Sunday, 28th July 2013
There have been occasions over the past decade when I've read comments about standardising hnefatafl. Isn't it a shame, the logic goes, that hnefatafl doesn't have a standard rule set like chess; wouldn't it be good, the logic asks, if the world chose one standard hnefatafl game and concentrated on that? Ten years ago I may have been neutral on the subject, but as time goes on I'm leaning more and more in the direction of "no" to standardisation. I thought I'd jot down why.
Standardisation has advantages, clear and logical ones. If, as with chess, attention is focussed on one standard variant, then there is more opportunity to play, more opportunity to study strategy, and more opportunity to progress and play better quality hnefatafl.
Chess is the obvious example of how standardisation has given the game great vitality. Not only is it easy to find an opponent and a board and pieces, but the number of people playing it has made viable a library of chess literature, with deep coverage of the game's strategy. Backgammon is another good example of this.
Hnefatafl cannot really emulate this, even with its increasing popularity. Books are starting to appear about the game, but discussion of strategy is very shallow: for deep analysis with examples of play, a set of rules must be chosen, and on doing so an author will cater to only a minority of players who know, or want to know, that particular variant. Or an author might choose different variants to discuss, but then in what depth could each be treated?
Draughts or checkers provides a counter-example. There are three main variants of draughts which are popular in various parts of the world: the Anglo-American version on an 8x8 chequerboard, the continental European version on a 10x10 board, and the Turkish version with orthogonal movement. There are numerous minor variants such as Spanish, Frisian and German draughts each with their own following and sets of rules. The more popular variants have their own tournaments and literature.
But hnefatafl is less standardised than this. Being an older game which has been almost forgotten before its revival, rules have had to be reconstructed in modern times. Surely this would make standardisation easier? It would, except that as in other areas of history and archaeology, continued analysis and growing evidence makes our conclusions change. 19th century interpretations have been refined in the 20th and 21st centuries as more information about the game has become available. But those older interpretations have still been sold, played and much written about, so the are not going to go away, even when historical evidence shows that their conclusions were mistaken. This is especially the case when they are actually good games, better than our understanding of a truly historical variant.
There is another impediment to standardisation: the wide variation of board sizes, none of which dominates. Sizes from 7x7 to 13x13 were common across northern Europe, with isolated cases known of 15x15 and 19x19 boards. Standardising on one size to the exclusion of others would suppress a lot of gaming experience. Who would want to give up the alea evangelii and the brandub games for tablut alone? I don't think I would.
One way of standardisation appears to be working for Hnefatafl: tournament by tournament. The prime example of recent years is the rules of the Hnefatafl World Quick-play Championship on Fetlar, which have been in use since 2008. They were formulated by the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel specifically for the tournament, and have proven popular enough to be adopted for Hnefatafl tournaments elsewhere. It may one day be viable for someone to publish a book about Fetlar Hnefatafl, with just the depth of analysis we are used to in chess literature.
But I would propose that this would not be the only standard. I like Brandub very much, and would be happy to see tournaments with standardised brandub rules. Tablut is popular too, and may be within easy reach of an agreed standard set of rules. And an alea evangelii tournament would be an epic event indeed.
So while I wouldn't like to see the hnefatafl family of games to coalesce into one monolithic variant, I'd be happy to see multiple standards arise for play at particular tournaments - and perhaps to see larger tournaments where more than one variant is played.