Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Changing Opinions on Tablut

Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus
Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus

Wednesday, 28th August 2013

Some years ago, after reading through all the arguments about tablut and how it would be played, I favoured the "weaponless king" variant. Before Linnaeus' original Latin text on tablut was widely available, this was one of a number of ways people tried to balance the game, the widespread English translation by J. E. Smith giving a game that favoured the king too much.

The Latin account was digitised some time in the last decade, and therefore has become widely available to those who know where to look for it. I transcribed it and put it up on this site within the past month. Needless to say, it has cleared up some misunderstandings. The main one, which has been mentioned frequently in recent years, is that the king is captured on two sides like other pieces, except when he is on or beside the castle.

The opinion that the king is captured on four sides everywhere was introduced by Smith who has been roundly criticised for doing so. His interpretation wasn't that unreasonable. Linnaeus teaches by example throughout his account, and has a habit of giving exceptions to rules without stating that they are exceptions. So when Linnaeus says in rule 9 that the king is captured on two sides like other pieces, but then in rule 10 shows the king being captured in a completely different fashion using his central square as an example, Smith consequently thought Linnaeus was contradicting himself. He therefore applied the "correction" that the king is captured on four sides, as stated in rule 10.

But reading rule 10 as an exception to rule 9 gives a rule increasingly used today, where the king is captured like other pieces except when he is on or beside the central square. This gives a much more balanced game than Smith's translation, and makes redundant so many imaginative tweaks that have been applied in the past two centuries to create a playable game.

So I've changed my opinion about the nature of tablut. I still enjoy the variant with the "weaponless king" who needs to be completely surrounded, and I won't be revising the tablut leaflet in the Traditional Board Game series any time soon. But in future writings on the game I'll be adopting the more likely historic rules, and will change the "Rules for Tablut" on this site sooner or later.

If you want to try the game out on the applet on this site, the following settings: Objective: Edge; Hostile areas: Castle; Castle: Exclusive; King capture: Flexible, Armed; Movement: Unlimited; Layout: Jarlshof I; First move: Attacker.


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