Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Papillon's Escape

Papillon's Escape
Papillon's Escape

Saturday, 29th April 2017

Elsewhere on the web site I've mentioned the game Papillon's Escape, because it's an example of those hnefatafl games that allow pieces to move only to adjacent squares. Since I've been posting about out-of-production games over the past couple of weeks, I thought today that I'd tell you about the set itself.

Papillon's Escape is based on the story of Papillon by Henri Charrière. It tells the adventures of Charrière who was wrongly convicted of murder, sent to the Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana, and made to escape. Hnefatafl is a good fit for many escape stories, so you'll often see this as a paste-on theme.

I bought my set from eBay a few years ago. I search for hnefatafl regularly, and while most search results are The Viking Game, sometimes more usual results like this one pop up.

The board is made of sturdy thick black plastic. The 81 squares are all raised, but none of them are marked at all, not even the centre square where the king starts. The pieces are wooden pawns: a purple one to represent Papillon, eight black ones representing his "helpers", and sixteen red pawns who are the prison guards.

The rules have two unusual changes from most hnefatafl games played with this equipment. The first I've already mentioned: the pieces are moved not like chess rooks, but only to adjacent spaces (diagonals excluded). This type of game hasn't yet been extensively tested for balance.

The other unusual aspect is the starting layout. Games on a 9x9 board are the best documented: we know that the defenders were laid out in a cross formation, with the attackers in T shapes around the edge of the board. Papillon's Escape changes the layout so that the defenders are laid out in a square formation around the centre. In games with a rook's move, this will have an effect on balance, probably in favour of the attackers, because the defenders no longer have command of the two ranks and files that in this layout lie open. It also allows attackers to safely use more aggressive opening moves like D1-D3, which would be a foolish sacrifice in the traditional opening layout.

Unusually for the time of its manufacture, Papillon's Escape has the king captured in the same way as other pieces: by being surrounded on two sides by enemies.

The game comes with an alternative rule set, however, as a nod to those who had learned hnefatafl elsewhere. The second rule set allows pieces to move any distance, and requires four attackers to capture Papillon. These are the rules proposed by chess historian H. J. R. Murray which were at one time the most popular, and continued so until the game was more widely played and more closely scrutinised.

Papillon's Escape is a nice set to have. If the supplied rules don't appeal to you, then it is an excellent set on which to play Sea Battle Tafl or Tawlbwrdd, neither of which require any board markings.


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