Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Modern Innovations: Hostile Base Camps

The attackers' starting positions in a tablut game.
The attackers' starting positions in a tablut game.

Saturday, 14th March 2015

At the end of January, I wrote the first of a series of posts about modern innovations in hnefatafl: the use of special pieces like "elite guards" and "berserkers". A bit later than planned, I now turn to another innovation: hostile base camps.

The base camps are the starting positions of the attacking pieces. The idea of hostile base camps is that, once the attacking pieces have left them, they become inaccessible to pieces, and in some cases pieces may be captured against them by a single enemy.

The idea of hostile base camps came up in the days when some unbalanced rules for the game were in vogue. Biologist J. E. Smith came up with these rules in 1811, and they were refined and transmitted by game historian H. J. R. Murray in 1913 and again in 1952. An all powerful king, who can capture and needs to be surrounded on four sides to be captured himself, wins the game on reaching the edge of the board.

Anything further than casual play shows that those opposing the king have next to no chance, and hostile base camps were an attempt at redressing the balance. The history of this idea is interesting, and grew over time. It was at first based on the 1732 account of tablut, the last remnant of the mediaeval game of hnefatafl.

Linnaeus in his account illustrated many rules by example. He gave a number of instances of where the king could reach to win the game, but not an exhaustive list. All of the examples were at the edge of the board, giving many scholars the impression that the king wins on reaching any edge.

But some people noticed that none of the examples had the king winning at the squares on which the attackers started the game, and took this to mean that the king could not win at these positions. Some, in fact, noted that none of the examples of movement included these squares, suggesting that pieces could not move there either.

A couple of counter-arguments exist to these suggestions. One is that, in Linnaeus' notation of the board, all of the attackers' start squares are labelled "4", which would lead to confusion if he had used any of them as examples of movement, capture or escape. Another is that, applying this rule to hnefatafl games in general, no other historic board finds have the starting squares marked at all; if this rule did apply in tablut, it applied in tablut alone.

But considered as a modern innovation, hostile base camps should not be dismissed if they lead to an interesting game. They reduce the amount of space available for manoeuvre. This gives an advantage to the attackers more than the defenders. As there is less space on the board, the attackers in creating their blockade of the king have less space to cover; the defenders therefore have fewer routes to escape. Applied to Murray's hnefatafl rules, they should give the attacking side a reasonable chance of success.

It's possible to go too far, though. In 2010 John C. Ashton proposed a set of rules for tablut which adopted hostile base camps, in addition to other measures that made the king weaker. The result, when put to the test, was a game in which the king had almost no hope. When applying hostile base camps to larger boards, care must be taken with the shape of the base camps. I would think that for a layout like 13x13 Viking Siege, where the attackers start in very wide bands, the king's escape would be impossible against a competent player.

I don't know if anyone has yet sold a hnefatafl set that includes the hostile base camps rule. There is a collection of games available for Android phones that uses hostile base camps on both the 7x7 and 9x9 boards, called simply "Board Games Collection".

Next month I hope to cover another modern innovation, one which is becoming more popular through its inclusion in the Copenhagen Hnefatafl rule set: that of the shieldwall capture.


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