Tawlbwrdd (pronounced something like towel-boorth) is a Welsh game, a member of the hnefatafl family of games introduced to the British Isles by the Vikings. These games are unusual among traditional games, in that the sides are unequal and the objectives different.
A king and a group of loyal defenders occupy the centre of the board, and around the edges are twice their number of rebellious attackers. The object of the game for the king's side is to get the king to safety at the edge of the board. The object for the attackers is to capture the king.
History of Tawlbwrdd
King Hywel Dda reigned in the tenth century and bequeathed a set of enlightened laws with which the country was governed, until it was annexed to England in the thirteenth century. These laws mentioned tawlbwrdd, which was to be given as a gift of office to high-ranking officials.
The laws dictated the value of the game given to people of different rank. In one place, the laws describe the make-up of the pieces, giving the values of the king and individual pieces. A simple arithmetical process shows from this that the game was played with a king and eight defenders, facing sixteen attackers.
The game lasted longer in Wales than in many other places. Its rules were partially set down by Robert ap Ifan in 1587. The game he observed was larger in size than the ones described in the laws of Wales: a king and twelve defenders against twenty-four attackers. It may be that the larger game replaced the smaller, or it may be that both games were played side-by-side throughout the game's history.
Like other hnefatafl games, tawlbwrdd has undergone a revival in the past century. An academic paper by F. R. Lewis in 1940 attempted to piece together the game's rules, and Lewis proposed some starting layouts for the pieces. The historian R. C. Bell proposed an alternative layout which has proved moderately popular; the diamond-centred hnefatafl games you see today are probably inspired by Bell.
Rules for Tawlbwrdd
Tawlbwrdd is played on a board of 11 squares by 11, with a king and twelve defenders against twenty-four attackers.
1. The king is placed in the centre of the board, with his defenders around him and the attackers at the edge of the board.
2. The attackers make the first move.
3. In his turn a player may move a piece across the board by any number of spaces in a straight line, horizontally or vertically.
4. A piece may not land on another, nor may it leap over a piece.
5. The king moves in the same way as the other pieces.
6. An enemy piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides, horizontally or vertically. That piece is removed from the board.
7. It is possible to capture two or three pieces at once by so surrounding them.
8. It is not possible to capture a row of pieces, however.
9. The defending player wins the game by moving the king to any square on the edge of the board.
10. The attacking player wins by capturing the king.
Early games mentioned in the laws of Wales were played with fewer pieces, presumably on a smaller board. So in addition to the choice of 11x11 boards, the game can also be played on a 9x9 board with a king and eight defenders against sixteen attackers. For 9x9 layout, see the game tablut elsewhere on this site.
Strategy in Tawlbwrdd
The game has a basic strategy for each side. The attackers have to form a blockade to contain the king and his defenders, and gradually close in the ring until the defending forces are suffocated, capturing defenders and eventually seizing the king himself.
The defenders can stop this happening by breaking through holes in the attackers' blockade, tackling the attackers from behind, trying to widen the holes through the blockade to allow the king to break free.
Tawlbwrdd is characterised among hnefatafl games in that the king is very vulnerable. While his powers of capture are the same as his defenders, he cannot be put in immediate danger as readily, as his capture will lose him the game.