Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

In Praise of Brandub

The Deluxe 13-piece Hnefatafl Game and other pleasures
The Deluxe 13-piece Hnefatafl Game and other pleasures

Saturday, 4th July 2015

Brandub is the smallest hnefatafl game of them all. Played on a board of seven rows of seven squares, it features a king with only four defenders, who face a mere eight attackers. Because of its small size, the game has been long overlooked as a poor relation to tablut, tawlbwrdd and the other larger hnefatafl games. How, players reasoned, could such a small game offer the tactical possibilities that are enjoyed by its larger cousins?

I have always held a different opinion. Bigger is not always better, and I've always admired games that can pack significant depth into a small package. Many games hold out such promise but their charm fades away after a few attempts at serious play. Brandub, however, is more resilient.

There have been many attempts to find a combination of hnefatafl rules that suit the small board. People have tried to squeeze 25 pieces onto the board for games like ard ri and fidchell, but this overcrowded layout rarely works well. Sometimes an attempt is made to transplant the rules of larger games, but there is something about the 7x7 board that defies this: perhaps the slightly lower ratio of pieces to board area (about 27%, compared to 31% for the 9x9 and 11x11 boards) is more significant than the small margin would at first appear.

More recently two main contenders for a decent brandub game have appeared. Back in 2004 I created the first truly successful attempt, included in my applet still available on this site. It was included in my Traditional Board Games Series of leaflets, and due to their popularity, has been adopted elsewhere.

The other contender appeared late last year on Aage Nielsen's on-line play site. It is based heavily on the generally agreed rules for tablut, with the alteration that the king wins on reaching a corner rather than the edge. This is probably the superior variant as it has greater authenticity (in its resemblance to tablut), and has better balance, my version favouring the attackers.

Minor tactics differ between the two versions, but many characteristics are shared. Both have a significant amount of depth, but a more noticeable characteristic is the ease with which players can miss traps set for them. Intuition would say that such traps would be easier to spot with fewer pieces on the board, but for some reason this is not the case. One shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security, then, by the simple appearance of the game!

A big advantage of this game is that it is short. This makes it a great filler game for two players; a face-to-face game can often be over in ten or fifteen minutes.

Its inclusion in on-line play sites is giving the game an increase in popularity. The balanced rules guarantee that, once they try it, players are willing to come back to it again. If you haven't played brandubh in either of its popular forms then I recommend you download a leaflet or print-and-play game from this web site and let me know what you think of it!

Related Product: Deluxe 13-piece Hnefatafl Game


This little board game combines simplicity and style in a small package. Don't be fooled by its size: the small game is every bit as absorbing as its larger cousins. This edition is designed with the true connoisseur in mind: showy decoration is put aside in favour of understated elegance and practicality. Yet it still looks good enough to decorate the coffee table. The hand-made board is of birch plywood, and measures 8 inches (200mm) square. The border is ... (read more...)

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Hi! I just found out about this game and this site. I like chess just as it is, but the simplicity and quick gameplay combined with the strategic possibiities of Hnefatafl are very interesting. And its history is very intriguing, too!

Havign read this blog entry, I wonder about the role of board size. If I have understood correctly, all rule variations can be "adopted" onto an 11x11 board (perhaps with cross-aligned defenders) and are thus easily changeable. But, in your experience, how important is the choice of board size itself? Do, for example, 11x11 boards tend to have more strategic potential (maybe due to the bigger number of fields, "surprise attacks") or, on the opposite, do they lead to more "drawish" situations than 9x9 or even 7x7 ones? Is the gameplay more creative - or just more restrained - on smaller ones? Is Brandub more difficult than Hnefatafl (it certainly seems that way)? WIth my level (better: complete lack) of experience, I do not entrust myself with an opinion on that matter. Is it true to say that small boards focus more on what apparently differentiates the Tafl family from chess: being elegantly simple and quick?

Thank you for reading this and thanks a lot for setting up such an informative website!

Enrico - 21:08, 07/11/2015

The board size just tends to regulate the length of the game; the number of pieces doesn't directly affect strategic depth. Indirectly, the short 7x7 game means that there's no little scope for long-term strategy. That increases with the 9x9 and 11x11 boards. Some players regard the 11x11 as the "sweet spot", although 13x13 and larger boards haven't received as much attention.

Some 11x11 games are more drawish than the smaller games, but I think that arises from the popular adoption of corner-exit rules in 11x11 variants. It's easy to block the corners, and the large number of pieces allows the king to construct a fortress inside which he can never be captured. Modern variants like Copenhagen hnefatafl add supplementary rules to try to tackle these situations.

I find brandub more difficult, not to learn, but to play, than some of the larger games, simply because of the devilish properties mentioned in the article. The elegance of the games in general is part of their charm.

Damian Walker - 07:27, 19/12/2015

Zillions of Games has a game called Brandubh. Download Zillions of Games(its free!), and play that game!!

Terje Torgersen - 19:43, 02/09/2016

As there are no existing 'original' rules for brandub I like to experiment with various setups when I play it. Instead of starting out in a cross, I place the 4 defenders on adjoining squares on the diagonal from the king. I then put the attackers catty-corner so they kind of surround the corner. This opens the game up for faster play: the king can move out more quickly, while the defenders must move away from the corners lest they be soon captured, dissipating their numerical advantage.

Michael T Geary - 16:31, 19/01/2022

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