Subway: a Game Inspired by Hnefatafl
Saturday, 16th May 2015
Last month I looked at Thud! - a game with apparent inspiration from hnefatafl, but whose links to that game are in appearance only. This month I want to look briefly at a contrasting game, which looks nothing like hnefatafl but whose game-play is very close indeed.
Subway was published in the 1980s. It is a game of naval warfare set in modern times, with a group of destroyers trying to halt an incursion of submarines into a Scandinavian fjord. How successful the game was in its day I do not know, but it is relatively little known now.
The game is nicely presented, coming in a flat case about the size of an old vinyl LP. This opens out to reveal a rectangular board, being a map of the fjord. A thin cardboard box contains the rules, and some flat coloured wooden discs to act as pieces. My version came with rules in Greek, which Google Translate has helped to make understandable to me.
When you see in the rules that nine submarines enter the fjord, one being a command submarine, and that sixteen destroyers are set against them, the source of the idea for the game is obvious, these forces being the same as the king and eight defenders against sixteen attackers in tablut and other hnefatafl games. The roles of attack and defence in this scenario are reversed, but the rules are mostly the same.
The shape of the board is the main thing that sets Subway apart from hnefatafl games. Subway has a rectangular board, an abstract map of the fjord being invaded. Though mostly set out as a grid, areas of land intrude into the grid and close off areas to the ships. Pieces travel on the points of the grid rather than in the squares, and occasional diagonal paths allow a piece to skip across a square in one move, rather than skirting its edges in two.
The movement is in single steps, from one point to an adjacent point. Capture is largely the same as in hnefatafl, with two pieces surrounding an enemy to remove it from the board. A large difference is the idea that submarines can enter certain squares that allow them to photograph defensive installations; the immediate benefit is that a destroyer gets removed from the board.
The Greek rules suggest that the submarines win by sinking all of the destroyers, but the summary on the back of the game sleeve implied otherwise, that the submarines' task is to escape from the board; presumably escape of the command submarine would be enough.
The relationship to hnefatafl is obvious: the distribution of forces, and the rules of capture. The differences of board layout, and the capture-by-photography, make this game different enough to be a game in its own right, rather than just another hnefatafl variant.