Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Brandub

The Deluxe 13-piece Hnefatafl Game
The Deluxe 13-piece Hnefatafl Game

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

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

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

brandub-by-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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Comments

Rule #7 in my research needs to mention when the king is on his throne, in which case he needs to be captured on all four sides.

What do you think?

chris - 19:37, 09/12/2014

Thanks for your comment, Chris! That's the rule used at http://aagenielsen.dk/, where the game is called "Brandub Tablut". I stuck with a 2-sided capture in my reconstruction because I think, with only 8 pieces, a requirement for half of the attacking army to capture the king in the centre is a bit too much. I'll be interested in seeing the balance measurements on aagenielsen.dk once more games have been played, though.

Damian Walker - 10:57, 14/12/2014

Does the King also move like a Rook? Or does the King move one step at a time? Thanks.

Jose - 00:54, 05/01/2015

The king moves like a rook in this game.

Damian Walker - 07:13, 05/01/2015

Can you clarify rule number 7? Can the King initiated a capture? Or he can just assist a defender during a capture? (i.e. is a there a capture only when the defender move traps an opponent and the King, but not otherwise when the King is the one who moves) If an attacker is on b1, will he get captured if the King moves to c1?

Jose - 12:36, 08/01/2015

The king can complete a capture by moving, or he can be the passive participant when a defender moves to capture. So yes, a king moving to C1 will capture an attacker on B1 against the A1 corner. There's no distinction between hammer and anvil here!

Damian Walker - 12:40, 08/01/2015

Rule 5 is not quite correct, at least if you're describing the rules as they are played at aagenielsen.dk. The King is permitted to return to the centre square. This is also the case at dragonheelslair.com and kingstafl.com.

Incidentally, with practice, the balance shifts towards the attackers (this is the case with most tafl variants, and Brandubh seems to be no exception). I find this game, despite its small size (or perhaps because of it) to be one of the most fiendishly difficult tafl variants, and would probably encourage a beginner to learn a simpler variant such as Sea-battle (Longships) first. However, Brandubh is a rewarding game and well worth the trouble of engaging with!

All the best :)

Tim Millar - 11:49, 29/12/2015

I wonder if the discrepancy in rule 5 is an oversight on Aage's part. He describes this as a corner-victory version of tablut on the 7x7 board, and tablut (so far as I remember) locks the king out of his castle. I'll have to get in touch with him to find out. Dragonheels' Lair uses a different set of rules altogether, one which I devised but have put aside in favour of Aage Nielsen's rules.

I agree that this isn't the version to choose if you want to start the beginner off with a nice easy game. I tend to use sea battle tafl or tawlbwrdd for that.

Damian Walker - 11:53, 29/12/2015

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