Traditional Board Games

Alea Evangelii

Alea evangelii, from a mediaeval manuscript.
Alea evangelii, from a mediaeval manuscript.

An enigmatic variant of the Viking game hnefatafl, alea evangelii was recorded in the 12th century and said to be played at the court of the 10th century English king Athelstan. In hnefatafl games, the king tries to escape from the board with the help of his defenders, while twice as many attackers try to capture him. Alea evangelii is the biggest of these games ever recorded, being played with 73 pieces on a board of 19x19 playing spaces. Not a game for the faint-hearted!

Only one recorded reference to this game exists, and that gives us no rules. But other members of the hnefatafl family of games have reasonably consistent sets of rules, so many have tried to reconstruct this impressive game. Due to its size, and the length of time taken to play, this game has understandably escaped much experimentation so far.

History of Alea Evangelii

Corpus Christ College, Cambridge, owns an interesting manuscript dating to 1140. One of the things that makes it interesting is that it depicts a board game which, the manuscript says, was played in the court of king Athelstan 200 years earlier. It calls the game alea evangelii, the game of the gospels.

The game features a king in the centre of the board, and a large number of men around him. This is a kind of hnefatafl, a game brought to the British Isles by Norse invaders who settled mainly in the northern areas. In hnefatafl, a king in the centre must escape from the board with the help of his guards, while twice their number of attackers attempt to capture them. In alea evangelii, the numbers are 24 defenders and 48 attackers, making this the largest hnefatafl game known.

Hnefatafl was popular in the British Isles until the coming of chess, and was last recorded being played in Wales in 1587. Alea evangelii itself is not recorded outside the Corpus Christi manuscript, but this a board of 15 squares by 15 found at York suggests an English preference for large versions of hnefatafl.

Rules for Alea Evangelii

Rules for Alea Evangelii
Alea Evangelii is played by two people on the intersections of a square board. The board has 19 lines in each direction. Sixteen points in the corners are marked with fixed men who belong to neither side but prevent others from landing there. A gap in the lines is the king’s space, or castle, and four other points are marked with a circle to aid the setting up of the pieces. One player has a king and 24 faithful dukes, while the other has 48 rebellious counts.

1. The game begins with the pieces set out as in the diagram.

2. The king’s side takes the first move, play then alternating between players.

3. In his turn a player moves one of his pieces along a straight line, horizontally or vertically.

4. No piece may land on another, nor is there any jumping.

5. Only the king can land on the central space, though other pieces can pass through it.

6. Only the king may move to the spaces occupied by the fixed men: see rule 11.

7. The king is captured by surrounding him on all four sides by counts. If he is next to the central square or the edge of the board, he may be captured by surrounding him on the other three sides.

8. Dukes and counts are captured by surrounding them with enemies on two opposite sides, horizontally or vertically. Two or three men may be captured simultaneously if each falls between the moving piece and another enemy.

9. The fixed men in the corners may be used to capture pieces by either player.

10. A piece may come to rest voluntarily between two others, without being captured.

11. If the king moves to one of the squares occupied by the fixed men, he has escaped the board and wins the game.

12. If the king is captured by his opponents, then he has lost the game.

Strategy in Alea Evangelii

Attacking strategy for hnefatafl games usually involves the formation of a blockade around the king's forces. In this version of hnefatafl, the blockade is almost formed by the counts, so the counts have the task of completing the blockade, and chasing down or restricting the movement of any dukes that might break through beforehand.

Because the blockade in alea evangelii is almost completely formed, the dukes must try and get as many pieces outside it as possible in the early moves, preferably making way for the king at the same time. The king is a strong piece in this version of the game, and his strength will be needed. The king will have to throw himself at the blockade again and again, working in concert with those dukes which have escaped, to open holes in the counts' lines.

Alea evangelii: try it out!

The embedded game differs from the rules above by having the king win when he reaches the edge of the board. This makes the task of the king and dukes less difficult.


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