Brandub (also spelt brandubh, brannumh) is the Irish variant of hnefatafl. It is the smallest, using a board of seven rows of seven squares, with just thirteen pieces. As with most versions of hnefatafl, the rules have not been recorded. It is mentioned occasionally in legends and poetry, and there are archaeological finds of boards and pieces to help us piece it together.
History of Brandub
The Vikings began raiding Ireland at the end of the eighth century. In the early ninth century the raiders began to winter in Ireland rather than returning to Scandinavian or British bases. By the middle of the ninth century they were making Ireland their home, and establishing Ireland as a base of Viking culture.
Some of that culture was passed to the natives of Ireland, in particular hnefatafl. The game found its way, under the name of brandub, into native stories and poems. It displaced from those stories an earlier game, ficheall. Some regard ficheall as a hnefatafl game, but it is more likely to have been an imported Roman game, Ludus Latrunculorum.
One of the most magnificent remaining hnefatafl boards is a brandub board from Ireland. Found in Ballinderry in 1932, the tenth century board has a decorative border, two carved heads as handles, and seven rows of seven holes for holding pegged pieces. The central and corner holes are marked. The Irish-style decoration suggests this was made for a native Irish owner rather than a Viking.
A plainer board of similar construction as found at Waterford, and another, now lost, at Knockanboy. Both had the same 7x7 grid of holes, though any markings have since worn away. A far more humble board was found at Downpatrick Cathedral. Made of undressed stone, it has a grid of seven lines in each direction etched into it. A circle surrounds the central intersection, and quadrants mark off the corners. It dates from between the 9th and 13th centuries.
Two literary sources help us understand the game that was played on these boards. "Acallam na Senorach", a collection of stories about the Irish Heroic Age, tells us that brandub was played with thirteen pieces, five against eight. "Abair riom a Eire ogh", a poem, sheds more light on the game, telling that the five pieces included a "branan" to whom the five "noble squares" belonged.
These sources can be combined with the 18th century rules of tablut, the only historical hnefatafl game for which near-complete rules survive, to give a playable game.
Rules for Brandub
These rules were formulated by Aage Neilsen. They are heavily based on the rules for tablut, the only hnefatafl game for which almost-complete rules survive. The number of pieces and the king's victory at a corner are heavily hinted at by Irish poems that mention the game.
1. Brandub is played on a board of 7×7 squares, with the central square and the corner squares marked.
2. There are thirteen pieces: a king and his four defenders, and eight attackers. These are placed in the shape of a cross, as in the diagram.
3. The attacking side takes the first move.
4. Pieces move any distance orthogonally, not landing on nor jumping over other pieces on the board.
5. No piece may land on the central square, not even the king once he has left it. Only the king may land on the corner squares.
6. A piece other than the king is captured when it is surrounded orthogonally on two opposite squares by enemies. The king can take part in captures in partnership with a defender.
7. A piece may also be captured between an enemy and the empty central square or a corner square.
8. When in the central square, the king is captured by surrounding him on four orthogonal sides with attackers.
9. When standing beside the central square, the king may be captured by surrounding him on the remaining three sides with attackers.
10. Elsewhere on the board, the king is captured as other pieces. This includes beside the corners, where he can be captured between an attacker and the corner as in rule 7.
11. The king wins the game on reaching any of the marked corner squares. The attackers win if they capture the king.
12. The game is drawn if a position is repeated, if a player cannot move, or if the players otherwise agree it.
Strategy in Brandub
Brandub manages to pack a deep strategic and tactical exercise into a very small package. Games are usually short, as you would expect, but brandub can be full of surprises. A player who does not take this little game seriously will often suffer an unexpected loss by not paying it the attention it deserves.
With so few pieces on the board, each one is forced to do a lot of work. A piece might be threatening to capture an enemy, while simultaneously defending a friend. It is easy to forget one task while performing another, the friend forsaken in the dash to strike at a foe.
As in bigger hnefatafl games, sacrifices are useful especially for the defenders. But with only four pieces, it is important not to leave the king with a weakened force too early in the game. The attacking player must be even more careful to look after the welfare of the attackers while the defenders remain at full strength.
The game appears to be reasonably well balanced between attackers and defenders. The rules given above favour the king and defenders a little, but not too much to play a fair game. The rules given in Reconstructing Hnefatafl have a slight bias towards the attackers.
Related Product: Brandub from Cyningstan
Play hnefatafl Celtic style with this lovely little Brandub game from Cyningstan. When the Vikings took hnefatafl to Ireland, the Celtic people adopted the game and called it Brandub . They preferred the smallest board, and adapted the rules to their own taste. The board is made from pine and is about six inches square (150mm). The pattern for the board is burned into the wood, and is based on a mediaeval stone board found at Downpatrick Cathedral. ... (read more...)
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