Reconstructing Alea Evangelii
Saturday, 20th December 2014
Any real hnefatafl enthusiast will want, at some point, to try out the biggest hnefatafl game of them all, alea evangelii. This is known only from a mediaeval manuscript of about 1140, describing a game invented two centuries earlier. With its grid of nineteen rows of nineteen playing spaces, and its 73 pieces, alea evangelii is an epic battle, as the manuscript says, of "dukes and counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps twice over". The problem is that the manuscript doesn't leave us with any actual rules. Nor does it accurately show the distribution of the pieces: you can see how many and where they are, but not which are black and which are white.
For many years the only rules available were those by H. J. R. Murray. A strong king captured on four sides with his own power of capture had to reach the edge of the board. This was too easy for the king on just about every board tried, and for alea evangelii it ignored many elements mentioned in the manuscript and shown on the board itself.
I created a reconstruction for my book Reconstructing Hnefatafl that tried to remedy this. The king would now have to reach one of the corner citadels, as the manuscript implies ("nine steps twice over"). Rules of capture for the king were adopted from tablut. In theory, the more difficult combination was offset by the fact that the board is more sparsely populated than in tablut: 73 pieces on a board fit for 85.
Lacking willing participants for a potentially long game, I was unable to thoroughly test these rules in live play. It was only relatively recently that alea evangelii has been seriously tried, by the excellent players at http://aagenielsen.dk/. They found, even with an edge victory, the king's task was hopelessly difficult. Only when using Murray's original rules, unbalanced on every other board, does the king seem to have a reasonable chance. It seems that the advanced situation of the attacking pieces, at least using Murray's distribution of of the sides, puts the king at too much of a disadvantage.
Sten Helmfrid's 2005 article "Hnefatafl - the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings" contains an alternative layout, pictured above. I hadn't seen the need for this till the recent results of the alea evangelii trial, but now it is looking more interesting. This layout preserves the positions of the pieces from the manuscript, but tinkers with Murray's distribution of attackers and defenders togive the king's side more opportunities to break out of the blockade.
The defenders in the diagonal rows of five are on the spots marked "variegated men" (or "different men") in the manuscript - previously I had dismissed these as board markings to aid the setup of the game. Their position isn't unassailable: they'll sacrifice themselves if they move outwards, though in doing so they'll create openings for their comrades within the blockade.
As with my earlier attempt, I envisage difficulty recruiting friends to play this potentially long game. Perhaps some keen visitors would like to give it a try at their own gaming tables? If it proves successful, I'd be tempted to adopt this layout for alea evangelii on this site and in future writings about the game.