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Subject: An approach to tafling nirvana? 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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Previous reviews in this series in order, including one introductory review of a non-tafl game, are:
0. Petteia/Lantruculorum http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/344703
1. Brandubh http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/344992
2. Gwyddbwyll http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/2700987
3. Fidhchell http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/2701290#2701290
4. Ard Ri http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/346545
5. Tablut http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/2720444#2720444
6. Tawlbyund http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/347170
7. Hnefatafl http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/348185
8. Large Hnefatafl http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/348598
This current review is the final review in the series planned.
1. Introduction

This review of Alea evangelii is both a stand-alone review of that game and the final (planned) review in a series on the tafl games and, as a prefatory review, including the ancestor game GameID=21488]. The tone remains informal, without citations therefore, but historical accuracy and thoroughness are by intention at least both maintained.

This game stands out, even among tafl games, for a number of reasons. The first is that, although the Anglo-Saxons of the early medieval era are known to have played various games-- most notably Nine Men's Morris, the board for which has been found carved into seats in churches of the era-- this game is the only one of those games known to be a uniquely Anglo-Saxon game. So, this is an English tafl game. This is also the talf game with the largest board and greatest number of pieces. Yet, beyond that, it is unique among the tafl games in having a fourth type of piece besides the king, defenders and attackers. Moreover, the corners are enlarged to four points rather than one at each corner. Finally, the formation of pieces, although still keeping symmetric about the king with attackers on the outside, is markedly more complex than in any other tafl game.

As with many tafl games, the exact rules remain a matter of scholarly debate, but I hold to the opinion which both accords with everything we know certainly about the game and makes a genuinely enjoyable and playable game while not embellishing the game beyond what we have evidence for. One of the main issues is the nature of that fourth piece mentioned, which are pictured in the diagram below as the four defenders immediately adjacent to the king. The reason that the diagram does not differentiate these pieces is that many (like myself previously) do not know what makes those defenders different from all others and so do not make them different at all. I was fortunate enough to encounter in my own researches a scholarly opinion which is used in the rules below and makes the game even better than it already was. Namely, those four defenders-- which I am calling "guards" (like my source, because I do not have access to a copy of the relevant Old English manuscripts to know independently what they are properly called) like the king cannot be used to capture but unlike the king cannot be captured, although they can be immobilized if not removed from play. The dramatic effect on game-play will be discussed below in the appropriate section of this review. For now, it suffices to say that this game takes longer to play and has more complex strategy and tactics than any other tafl game by a wide margin.

Any review of this game would not be complete without mention of at least two more points. The first of these is that are knowledge of this game derives primarily from an allegorical treatment of the game by an unknown English monk of the period. The modern name Alea Evangelii is in fact merely the first two words of that manuscript. No one is certain what the game was called by the English of the period. My own opinion is that the game was most likely simply called tafl like its Norse counter-part(s) for the simple reason that Old English and Norse were so similar that Danes and/or Norwegians (since the English has less contact with Swedes) were able to converse freely with Englishmen, or the reverse, without the need for translators. This specific game was therefore mostly likely tafl to the English and simply a peculiarly English form of tafl to the Norse of Denmark and Norway-- or of Iceland or Sweden for that matter.

The second obligatory point is that the game, like most tafl games, was regarded as an abstraction of a naval battle. In modern usage, we commonly refer to the Norse as "Vikings" but "viking" was regarded as an activity by the Norse themselves. The word means essentially obtaining goods, whether by trade or other means--including plundering raids. The Norse were by no means unique in this period for such activities; they simply had developed better ships and better techniques in both sailing and naval and marine warfare than their contemporaries. The defenders' formation can clearly be viewed as an abstraction of an escort ship formation, where the "king" in the center represents the ship with the VIPs (potentially valuable hostages) and/or goods on it. The guards would then be regarded as representing lesser treasure-ships. The attackers represent an ambush by superior numbers engaged in "viking".

2. Rules

The game is played on a 19x19 grid of points (or less commonly spaces), exactly like a Go board except for that the points marked are the center point and a square of four points at each corner, i.e., the corner-point itself and the three closets points. The diagram below
From gallery of whac3

shows the initial position of the attackers in black and defenders in white, with the king in the center marked by a cross. As mentioned above, the guards occupy the four points non-diagonally adjacent to the king initially but are shown on the diagram otherwise as ordinary defenders. (An image that previously existed showing the guards and marking the corner seems to have been removed from the BGG system.)
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At least as of this posting, a non-public domain image exists at the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alea_evangelii_%28game%29 which at least marks the corners, albeit not the guards.
The king, guards and defenders are controlled by the defending player, and the attackers are controlled by the attacking player. The attacking player moves first and play then alternates with each player moving a single piece each turn. If a player has no legal move, that player loses. Otherwise, the attacking player wins by capturing the king and the defending player by moving the king to any of the four "citadels", i.e., any point within the marked squared square of four points at any corner of the board.
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Some have proposed a rule by which, if the attacking player blocks all four corners, the defender needs only move the king to the edge of the board. When one reads the rules regarding capture of pieces, one will see why such a modern rule is quite unnecessary.
All pieces-- the king, guards, defenders and attackers alike-- move much like rooks in Chess. Specifically, a piece may move any natural number of spaces horizontally or vertically (but not diagonally) in a uniformly straight line. A piece may neither jump another piece (or empty point) nor occupy the same position as any other piece. No piece other than the king-- whether attack, defender or guard-- can occupy or pass over the center position or any of the four points of the citadels, i.e., the square of four points marked at each corner.

Defenders and attackers-- but not the king or guards-- are captured and hence removed from play by ordinary custodial capture. Namely, if a player moves one of the pieces he controls into a position so that an opponent's piece is horizontally or vertically (but not diagonally) immediately adjacent to the piece moved and another piece controlled by the player making the move is immediately adjacent to the same enemy piece on the directly opposite side, again horizontally or vertically but not diagonally, then the enemy piece is captured and removed from play. Multiple captures are made simultaneously if the situation applies on more than one side of the piece moved. Neither piece involved in making the capture can be either a guard or the king. Either player may use either the center position (if unoccupied) or one of the points of a citadel in lieu of a friendly piece in making a capture.
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Thus if the attacking player tries to make a formation about all four corners, the defending player can "capture against the corner". The attacking player in principle could dedicate a minimum of half his attackers to making a double line about every citadel, but a defending player foolish enough to let this happen deserves to lose.
The guards cannot be captured and removed from play, but the attackers are free to immobilize any number of guards by blocking them on all sides so that they are unable to move.

Finally, the king is captured if he becomes immediately surrounded on all four sides (excluding diagonals) by attackers. If the king is against the edge of the board, attackers need only occupy the three remaining points immediately adjacent to the king horizontally or vertically (again not diagonally). The center point of a point of one of the citadels may also be used in lieu of an attacker in capturing the king.

3. Game-play

Perhaps suggesting that this game allows one to approach the tafl analog of nirvana is a slight exaggeration, but frankly it isn't by much-- even if a self-admitted fan of the tafl games generally and of this game specifically does say so.

Although the attackers begin the game already mostly surrounding the defenders, gaps in the formation exist. Likewise, the formation of defenders is not compact so that the guards and defenders have some freedom of movement from the start of the game. Admittedly, the gap in the attackers' surrounding wall become initial points of contention-- and necessarily so-- but to completely immobilize the defenders, the attackers have to move inward.

What adds to the strategic depth of play more than anything else are the guards. If the defending player is wise, he uses them both to occupy strategically important locations where sending an ordinary defender would lead to a useless sacrifice and also to escort the king in such a way that the attacking player is forced to immobilize all the defending player's pieces in order to win. Ideally, a guard sacrificed to be immobilized forces the attacking player to permanently keeping that single guard from moving. In spite of that, the initial positions and superiority of numbers together do leave the advantage in play (if one exists) to the attackers.

The attacking player needs both to drive through the defenders to the king and to isolate the king from as many defenders and especially guards as possible. The best strategy for the attacking player in my experience is to first close the gaps in his formation and then slowly and carefully close in for the kill. The catch is that, even if one can close the gaps in time, moving attackers inward to surround and immobilize king, guards and defenders-- but especially the king ALWAYS-- can be difficult to accomplish without letting the king escape. Even if only defenders escape, these can start picking off attackers. The attacking player has to not let that happen.

This sounds like a daunting job for the attacking player, and it is, but the attacking player does begin with both the momentum of the game is his favor and with a strong positional advantage. The defending player has against this only that his task is in principle simpler; he only needs get the king to a corner without being captured-- something far more easily said than done.

The game remains a relatively simple abstract, albeit more complicated than other tafl games by far. The elegance of an asymmetric but well balanced game is preserved by the juxtaposition of goals and of positional vs. tactical advantages. How each side uses its peculiar advantages makes this a brain-burner and a genuinely exciting game. The larger number of pieces and the effects of the guards' existence on both sides make this tend to be a richer, deeper game even than most tafl games.
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Dan Rivera
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My favorite of the tafl games and now i learned something new. I didnt know about the guards at all but it makes sense. Cant wait to try it with those rules. Thanks.
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That someone, namely you, has done a series of reviews of Tafl variants is beyond awesome. But you need to open your braces.
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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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vintermann wrote:
That someone, namely you, has done a series of reviews of Tafl variants is beyond awesome. But you need to open your braces.
I don't understand what you mean by the last part.
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This review of GameID=33693]
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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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vintermann wrote:
Quote:
This review of GameID=33693]
Thanks. Believe it or not, I proof-read this. blush
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w patton
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So having read through your reviews I'm under the impression that you think Gwyddbwyll most favors the defenders and that Ard Ri most favors the attackers. Also I take it Alea Evangelii is your favorite. Is this right? Also which game (or games) do you find to be the most balanced?
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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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wpatton wrote:
So having read through your reviews I'm under the impression that you think Gwyddbwyll most favors the defenders and that Ard Ri most favors the attackers. Also I take it Alea Evangelii is your favorite. Is this right? Also which game (or games) do you find to be the most balanced?
No, all the tafl game most favor the attackers when played by experienced players. Alea Evangeliiis my favorite in the sense it's the most complex and I prefer complex games. The balance is literally identically the same in all the games because they are variants on the same design. I'd say though that the relative complexity of Alea Evangelii does make it feel more balanced even though intellectually I know it really isn't.
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w patton
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Ah, thanks. I've only played Hnefatafl myself, but I definitely want to try some of these variants and Alea Evangelli does look like the most interesting.
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Where did you find the rules you based this great review?

In the leaflet included in this site there is no mention of the guards...
 
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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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ezzetabi wrote:
Where did you find the rules you based this great review?

In the leaflet included in this site there is no mention of the guards...
I did research via wikipedia etc but that was a long time ago so I no longer have the links. Basically there were a few theories why the four pieces next to the king were marked differently from the other pieces in the Old English document we have. I took what seemed to me the most reasonable and consistent with the evidence at the time.
 
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I see, so to play this game I need (colors can be shifted of course):

1 goban for the board,
20 black stones for the defenders,
4 gray stones for the immortal guards,
1 red stone for the king,
48 white stones for the attackers
17 brown stones for the corners (and central if the king is not present) neutral guys (actually 13 are enough as the ones in the extreme corners cannot be used for capturing).

The king side starts the game, the first move compensates a little the fact attackers are stronger.
 
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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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ezzetabi wrote:
I see, so to play this game I need (colors can be shifted of course):

1 goban for the board,
20 black stones for the defenders,
4 gray stones for the immortal guards,
1 red stone for the king,
48 white stones for the attackers
17 brown stones for the corners (and central if the king is not present) neutral guys (actually 13 are enough as the ones in the extreme corners cannot be used for capturing).

The king side starts the game, the first move compensates a little the fact attackers are stronger.
I don't think the brown stones are needed. Otherwise, that's correct. I use pieces from my Go set supplemented by 5 other pieces.
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Hello Moshe,
thank you very much for your clear presentation of the game! I would like to add a few details about the available historical documentation, which has become more easily accessible since you wrote this review.

The original manuscript (CCC MS 122) is available here:
http://image.ox.ac.uk/show-all-openings?collection=corpus&ma...

A transcription of the Latin text and an English translation are available on Damian Walker's site:
http://tafl.cyningstan.org.uk/page/167/alea-evangelii-text


whac3 wrote:
I was fortunate enough to encounter in my own researches a scholarly opinion which is used in the rules below and makes the game even better than it already was. Namely, those four defenders-- which I am calling "guards" (like my source, because I do not have access to a copy of the relevant Old English manuscripts to know independently what they are properly called) like the king cannot be used to capture but unlike the king cannot be captured, although they can be immobilized if not removed from play.
I would be extremely interested in knowing more of the scholarly work you mention. I agree that the manuscript seems to suggest different kinds of pieces: it speaks of “leaders” (or “dukes”, “duces” in Latin) and “soldiers” (or “counts”, “comites” in Latin). Yet it does not say if these pieces belong to the attackers, the defenders or both sides. On the diagram that illustrates the manuscript, many pieces bear special markings, most notably four pieces (typically considered as attackers) which are drawn in red (all other pieces are black) and are referenced in the text as “different (or variegated) men” (“varios viros” in Latin).

whac3 wrote:

Any review of this game would not be complete without mention of at least two more points. The first of these is that are knowledge of this game derives primarily from an allegorical treatment of the game by an unknown English monk of the period.
The manuscript was written in Ireland in the XII Century and is based on an allegorical treatment of the game created in the X Century at the court of the English king Aethelstan. The authors of the allegorical treatment are an anonymous Frank and Israel the Grammarian, one of the most learned scholars of the time, who was probably of Breton (or, less likely, Irish) origin. For the biography of Israel, see ”Israel the Grammarian in Anglo-Saxon England” by Michael Lapidge.

whac3 wrote:

The second obligatory point is that the game, like most tafl games, was regarded as an abstraction of a naval battle.
The ancient sources I am aware of regard Tafl games as representing a siege. This is particularly clear in the case of Alea Evangelii: the manuscript mentions “a city and a citadel” (“civitatem et civitatulam” in Latin) and calls the pieces “men” (“viri” in Latin); on the drawing of the board, one of the pieces is labeled “fer gabala”, “the invading man” in ancient Irish. Also Linnaeus’s description of Tablut is explicit in relating the game to the siege of a fortress (“arx” in Latin) in which each piece represents a soldier who is killed (“est occisus” in Latin) when captured.

Another documented parallel is with the Gospels, likely because of the originally pagan sacred nature of the game and/or for the cross-shaped initial layout. We find this identification not only in Alea Evangelii (the Game of the Gospel), but also in the definition of “Fidchell” in Cormac's glossary (900 AD ca):

"Fithchill, means cause-sense. because cause and sense are used in playing it. Or fuath-cell, i.e. shape of a church, because the fithchill board is four-sided in the first place, and its rows are straight, and there are black and white on it ... So also the church in all particulars: fed by four gospels in the four quarters of the earth ...; it is straight [i.e. 'upright'?] in judgements with the rows of scripture; black and white, i.e. good and bad, live in the church".
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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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It's been a few years but IIRC both naval battles and sieges were used to describe the games but this one was more often characterized as being naval.
 
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So there are some differences to other Tafl variants, those are the ones that I noted and never have seen before:

a) The King while not armed may not even be the anvil during capture (the passive piece)
b) The Guard can neither capture as hammer nor as anvil
c) The Throne can be used as a normal tile by the king but not passed by others (up to now I only know of variants where either everyone can pass it or no one can (not even the king)

Correct?

What about repetitions? Exit Forts? Draw Forts?
 
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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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Moat versions pieces can pass over the throne but not stop there. The king always can. By forts do you mean the corners?
 
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No piece other than the king-- whether attack, defender or guard-- can occupy or pass over the center position
That is why I asked. What do you mean with "moat versions pieces"?

There are variants in which the white player can create a draw fort by surrounding his own king so that he still can move but none of his pieces can be captured therefore enforcing a draw. Some variants disallow this.

Then there are variants that allow an exit fort where the king also gets safely surrounded but with edge access which then counts as victory for white.
 
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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typo for most
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