Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

In the Enemy Camp

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

Monday, 9th September 2013

For the past several decades, the idea of base camps, or hostile base camps, has been used in the continuing quest to make sense of J. E. Smith's translation of Linnaeus' tablut rules. Their precise nature of the idea varies, but in all its forms it gives special properties to the decorated squares on which the attackers start the game.

Some older ideas that I've seen say that, because Linnaeus gave no examples of the king reaching one of these decorated squares to win the game, these must therefore be excluded from the king's objective; he must reach an unmarked edge square to win the game.

Other ideas take this further: the king isn't even allowed to enter the attacker's decorated squares, or base camps. Variations on this theme are that no defenders can enter the base camps, or that the attackers, once they have left, cannot re-enter. The most extreme rule is that the base camps are hostile squares; pieces can be captured against them as against the central castle, or the marked corners in other variants.

These rules change the nature of the game; although the king "plays to the edge" it feels like a hybrid between edge-victory and corner-victory games. With hostile base camps, a great deal of careful thought is required as few squares on the board are safe enough to rest a piece upon.

Evidence for the hostile base camps goes further than the tacit support mentioned above. Part of Linnaeus' account says that pieces can move to empty squares and squares with characters. According to the diagram provided in the published sources, some of the embroidered squares are not included; they are neither empty nor contain characters. To be precise, the attackers' start squares at the top and bottom each contain a "4" which might take some finding, while the ones at the left and right do not. The diagrams are obviously printed rather than hand-drawn; we will have to wait till Linnaeus' original manuscript is digitised before we know exactly what he drew.

I think it likely from the text that the attackers' squares are supposed to contain a "4", including them in the "squares with characters" that pieces can move to, and negating the theory that they are inaccessible or hostile. I also question the inaccessible base camp theory because it can be applied to no other known form of hnefatafl; none of the other boards that we know of mark out the attackers' start squares as tablut does. This suggests either that tablut is significantly different from hnefatafl, or that the marked squares are only for convenience or decoration and that they do not have an important role in the game.


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