Balance in Hnefatafl
Tuesday, 18th February 2014
People new to hnefatafl often make the same observation: "the king always seems to win!" Sometimes that's because they're playing a variant which really is unbalanced. But more often than not, nowadays, the variant is balanced. But still, beginners find the king's task easier. In fact, even historic sources sometimes mention this. So is hnefatafl always unbalanced? Or is this a myth?
First of all, there are some versions of hnefatafl still promoted that are unbalanced. A few questions will help to identify them. Is the king always captured by surrounding him on four sides? Does he have the power of capture? And does he win on reaching the board's edge? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then the game probably isn't a balanced one: try another version!
That leaves us with the variants which have been constructed with an eye for balance. The best I know of at the moment is tablut, the latest reconstruction coming direct from Latin version of 1732 rather than faulty English translations of it that have been circulated since then. The latest tournament at http://aagenielsen.dk/ showed a precise 50:50 ratio of victories between the king and his enemies. And yet some people new to the game have still said that the majority of their games have been won by the king's side.
The truth is more subtle than this. A version of hnefatafl has been played on the site http://brainking.com/ for around a decade. It's called tablut, but it more resembles sea-battle tafl, with a weaponless king who is captured on four sides anywhere. It was played a great deal, and then some of the players noticed that as they got better, the attackers' task got easier. So far, so obvious. But the king's task didn't seem to get accordingly easier. So between two seasoned players, the ratio of wins for king and attackers was more even. Some expert players even came to prefer the attackers.
As with many things in research, people often tread old ground without realising it. When I came upon the rules for the 1855 game Imperial Contest, the first commercial hnefatafl game sold, I saw that they'd noticed the same thing over 150 years ago: "In playing this game, it would at first appear that the Emperor can have but little difficulty in reaching the Turkish territories and thus winning the game; but a small amount of practice will suffice to show that such is not the case, and that, with cautious, and steady play on the part of the Allies, the Emperor can only win by the exercise of vigilance and skill."
That's just half an answer though. Why should the balance change when players have had practice? Why don't both players get better, and the king still gain the majority of victories? After becoming an average player myself, I think I might have an answer.
The king's task can be achieved by short-term tactics. An open path can be seized; a piece left undefended can be captured to open a path; the attackers' moves can be forced in many different ways. The attackers, however, have to think about long-term goals. Capture of a tempting piece can often lead to disaster if the long-term goal of forming a blockade is not aided by it. Short-term tactics are easier to grasp than long-term strategy, especially in a game that you've not played much, if at all, before.
But as the attacking player's strategic skill improves, she will less often provide these opportunities for the king to seize. She will often foresee threats that the king may make in future turns, and take steps early to avoid them. If the king's player does not have the same long-term outlook, she can even lay traps for him - including the ultimate trap of a closed blockade.
So the king's player really needs to start to play strategically in order to counteract the strategy of the attackers. Once both players are giving long-term goals the priority, the king's ability to seize short-term opportunities becomes less of an advantage. The play at this point becomes more even.
So if the king always seems to win on your first few games, don't give up on hnefatafl. In the short term, there are workarounds to the temporary imbalance: play a few more games; swap sides and play a pair of games at a time; give the newer player the king's side. But as time goes on, you'll find that you can give the king a decent challenge, and these workarounds will no longer be necessary.