Defenders: are they just a nuisance?
Tuesday, 22nd April 2014
One book I have points out that the king's pieces get in his own way. Indeed, if the king had no defenders at all, he would win very quickly in many versions of hnefatafl, as his route to the edge or the corner would be wide open. So are the defenders just meant as a nuisance? Is their name of "defender" or "guard" a misnomer?
Without the defenders, as already mentioned, the king would have an easier time of it. It would be possible to devise a fair version of such a game, altering the initial layout so that the king does not have an immediate victory. But such a game wouldn't have the tactical possibilities of hnefatafl; it would be just another hunt game.
As you progress through a game of hnefatafl, the nature of the defenders changes. They may be little more than an obstacle to the king at the beginning. But as the game develops, they become less inconvenient and more necessary.
A player who in the mid- or end-game tries to break out with the king, and tear around the board in search of an exit, often finds that an experienced opponent can easily contain a lone king. Especially in games where the king is captured on two sides, it's not difficult, with a blockade already advanced, to make it too dangerous for the king to approach the remaining holes in the attackers' works.
It is at this time that the defenders become necessary. A defender can put itself in danger in a way that the king can't; defenders can be sacrificed for position; they can threaten attackers and harass the blockading works. A king alone, except around hostile corner squares, can't threaten or capture anything.
So the relationship of defenders is much more subtle than some would believe. In summary, yes, they are a nuisance at first, but will soon come to prove their worth as they help their king to victory.