have produced games for more than 200 years, and are well known for the Staunton chess pieces commissioned in the 19th century. It is apparent that by 1855, someone at Jaques had seen the diary of the botanist Linnaeus, in its translation published in 1811 by J. E. Smith. The diary contains an account of tablut, and parts of the translation are included verbatim in Jaques' rules for Imperial Contest.

But as game designers and manufacturers, Jaques were aware that all was not quite right with the game they found in Smith's work. The king was too strong a piece, a situation which arose from an error in the translation. Not having access to Linnaeus' original Latin account, Jaques experimented with changes to the rules to rebalance the game and give both sides an equal chance at victory. They managed this very well, though the game they produced differed somewhat from the one that Linnaeus saw.

The game seems not to have a long life. Like many board games then and now, it had a set production run, and evidently its success was not enough to keep it in production for decades. But it did receive the flattery of imitation. In 1863 the game, along with Jaques' modifications, was published in the U.S.A. as an American Civil War game "Freedom's Contest". A rebel chief and eight Confederate defenders attempt to escape from sixteen union soldiers.

By 1913 the game had been forgotten. When H. J. R. Murray found Smith's translation of Linnaeus' diary, he was unaware that the game had been published commercially, and was equally unaware that publishers had found any necessity of altering the rules. His interest was in chess, and he presented tablut as a curiosity which he evidently found no time to play extensively.

The American copy, Freedom's Contest, formed part of the game designer Sid Sackson's collection of games, and was mentioned by mathematician Martin Gardner in a 1962 article in Scientific American. In the early 21st century Imperial Contest was put to the test on on-line play site and found to be a reasonably balanced and playable game.

Rules for Imperial Contest

Rules for Imperial Contest
These rules are a paraphrase of those that were supplied with the game. A transcription of the original, found elsewhere on this site, contains some strategic information and an entertaining collection of reviews.

1. The game is played by two players, one taking the side of the Russian emperor and his eight armies, the other taking on the sixteen armies of the allies. They start the game laid out as shown in the diagram.

2. The players decide at random who takes the first turn.

3. In each turn, a player may move a piece as far as desired along a row or column.

4. The exception to this is the emperor, whose move is limited to a maximum distance of four squares.

5. Pieces may not jump over each other, nor can one piece land on a square already taken by another.

6. The emperor is captured by surrounding him by allies on all four sides along a row and column.

7. Any other piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides along a row or column by two enemies.

8. Only one piece may be captured at a time; if two or three become separately surrounded at once, a single victim must be chosen to be taken from the board.

9. An ally is NOT captured when sandwiched between the emperor and one of his armies; the emperor may not be used to capture allies.

10. The defenders win the game when the emperor reaches any square on the edge of the board.

11. The allies win the game when they capture the emperor.

To see the rules in all their nineteenth-century quaintness, along with some interesting press reviews of the game, then refer to the page "Imperial Contest: Jaques' Original Rules" elsewhere on this site.

Strategy in Imperial Contest

Two oddities separate Imperial Contest from the vast majority of other hnefatafl games. The limited move of the emperor has only occasionally appeared elsewhere. And the ability to take only one piece at a time is unique to this game.

The limited move of the emperor means that attention cannot shift from one part of the board to another as suddenly as with other hnefatafl games. This can give the attackers an extra move to react when the emperor tries to change focus from one edge of the board to another. To win by threatening exit in two directions at once is still possible, if the emperor sits at the exact centre of an otherwise open rank or file, or achieves the even rarer position of threatening exit through two adjacent edges.

A threat to capture two or three pieces at once is a commanding position in most hnefatafl games. Few players, attacker or defender, can afford to lose so many pieces in such a short time. In Imperial Contest the threat is weaker, but not greatly so. The aggressor still has the choice of which piece to take, and therefore is still in control, but if the threat is made in a part of the board not currently crucial to the action then it is slightly somewhat safer for the other player to ignore it if an advance can be made elsewhere.


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