Traditional Board Games

Games Around the World: Lapland

Reindeer, a common sight in Lapland.
Reindeer, a common sight in Lapland.

Saturday, 23rd January 2016

On my virtual journey around the world, we have seen a number of civilisations that were inventive in the sphere of board games. Most people know that chess and other famous games come from India, and China and Korea have also been a rich source of games. The final stop in the tour may be surprising to some people: Lapland.

Lapland is home to the Sámi people, and occupies parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The Sámi are traditionally known as semi-nomadic reindeer herders, though they have also earned their livelihoods as coastal fishing, fur trapping and sheep herding. These are not the kind of sedentary lifestyles that one would associate with the development of board games, but no less than three traditional board games are associated with the people between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

None of the games sprang fully formed from the soil of Lapland. All three were developments of games invented elsewhere. But the Sámi were not content merely to adopt foreign games and play them unchanged. For some they created themes, and they seemed to blend others together in ways that added a Sámi twist to give the games their own distinctive flavour.

Probably the most famous game from Lapland is tablut, and it is probably the least original of the three. Tablut is a hnefatafl game, adopted from neighbouring Norse people probably in the mediaeval period. The Sámi may not have changed the rules much if at all, but pasted a theme onto the game based on the recent history of their neighbours. A Swedish king with eight guards lies at the centre of the board, while sixteen Muscovite attackers are closing in from the edge. The king must escape from the board with the help of his guards, while the Muscovites try to capture him. This was played in Lapland in the early eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century another game was identified, dablot prejjesne. This is a mouthful, and is sometimes abbreviated to dablo. Here the two sides are equal in strength if not in theme. A king, a prince and 28 warriors face off against a landlord, his son and 28 tenant farmers. This is a modified game of alquerque, a forerunner of draughts. In dablo, the senior pieces cannot be captured by their subordinates, so the kings and landlord are vulnerable only to each other. Similarly the prince and landlord's son be captured by one another or by the king and landlord, but not by the warriors or tenant farmers. This adds interesting tactical aspects to the game, where the most senior pieces are protected almost like the kings in a chess game. The aim is to capture or trap the opponent's pieces. Entrapment is the only victory available to the side which has lost its king or landlord.

Also in the nineteenth century another wargame was played, sáhkku. This resembles a race because of its use of a die, but is in fact a battle. Fifteen women face fifteen men across a board with three rows of fifteen playing spaces. In the centre is a king, who can be recruited by either side and may change allegiance a number of times during the game. The men and women travel around the board in a set course, like in a race game, but aim to capture one another. The king, once recruited, has a little more freedom of movement, being able to move in four directions. The first player to capture all the enemies wins the game. This game is related to similar Scandinavian "running fight" games, which were played in England too, and found their way to Northern Europe from the Middle East without having taken route in the lands in between. The Sámi innovation is to take the king from hnefatafl and find him a new role in this game.

Apart from the culture, another aspect links all three games: the design of the pieces. Sámi games are distinguished by a particular piece style. The pieces were generally tall like pawns (as opposed to discs or pebbles). One side's pieces tapered to a single peak, while the other side's pieces had a double peak. The distinctive designs allowed players to tell one side from another when not dye or paint was available to stain the pieces.

I hope that you have enjoyed this tour of the world's traditional board games. There are other places I would have liked to have gone, and may do so in future, but for this journey I concentrated on the places that seem to have generated a large number of distinctive games.


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