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[Tafl Gameboard]

Tafl Rules

©1995, 1996 by Susan Granquist. All rights reserved.

The object of Tafl is for the King to exit the board through unoccupied edge square except the Red Camp Squares. If the King has a clear approach to any edge square, the Blue player announces, "Raichi," or check. If the King has a clear approach to two exit squares, which is unblockable, he announces, "Tuichi," and wins the game since the move can't be blocked in one play. The object for the Red side is to capture the King by surrounding him on four sides. Order of play is determined by draw as in Chess, or the loser of the last game play starts. The opening move goes to Blue.

All pieces move like the rook in chess, orthogonally, or in straight lines, vertically or horizontally without jumping any intervening pieces. There are no diagonal moves. Captures are not made as in chess, the square moved to must be vacant.

Only the King may occupy the center square, or Konakis. Any piece may pass over the central square but may not land on it. Once the King has left the center square he can not re-enter it, and he can be bracketed against it in a capture. The King must be captured by bracketing on four sides, by three if against the center square or against a Red Camp Square. The King can't participate in a capture. Once the King is captured, he may not counter by taking one of the capturing pieces. If the King fails to call Raichi or Tuichi he may not reclaim it once Red has moved.

A piece, other than the king, is captured and removed from the board when two of the opponent's men occupy adjacent squares in a straight line with it, bracketing the piece. A piece may not move into jeopardy except to take another piece. One variation, based on Robert ap Ifan's description of the rules of Towlbwrd, allows a piece to move into position with two opponents flanking him, without being considered captured if he does so voluntarily. A Blue piece can be captured against a Red Camp Square. Blue camp squares are not restricted. Blue pieces can pass over but may not land on Red Camp Squares.

Reds may move to any open square, but they may not pass over any other piece or Konakis. Once a Red has moved out of the Red Camp he may not re-enter it. Red may move to any Red square while within the Red square, but not against the Konakis or the edge of the board. Reds capture the King and win the game by bracketing on four sides or against a Red square or Konakis, but not against the edge of the board.

No matter how many pieces are taken the game is not over until either the King is captured or leaves the board.

Based on rules supplied by Lavrans Reimer-Moller, Other sources of information include:

Tafl History

©1995, 1996 by Susan Granquist. All rights reserved.

Tafl refers to a group of games played on a board that has an odd number of squares or spaces which results in a central square which a king-piece is placed on. The grids vary from seven by seven to nineteen by nineteen squares with varying numbers of gaming pieces, but the rules and methods of play are basically the same in each version. Tafl games were popular and widely played in Europe by people of all classes prior to the introduction of Chess which eventually superseded it. Several versions are recorded in Norse literature such as Olaf's Kong Tafl (King Olaf's Tafl), Hnefatafl, Faeringstafl, Foeritafl, Freystafl, Tanntafl and Worptaflspel. In Lappland it was called Tablut, in England versions known as Dawlbwrd, Tawlbwrdd, or Tawlbort are known, and the Welsh game of Gwyddbwyl is mentioned in the Mabinogin. The method of play, outlined by Robert ap Ifan in 1587 in the Peniarth Manuscripts, gives us a basic method of play that is similar to those that Linnaeus gives from the Lappish version in 1732.

Skill at the game was considered to be essential for a nobleman, and Rognvaldr, Jarl of Orkney boasted, "I am strong at Tafl-play." [1] In Rigsthula, children are mentioned as learning to play "tables" which Hollander footnotes as being a board game comparable to the German (Schach-) zabeln, and considered a kingly accomplishment. [2] The Fornaldar Saga , written about 1256, relates the story of the warriors Hvitserkr and Sugurdh who were occupied with a game of Hnefatafl when a messenger from King Aella arrived, dating the playing of Hnefatafl in England to around 856 C.E.

The attack upon Europe by the Hun-Yu is mentioned in The Battle of the Goths and the Huns where playing pieces are called Huns and the game of Tafl is related to the battle between the Goths at the center and the attacking Huns. The king or Hnefi "is often beaten when the Hunns are taken," it says in The Greenland Lay of Atli, which refers not to the attacking pieces, but those on the king's side. In Hornklofi's Raven Song there is an allusion to Tafl with the pieces being called Hunns. "They are well cared for, the warriors who move the Hunns in Harald's Court." [3]

Although essentially a Scandinavian game, versions of it are found in Ireland as Brandubh, where the central square is occupied by the King or Brann, which is played on a seven by seven grid, and which the Norse dubbed Kotungatafl or the Crofter's Game. The king in the Irish version is protected by four knights (ON ruddurum) and the eight attacking men were know as pawns (ON pedjunum). [4] Although the pieces are commonly referred to as men, soldiers or hunns, one rather obscure reference is made to the pieces being feminine. In the Norse Hervarar Saga ok Heidhreks, there is a contest of lore between Odin in disguise and King Heidhrek. Several scholars interpret the answer to the riddle of, "Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their lord, the brown ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him?" as being the pieces in Tafl. Tann means tooth or tusk, and referred to the morse or walrus, which had a symbolic meaning of death, and could readily be associated with the dísir in Northern lore who referred to also as dark and light, and who were known for representing protection as well as death. The brown or dark colored ones could represent the dísir or fylgjur, feminine beings such as are mentioned in Nial's Saga, and explained by the Christian prophet, Thorhall as a conflict between the pagan forces of old and the new forces of Christianity.

The layout of the pieces is given in an English manuscript from the time of King Æthelstan (925-940) when monks attempted to give the game a Christian meaning by renaming it Alea Evangelii and reassigned it Judeo-Christian numerology and terminology. The Hnefi, was renamed the Pirgus or Cynigstan, (King Stone) but the central square as the king occupying the central omphalos and defending it against the external forces of destruction, representing the ordering of the land as a place of judgment and jurisdiction remained. The central square enclosure was laid out as a grid on the ground was a common practice in the common law of northern Europe, surviving in Germany as the Vehmgericht until the eighteenth century in the illegal "summary courts" of Westphalia. [5] During the reign of the Welsh King Howel Dda (914-943) a judge was to be given a Tawlbwrdd board upon taking office, suggesting a direct connection to the ritually laid out place of judgment and its microcosmic reflection.

The game is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and available from a number of sources, including computer formats. The game is easy to learn and play, but presents unique challenges in strategy. Accompanying this article is a fold-out nine by nine square game board and pieces for playing Tafl. The traditional colors are red for the Huns and blue or gray for the Geats. You can substitute other gaming pieces if you desire. The center square is often marked in gold, with the interior cross being blue and the squares on the outside edge are usually represented as being red.

[1] Pennick, Nigel. Games of the Gods, p. 181
[2] Hollander, Lee, trns. The Poetic Edda, University of Texas Press, 2nd ed., Austin: 1952, Rígthula str.42.
[3] Pennick, p. 185
[4] Lesh, William, "Tafl," Yggdrasil, Vol. 12, no. 2, 1995. pg. 2
[5] Pennick, p. 179

© 1995, 1996 by Susan Granquist. All rights reserved.
Irminsul Ættir