Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Openings in Brandub

Diagram of a brandub board set out for play.
Diagram of a brandub board set out for play.

Tuesday, 6th August 2013

I've always been drawn to games that are simple but deep, especially to those which are small too, achieving their depth with the minimum of resources. In hnefatafl our best example of this is the little Brandub, played on the board seven squares wide with just thirteen pieces.

The rules adopted on this site give the attackers the first move, and the attacker has forty of them. However, due to the symmetrical nature of the board, these can be reduced to five, the remaining 35 being rotations and reflections of those five distinct moves. In this blog post I'll take a brief look at each of them in turn. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll adopt the usual square notation of numbered ranks and lettered files, A1 being at the bottom left.

The first and most common move is D2-E2. This has the effect of beginning to close off the E file. It also effectively closes off the bottom right part of the board, as any move in that direction by the defenders on D3 or E4 will potentially sacrifice the defending piece for little or no gain.

The second opening is D2-F2. This doesn't seem to be as good an opening as the piece now on F2 is not quite as effective as it would be on E2; the E file is still open and the defender can move a piece as far as E3 without immediate danger to them.

The D2 piece could also be moved to D2-G2. This would be a sacrifice, however, and not a particularly useful one by all appearances. The defender simply captures the piece against the corner with D3-G3xG2. Sacrifices tend to be less useful to the attackers than the defenders, and being one piece down this early in the game can spell disaster.

The other piece that can move is that on D1. The D1-E1 move has similar advantages to the D2-E2 move, closing off the bottom of the E file. However, it leaves the defender a little more freedom than D2-E2, since a defender can move to E3 without harm.

The move D1-F1 is another sacrifice, again probably a pointless one. The defender responds E4-E1xF1 capturing the attacker against the corner, at the same time threatening the attacker on D2 with a subsequent move of E1-D1xD2.

Once the first move is made, the board is no longer symmetrical and the tactical possibilites are greatly increased. The defenders' responses are therefore numerous. In most cases, however, it is difficult for the defender to move very far at first without placing pieces in danger. A move of C4-C6 appears threatening only for an instant; the attacker's response of B4-B6xC6 will deal with the threat very quickly.

A tempting response to the initial move D2-E2 would be C4-C2, taking advantage of the gap opening up in the bottom left to put a defender out towards the edge of the board. The counter-response B4-B2 and the associated threat of E2-D2xC2 should send the defender in a humiliating retreat back towards the centre, however.

So even with the attacker having the first move, barring sacrifices, the defender's first move still seems to be limited to the central 3x3 block of squares around the king. It is only as the game progresses that the possibilities open up.

Over the next few turns, though, the defender needs to decide between two responses to the attacker's opening: to fight to keep open the channels that the attacker is trying to close, or to concentrate on areas that the attacker is neglecting. Either strategy might involve early sacrifices, but this should be avoided if possible.

The beauty of this little game is that it is small, simple and deep but also it is short. The games on Dragonheels' Lair typically show less than a dozen moves per player in a full game. I'm sure that I'll be writing more about brandub in future posts.

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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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