In Praise of Tablut
Saturday, 6th June 2015
Back in March, I wrote a post in praise of sea battle tafl. I promised that this would be an occasional series, up until now it's been a series of one. So it's time for another one, so I've chosen my favourite hnefatafl game, tablut.
Lots of hnefatafl games have been published and played over the years under the name of "tablut". Many were the result of misinformation being transmitted through books and web pages. But in the past few years a contemporary account of the rules has been widely available in its original language (Latin), and a better picture of the game has emerged. It is these rules, increasingly adopted by players, that I'm referring to in this post.
For those who see hnefatafl as a link with history as well as a game, tablut has a great advantage over just about all modern variants: it's authentically historical. It was played in Lapland in the early eighteenth century. Hnefatafl died out in the more urbanised societies in Scandinavia by the fourteenth century, so the Saami people of Lapland must have adopted the game before then. It is uncertain what changes they made to the game in that time, but its similarities to what we know of other hnefatafl games suggest that they didn't change it very much. So tablut is our closest link to the game of the Vikings.
Unlike many modern variants, which have developed from flawed translations of the same Latin rules, the Latin tablut is a very pure and simple game. There is only one special square: the central castle, which when empty can be used to capture enemy pieces. The king has a more complex rule than many modern games: he's captured by surrounding him on four sides in the castle, on three sides when beside the castle, and on two sides elsewhere, but this rule isn't too difficult to remember. He wins by getting to the board edge. There's no shield-wall, no special corner squares, no hostile base camps nor elite guards here.
These rules have been played quite a lot by players of many skill levels. Like all balanced hnefatafl games, it appears to favour the king when played by beginners, but becomes more even as the players gain more experience. The average ratio of attacker and defender wins is comparable to the ratio of black and white wins in chess.
And the great thing about the game is that it scales up very well. With 37 pieces on a board eleven squares wide it is just as good a game. The same goes for a game of 49 pieces on a board thirteen squares wide. A little tweaking allows it to work on the smallest board of seven squares, with thirteen pieces: the corners become the king's objective and have the same capturing properties as the central castle, though without its ability to make the king more secure.
Were it not for the increasing popularity of the modern Copenhagen variant among the best hnefatafl players, I'd be calling for tablut to be a standardised game for tournaments on many sizes of board. As it is, I'm happy to see that it has become a standard at least for the 9x9 board, and the version adapted for the 7x7 board is becoming popular too. So if you've only played with the rules your hnefatafl game with so far, I'd urge you to download the tablut leaflet and give the game a try.