Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Celtic Royal Chess: a Game Inspired by Hnefatafl

Celtic Royal Chess starting layout.
Celtic Royal Chess starting layout.

Saturday, 7th March 2015

Last month I looked in detail at Breakthru, a game which was inspired by hnefatafl, and which is clearly a derivative. This month it's the turn of a game called "Brandubh", often subtitled "Celtic Royal Chess".

The oldest reference to this game that I have seen is from 1998, in a mailing list or newsgroup post which sadly I can't now find. Its author Matthew Allen Newsome described a game he had bought, calling itself "Brandub", which used a board of seven rows of seven squares, with thirteen pieces. But the game wasn't a hnefatafl game.

Since that time the game was added to BoardGameGeek under the title "Brandubh: Celtic Royal Chess". In the centre of a board sits the king, with four princes sitting diagonally adjacent to him. Eight barons are placed on the board, two orthogonally adjacent to each corner. Unlike the brandub we know and love, the board has a chequered pattern which is important to game play. It also marks the centre and corner squares.

All the pieces move like a chess king, one square in any of eight directions. A prince, if sitting on one of the light squares, may move two squares diagonally instead. The chequered pattern is aligned so that the centre and corners are dark squares.

Pieces capture one another by replacement, as in chess. The king alone is safe from capture. Pieces can occupy the centre or corner squares, although a piece staying in the corner for too long is deemed "lost in the woods" and is removed from play.

The object of the game is for the princes to capture the eight barons, or for the barons to capture the four princes. The presence of the invincible king on the princes' side, and their fast-running move if properly situated, make the game a reasonably balanced one.

Publisher Acorn games state that the rules were devised after studying the Ballinderry gaming board. Celtic Royal Chess is one of a number of games to be proposed for this board, alongside a number of hnefatafl variants, some kind of fox and geese, and a game of equal forces resembling the Roman latrunculi. But the fact that none of the 7x7 boards found by archaeology have the chequerboard pattern necessary to play this game suggests that, if brandub wasn't a hnefatafl game, it certainly wasn't Celtic Royal Chess.

As for strategic value, the game illustrates one of my loves about simple board games old and new: a depth of strategy obtained with few resources; like brandub the hnefatafl variant, it manages to pack some strategy into a small space with few pieces. If the game has one fault, others have found that the princes tend to hide away while the invincible king wanders around the board taking out the enemy.

Despite this, Celtic Royal Chess is an interesting game to investigate. Sadly the mailing list from which I learned the game is now defunct, so I can't dig out the definitive set of rules. The game appears not to be produced any more either. So if anyone finds this elusive game before I do, then please get in touch!

Update: in November 2016, Gary Paget kindly got in touch to let me know that the game is available here.

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