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Subject: Brandubh or Starting to Examine the Tafl Games in Play rss

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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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NB:
A great deal of spurious information exists about this game on-line. For example, the site http://members.iinet.net.au/~draoidh/treubh/art_brandubh.htm... uses a set of rules which is simply not correct. For one, this game is very much a tafl game, not merely "distantly related" but "played differently" as that site states. The site serves merely as an example however and is by no means unique in its mistakes; indeed, the site cites the author of the rules given, which are therefore not surprisingly not the traditional rules.


1. Introduction

This review article continues the series which began with http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/2693882#2693882. Namely, this series presents an informal discussion of an introduction to the tafl family of games and how best to play them. As the discussion is informal, no citations are given, but I am attempting to be as historically accurate as possible while still treating each game known to exist as a distinct game with playable rules.

The fact is though that the ancient and medieval peoples who played these games never recorded an actual complete sets of rules nor in general distinguished the various members of the game family as separate games. Sometimes they did though, just to add to the confusion. Thus, some argue that Brandubh was the same game as the Welsh game Gwyddbwyll and others claim not. Even among those who do hold that this game was distinct, virtually no two scholars seem to completely agree on what the rules were. Two factors create this situation. First, quite simply, we do not have enough information to go on. Second, rules varied from place to place and over time. Indeed, rules varied from household to household; "house rules" were the only rules. This also explains, in my opinion at least, why no complete account of the rules exists; which set of rules would one pick and if one described simply one's own rules what purpose would the account serve? One should keep in mind that in antiquity reading was a social event; people would gather and listen to a person read. Few audiences would be interested in a recitation of game rules peculiar to one individual or his household, and parchment was expensive even for the literate. Being made from animal skins, the supply of parchment was also naturally limited far more than paper.

A note should be included here on pronunciation of the name Brandubh of the game. The name is from the Old Irish variety of Gaelic. All consonants in Gaelic except h have an unpalatalized and a palatalized form, traditionally referred to as broad and slender. Properly speaking, the latter are pronounced by very slightly moving the tip of the tongue toward the palate while pronouncing the letter but a good approximation is to try and simultaneously pronounce a y-sound like that of English yes. Slender consonants are marked by either an adjacent e or i (which is then not itself pronounced if another vowel is present) or in final position by a folllowing h. The slender b here became either a v or a w, depending upon the region. The r is trilled like the Scottish or Irish burr. The initial b is broad and so pronounced simply like a b (as in English boy) in ancient Gaelic, although in modern Irish Gaelic broad consonants have developed acproperty which can be approximated by trying to simultaneously say a w-sound (like that in the name William). The a and u are pronounced like the a of cat and the u of tune respecitvely. This flattened a-sound is actually characteristic of Gaelic languages primarily, which seem in this respect to have influenced English directly or indirectly. Thus, the name is either pronounced Brrandoo or Brrandoov according to the ancients.

2. Rules

The rules I have selected therefore are those which seem to agree with as many opinions as possible while making a distinct and playable game.



The image above shows the pieces' starting positions. The game was however more likely most often played on a 7x7 grid of points, similar to Go (apart from the specific size), rather than in the spaces like Chess or Checkers.

The piece in the center marked with an x or cross is the king. The pieces the same color as the king are defenders and the other pieces are attackers; actual colors varied. Only the king is allowed to actually occupy that position the king starts on or any of the four corner points, but in this game (unlike many other tafl games) pieces can pass over the "king's spot" as the central position is called. All pieces move like rooks in chess, i.e., vertically or horizontally (but not diaongally) in a straight line in any direction without being able to either jump an intervening piece or change direction; no two pieces can occupy the same space. A piece is captured and removed from the board custodially, including the king (although in most tafl games games the king is captured differently than other pieces). Specifically, custodial capture occurs when a piece moves into a position horizontally or vertically (not diagonally) adjacent to an enemy piece which already has another pieces belonging to the player making the capture immediately on the other side of that enemy piece. More than one piece can be simultaneously captured if the piece moved comes to occupy a position such that horizontally or vertically (again not diagonally) more than one enemy piece is immediately adjacent to the piece moved with another piece belonging to the capturing player immediately on the enemy piece's other side. So, a piece can move between two enemy pieces. In only one instance can a piece be captured using only a single piece rather than two pieces in combination; this occurs if the position where the second piece would in principle need to be is a corner. Such an "against the corner" capture can be made by either player. The player controlling the attackers makes the first move and then players successively take turns in which they must move one piece in any legal manner.

The object of the game for the attackers is to capture the king. The object for the defenders is to get the king to any corner position. A player also loses if he has no legal move.

Quote:
These rules concur with those given in the file found at http://www.boardgamegeek.com/file/info/25422.


3. Game-play

One often sees stated that the tafl family of games favor the defender; this "fact" has inspired several "fixes" for the perceived problem. The view is however purely modern. While it is definitely true that among novice players, the defenders have an advantage, among veteran players the opposite is true. The attackers' combination of first move advantage and superior numbers (usually double, discounting the king as in this game) give attackers a distinct advantage. One has to think appropriately to the game when playing however.

Modern players are pre-conditioned by games like chess and draughts to attack in such a manner so as to capture or threaten to capture an opponent's pieces. This approach can work, albeit incidentally in most cases, for defenders, but it is directly counter-productive for the attackers. This is why modern players perceive advantage as lying with the defenders. Yet, neither side should concentrate on capturing pieces. For the attackers, like in chess the game is all about taking the king; other pieces are by the way. For the defenders, the game is about getting the king into the open so that he can be moved to a corner.

Thus, for the attacker, the first priority is to hem the king in. For the attackers, this is a game about enclosure-- like Go-- except that instead of enclosing empty area of the board one must enclose whatever portion of the board the king is on. Naturally, the attackers want to prevent the king from being able to move so that the proverbial noose can be tightened. Familiarity with Go is also an advantage (to both players) in that a piece has the same freedom of movement as a Go-stone has liberties. Attackers have to move in such a way as to anticipate and block potential openings for the king to move. Capture of defenders is only made in general to defend one of the attacker's own pieces until the surrounding net of pieces is completed; frankly blocking the piece from capture in such a way as to both additionally hem in the king and prevent capture is better. Indeed, a common trap by the defenders in this game (like all tafl games) is to create a situation where capturing a defender creates an opening for the king. These traps can be particularly nasty when combined with the threat of capture of an attacker. Most often the attacker is such cases should sacrifice the piece by letting it be taken while moving another piece into position to block the king's potential escape. Tightening the net consists of both eliminating any defenders outside the enclosing net of attacking pieces and trapping the king into capture. In this game, the king need not be trapped on all sides, which makes the attackers' task easier, but this does not change the nature of the game too dramatically.

The defenders therefore must seek first to prevent the attackers from surrounding them and then to break holes in the enclosing net of pieces if the attackers do succeed in surrounding them or even just the king and prehaps some other pieces. The best position for a king is naturally in the open so that the paths to all corners cannot be simultaneously blocked. If the attackers are chasing the king about the board, the defenders will almost certainly win. This is precisely why the attackers must seek right from the game's beginning to allow the king nowhere to go.

4. Remarks

This game is ideal as a modern player's first tafl game for a number of reasons. The board is smaller and the pieces less; this reduces the number of possibilities somewhat so that the tactical/strategic problem of how to play this game is less daunting or perhaps more manageable. The ability for other pieces to pass over the king's space, if not to actually stop there, eliminates one of the aspects of play which is all too easy to forget. Moreover, the fact that the king is captured like any ordinary piece helps both players mentally adjust to a style of capture which has become exotic and foreign with the passage of time.

Yet the game is still complex enough to interest even veteran players. Yes, this is a classic "simple yet elegant" species of abstract game, but the very points which make this game ideal as an introduction to the tafl games also give it a more tense "edge of the seat" feeling due to the very real possibility of sudden death for either side. The small board means that the king's goal of a corner is never too far away. The small number of pieces does not permit either side to get sloppy about letting pieces get captured; one simply does not have enough pieces to spare. The first mistake is often the last one in this game. Thus, if one wants to keep playing a clean (as opposed to a sloppy) tafl game, this is an ideal game to come back to-- even after one has become a seasoned player of more complex tafl games.
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Donal Hegarty
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great review!!! I must admit a bias as an Irish born immigrant to the US but this is still a great game.

The game is also know as Gwyddbwyll in Wales and Fidchell in old Irish. This is probably the closest to a european 'chess' game that exists. There is the viking (Tafl as mentioned above) variant that uses an 11x11 gird (if I remember correctly) for example. The other difference i can think of is that most welsh and Irish boards used pegs as opposed to viking which seem to favour little figures. Although this is a very big generality as there are only a few original boards in existence.

There are also a variety of different starting setups.

As whac3 says a definitive rule set is very hard to establish but most versions are based on the same basic rules.
One oddity I want to mention is that in some versions of the Toiríoch Diarmuid and Grainne (My Irish is shaky after 15 years so I ask forgiveness for the spelling errors) there is mention of dice when Fionn plays this game with a giant (I think, its been a while since I read the original Irish) a dice is mentioned as being used in the playing of the game. As an aside Diarmuid is in the tree above the board dropping berries on the giants pieces to show the right moves.
It is not clear if this dice is for moving or something else such as the multiplier dice in backgammon...

Thud is a modern day derivative of this game.

(edited for spelling)
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Domhnall101 wrote:
great review!!! I must admit a bias as an Irish born immigrant to the US but this is still a great game.

The game is also know as Gwyddbwyll in Wales and Fidchell in old Irish. This is probably the closest to a european 'chess' game that exists. There is the viking (Tafl as mentioned above) variant that uses an 11x11 gird (if I remember correctly) for example. The other difference i can think of is that most welsh and Irish boards used pegs as opposed to viking which seem to favour little figures. Although this is a very big generality as there are only a few original boards in existence.

There are also a variety of different starting setups.

As whac3 says a definitive rule set is very hard to establish but most versions are based on the same basic rules.
One oddity I want to mention is that in some versions of the Toiríoch Diarmuid and Grainne (My Irish is shaky after 15 years so I ask forgiveness for the spelling errors) there is mention of dice when Fionn plays this game with a giant (I think, its been a while since I read the original Irish) a dice is mentioned as being used in the playing of the game. As an aside Diarmuid is in the tree above the board dropping berries on the giants pieces to show the right moves.
It is not clear if this dice is for moving or something else such as the multiplier dice in backgammon...

Thud is a modern day derivative of this game.

(edited for spelling)


Be patient. I'm doing a series. Gwyddbyll and Fidchell ARE according to some the same game, but according to others not. I plan to be getting to those .

The issue of dice is one I'll also be addressing.

For your Irish, mine needs work as well.
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