Brandub is a game of the hnefatafl family, played by the Irish. It is the smallest known hnefatafl game. A king and four defenders face eight attackers on a board of seven rows of seven points. The king must escape to one of the corner squares, while the attackers must capture the king. All pieces move in straight lines like the rook in chess, and capture an enemy by surrounding it on two opposite sides.
History of Brandub
Ireland is one among many countries to which the Norse raiders and settlers took their arms, their culture and their game of hnefatafl. There has been confusion about what the Irish called this game, but literary evidence settles on the name brandub, or brannumh, which means, inexplicably, “black raven”.
While the size of hnefatafl boards varied from place to place, archaeological finds show that the Irish had a preference for the smallest of the boards, 7 squares by 7. Boards found at Downpatrick, Waterford, Antrim, and a famous board from Ballinderry, are all of this size. Poetry also suggests that they played with 13 pieces: a branan, or chief, with 4 guards against 8 attackers.
The game may have been played in Ireland by the 9th century. It was certainly played by the 10th, when the Ballinderry board was made. Some of the poetry dates from the admittedly vague period of 1200-1640, showing the game was enjoyed in Ireland for at least 300 years, possibly as much as 800. In all probability, the coming of chess to Ireland would have eventually put an end to brandub’s popularity.
Rules for Brandub
Most of the popular books have been unusually reluctant to propose a set of rules for playing brandub. The rules proposed here are based on the poetic and archaeological information from an article by Éoin MacWhite in the journal Éigse, from 1946.
1. Brandub is played by two players, on the points or intersections of a board of 7 lines by 7, using 13 pieces: a king, four defenders and eight attackers. The central and corner points of the board are marked, as shown in the diagram.
2. The pieces are placed with the king in the centre, the defenders adjacent to him, and the attackers beyond, all forming an orthogonal cross reaching to the edges of the board, again as in the diagram.
3. The attackers make the first move, followed by the king or defenders, play alternating thereafter until the game is finished.
4. A player may move a piece by sliding it along a line in any direction to another point, as far as the player pleases, providing that it does not turn a corner or jump over another piece.
5. Only the king may come to rest on the central point or one of the four corners, though other pieces may pass the centre.
6. An enemy is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides, along a marked line, by two of one's own pieces. The enemy is then removed from the board.
7. The king may act with a defender in making captures, and may himself be captured by two attackers, or two defenders may take an attacker.
8. If a piece simultaneously traps two or three enemies in different directions, all of the trapped enemies are captured.
9. A piece may move between two enemies without harm. One of the enemies must move away and back again to capture it.
10. Either side may capture an enemy by trapping the enemy between one of its own pieces and a marked corner square. The central square does not have this effect.
11. The king and defenders win the game if the king reaches one of the marked corner squares.
12. The attackers win the game by capturing the king.
13. If play becomes repetitious, if one player has no legal move, or if the players otherwise desire it, then a draw may be declared.
Strategy in Brandub
In larger versions of hnefatafl, the attackers try to construct a fully-enclosed blockade around the defenders. But in brandub this is all but impossible. So instead the attackers must try to restrict the defenders' movement in other ways. Partial blockades can be constructed, often such that defenders can break out but not without loss.
Defenders need to try to get outside the attackers' formation in order to attack it from the rear, as in other versions of hnefatafl. In brandub, however, the small number of pieces means that losses cannot be so easily be borne by the defenders.
It is easy to assume that brandub will be the easiest hnefatafl game, from the smallness of the board and the paucity of pieces. This couldn't be further from the truth. Fewer pieces means that each must take on a greater responsibility, often doing double duty both in attacking the enemy and defending comrades. Short-term tactics like the pin and the fork are more devastating in this game than in larger variants.