Military Strategy Games

dragon chess

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Some readers might be interested to discover the Tafl group of medieval strategy boardgames, such as Hnefatafl and the various Fox Game derivatives. The purpose of these pure strategy games is to teach players how to deal with specifically uneven combat scenarios. Such games get you thinking about how to make and break through group formations when outnumbered.

Here are some free to download rules for Hnefatafl and some rules plus a board and pieces for Fox and Geese.

For other good rule interpretations for playing both Tablut (the Tafl style game preserved by my maternal ancestors - the Saami people) and Hnefatafl, please visit this resource Linnaeus’ Game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hnefatafl by John C. Ashton. Thank you, John.

For a historical background on these games, please read this excellent paper by Neil Peterson and this marvellous PDF file by Sten Helmfrid. Another good article discussing some of the games can be found here.

If you really want to get stuck in and start playing these games in a progressive and logical manner that includes plenty of variations, an absolute must is Moshe Callen's detailed overview and individual articles on the Tafl family of games here. The internet doesn't get any better than this!

Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl means "fist table". It is a game involving a King and his band of defenders surrounded and outnumbered by attackers at a ratio of 2 to 1, not counting the King himself. The King player has to get his / her King to safety while a hostile army tries to enclose and crush him within a noose formation - rather like crushing something in a clenched fist.

You can try your hand at playing Hnefatafl and the intriguing Saami version, Tablut here on line against a computer. Rules are available in English, Danish, German, French and Russian. You can play either the attacking (enclosing) or the defending (King) role and play on either a 9x9 square or an 11x11 square board. You can select either "easy" or "hard" play and for Hnefatafl you can choose which version of King capture you wish to allow. I recommend playing on the 9x9 grid and selecting the rule that allows the King to be captured on just two sides in order to achieve the best game balance. I think that this is quite a good overall Tafl rule variant for beginners anyway, because inexperienced players will almost certainly find the attacker role harder to play well than the King's role and consequently games might feel very unbalanced in favour of the King. Attacking players need to develop a good, watertight "enclosing noose" strategy in order to win. Anyway, this is a great on-line resource for learning how the different rule variants can effect a Tafl game's outcome and this can help you to approach the entire subject more as military strategy puzzles than need to be solved and less as just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

NOTE: I would strongly recommend making a Tablut set and playing the game with a friend. Here is an alternative set of rules you can play around with: Tablut Rules.

UPDATE: An excellent Tafl resource I've just come across is the following website: Tafl: An Obsession giving a concise and clear description of the strategies involved for both sides. You can play many variations of the Tafl family of games against the computer applet and can even select, rule by rule, which version to play.

A rule that I consider to be useful generally within the genre of Tafl games is that ANY piece can be captured by IMMOBILISATION: that is by depriving it of all of its "liberties" or opportunities to move. A friendly soldier cannot be considered to block another piece's liberty, otherwise the intial set up would cause the King to be captured and he would be unable to use a bodyguard to protect him from becoming surrounded.

Within the different Tafl games, certain squares may also count as hostile soldiers, both for immobilsation or by the custodian capture method described below.

The edge of the board prevents any further movement away from the centre of the board and may therefore count as a lost liberty for IMMOBILISATION CAPTURE. Note however that in the case of capturing the King, games that allow the King to win by reaching an edge (some renditions of the rules require the King to reach a corner), he will almost certainly win the game before he can be captured in such a way.

An additional form of capture is CUSTODIAN CAPTURE. A piece can be captured when deprived of just two of his liberties on opposite sides. The edge of the board is not considered to be hostile for such captures. Some of the Tafl games allow the King to be captured by the custodian method just like any other piece. Other Tafl games do not allow the King to be captured but insist he is fully immobilised.

Written Accounts

"Law 9: Si quis hostem 1 inter 2 sibi hostes collocare posit, est occisus et ejici debet, item Rex." This roughly translates as "If you want to trap a piece between 2 of its enemies, it is killed and ejected [from the board], likewise the King."
- Linnaeus, July 1732

"Two players move the pieces, and if one belonging to the king comes between the attackers, he is dead and is thrown out of the play; and if one of the attackers comes between two of the kings men, the same. If the king himself comes between two of the attackers and if you say 'watch your king' before he moves into that place, and he is unable to escape, you catch him. If the other says gwrheill [I am your liegeman ?] and goes between the two, there is no harm. If the king can go along the (..... at present no one recognises this word in the manuscript) line, that side wins the game."
- Robert ap Ifan describing the equivalent Welsh game "Tawlbrwdd" in 1587

This rule certainly seems to indicate that the King can be captured like soldiers - employing the custodian capture rule, but perhaps the second account would also seem to indicate that, unlike regular soldiers, the King may come to rest between two opposing soldiers on his turn without being captured. The enemy would then have to set up a capture on their turn, just as for regular custodian capture. In other words - the usual custodian capture rule - that it has to be the attacker's turn for the custodian capture formation to count - would here apply only to the King. Regular soldiers would be subject to a unique stricter form of custodian capture that would not allow them to even come to rest between two enemy pieces without being removed from the board.

This interpretation of the rule is not in any set of rules that I am aware of, but it is another variant I am currently playing around with. (I am working on my own reconstruction of the Tafl rules, based on the manuscripts and archeological findings and may produce a book or e-book about it in the future, if I get time.) My opinion at the moment is that this rule interpretation makes for quite a different kind of game - for better or worse, one where a slowly tightening impregnable noose of attackers features far more prominently - I am yet to discover how much this affects the victory probablities for the two players. I find the game slower moving and less exciting, with significantly fewer opportunities to make captures, but that might just be a case of my being culturally conditioned towards high fatality games. In defense of this interpretation I would like to state that it might be more realistic - ordinarily you cannot blunder into a miltarily dangerous position where you are flanked on both sides on the grounds that it is "your turn". A King may be harder to capture for diplomatic reasons, should he be bold enough to march into the enemy camp - perhaps he is being given the opportunity to parley or at least being given the hospitality that was perhaps seen as due to an esteemed King.

An alternative interpretation of Robert Ap Ifan's account might refer simply to a situation in Tafl games akin to the Chess rule that a King is not permitted to move into a capture. If you observe that your opponent is moving his / her King into a space that would lead to its capture on the next turn, you sound a warning of "watch your King" to which the King player replies "I am your liegeman" or "to you I am much obliged" or other such words to the effect of "ta very much".

mini tablut (7x7 squares)

Some surrounded Saami seek to break out past some encircling Swedes in this mini Tafl variant.

This is one of the variations I recently played around with, based on an historical Viking tactic of surrounding an enemy King in his throne room. The aim of the King's player is to escape out along one of the four central lines, through one of the four doorways and make it to one of the corner squares. The Swedes begin the game standing either side of the doorways.

Capture is by the strict custodian method for regular soldiers - he may NOT rest between two opposing soldiers and be considered safe. He may charge through the gap, but must not stop, otherwise he will be captured. The King may rest between enemy soldiers if it is his turn, as per the "bare-faced cheek" rule variant.

full tablut (9x9 squares)

In the 9x9 Saami game of Tablut, the King must try to escape to any edge in such a way that does not allow his piece to be captured in his next turn. (I think the victory rule described by Robert Ap Ifan sounds very similar in that I think he is required once at the edge to be able to make an additional movement along it.) In Tablut, once vacated, neither the King's throne square nor the enemy base camps (shown here by the darker squares) can be re-entered by any piece. Additionally, all of these squares effectively count as hostile pieces for the purposes of capture, thus enabling a piece to be captured by a single other piece on the opposite side, when applied to the custodian capture rule. Note that rule variants exist that do not allow the King to be captured by normal custodian capture rules, instead requiring him to be immobilised by total surrounding. In this instance he would be able to be captured by two or three enemies instead of four whilst adjacent to his throne or an enemy camp.

Rule variants you may wish to try are that the game can be played so that one's OWN territory is NOT considered hostile for capture, for movement, or for either, but the opposing player's is. So, for example, you might decide that whilst the King can be pinned against a HOSTILE base camp, he can not be pinned against his own throne / palace. You may decide to permit movement across one's own territory as well, but it would probably imbalance the game too much in favour of the attackers if they were allowed to stop in their base camps, so I would suggest that they may be allowed to cross the squares, but not to stop there: their superiors would evidently yell at them that "there is a war on, you know!" if they tried to take a break. People expect Kings to be lazy, so he'd get away with it. Besides, he'd only be making his own job harder and who'd argue with the King? Or you could see it as an admission of defeat: a lost battle and therefore a lost game... or... or... there are so many permutations possible...


alea evangelii

A nice clear set of instructions for the deluxe, naval themed variant of Hnefatafl Alea Evangelii can be found here. This is seen as one of the subtlest and deepest of the Tafl games. Read a detailed review of the game here.


Outfoxing Mr. Fox

One of the simplest of the Fox style games is the English variant Fox and Hounds in which the hounds player has to use 4 hounds to trap a single fox who is trying to find a gap to escape through. You might also like to explore the Indian Chess variant Maharajah and the Sepoys.

The standard game of Fox and Geese, played with 13 geese, adds the dimension of allowing the fox player to pick off individual geese, giving it a degree of applicability to martial artists who might wish to think about how they might survive an encounter with a hostile gang, however the game is weighed in favour of the geese. A variant I came across limited the movement of the Geese by restricting their movement to orthogonal movement only (prohibiting diagonal movement for them), but perfect play by the geese player still seems to produce an inevitable win for him / her. Other variants exist that add an extra 2 or 4 extra geese and then limit their movements in various ways, typically prohibiting backwards movement for the 15 geese game and either backwards and sideways movement OR diagonal movement in the 17 geese variant. These variatiations also allow the fox player to win or at least force a draw by getting behind the geese to the far side of the board, which does make a fox win considerably more likely. Such variants combine the trapping and picking off of Fox and Geese with the escape element of Fox and Hounds. Whether the odds work out even or not, you can play around with the rules a bit and approach the games more as solo (or co-operative) puzzles by playing through the various movements and outcomes. Played solo, you can switch from playing the fox one turn to the hounds or geese in the next.

You can try playing a game of Fox and Geese here against a computer. This edition plays in "easy", "intermediate" and "advanced" versions and gives the goose player 17 geese without limiting their movement, so the game is heavily favoured towards the geese. That said, it will introduce you to the strategy of the game and if you fancy a mental challenge, try playing the fox against the computer playing geese on the "advanced" setting. Let me know if you manage to win. [Stop Press - since time of writing they seem to have made the computer play less well on the advanced geese setting, so winning with the fox is now a lot more feasible.]

If you prefer to play against human opponents with a gameboard and playing pieces, you can download everything you need to play Fox and Geese here.

One version of the game, released in the 1800's, had extra diagonals in place. You can download my version of the board, pieces and rules here. The best way to play on this board, I think, is to allow the geese to move along the black, orthogonal lines only and the fox to move along the thinner, red, diagonal lines as well. This certainly makes the game much harder for the geese. If you find it makes it TOO hard, you can try adding extra geese. Feel free to e-mail me through the contact page to let me know how you get on.

The Scandanavian game of Halatafl, Rävspelet or Asalto involves 20 sheep / soldiers trying to get past a pair of foxes / officers into a paddock / fort. You should be able to make yourself a board and have a go from the Wiki article on Fox Games.

Uneven strategy games of this kind seem to be quite prominent in India and Asia as well as in Europe. A nice looking set of Rules, Playing Pieces and a board for the Nepalese game "Bagh Chal" (literally "Tiger moving") can be downloaded by clicking on the link. You could also check out What mathematicians get up to for the some basic ideas for how to consider the probabilites within these and similar games. Check out the Indian game Pulijudam, Asian Leopard Games, Asian Tiger Games and this list of games for yet more variations.

In terms of the Chinese martial arts we practice, such games probably have the strongest conceptual connection to Baguazhang, as this art was geared heavily towards the problem of fighting multiple opponents. While such games are obviously not any kind of substitute for hands-on martial training, they nonethless make for a fascinating and fun way to exercise your strategic military brain and it is from such considerations that these games almost certainly emerged. Silat practitioners may be interested to discover how closely the boards of the Asian Tiger Games resemble Silat stepping platforms.

UPDATE: May 09 - I have now produced my own Kung Fu themed Tafl game, along with a Kung Fu themed Chess-like game. Both games are contained in Rolling Thunder Boxers™.


Mini-Dablot: An Introduction to Saami Checkers (Dablot Prejjesne)

I really like this game, even though I'm not much good at it. I made some little men out of polymer clay (OK, it was FIMO) and several laminated boards. I particularly like this mini version of the game, played on a smaller board than the regular game, because it has the same strategic considerations, without dragging on for too long.

Vikings!

"Here Come The Swedes!" A cheerful looking Viking army prepares for battle in the Saami equivalent of checkers / draughts "Dablot Prejjesne".

Traditionally, Dablot Prejjesne represented struggles over land between the Saami people and incoming land-aquiring cultures. I've already made a horde of Vikings for playing Tafl and Tablut games, so they'll do the job! They represent the incomers trying to settle on and farm the Saami hunting grounds.

dablot set up

Set up your two armies as shown - one player (in the blue) plays the Saami reindeer herders whilst the other plays the Swedes. The pieces are ranked, each army consisting of 11 regular men plus a leader and his son, shown in the illustration by the big piece and medium sized piece respectively. The leader also has some distinctive headgear going on - the Swedish King is wearing a crown, whilst the Saami leader is wearing a very nifty 4-pointed green hat.

The game plays rather like draughts or checkers, but an ordinary man (soldier or tenant farmer) is worth just one point and can only capture pieces of equal rank. The son of the leader is worth two points and can capture an ordinary man or the opposing player's leader's son. The leader is worth three points and is able to capture any other piece on the board, including the other leader. Please note, therefore, that it takes a leader to capture a leader, which makes him very powerful indeed. If you like, you can play the game using draughts (or checkers) as playing pieces, stacking them to present the different ranks. A set of 16 draughts per side gives you just enough to complete one army (11 x 1 layer, 1 x 2 layers plus 1 x 3 layers), so you'll need a set of Turkish or Polish / Continental Draughts or two sets of British draughts.

draughts stacks

Players take it in turns to move one of their pieces and either player can start. All pieces move in the same manner: movement is one point along any line in any direction to any vacant space. Alternatively, a capture can be made by making a short leap over an adjacent enemy onto a vacant point on the opposite side, just like the capture in draughts / checkers.

Multiple captures are possible and entirely optional. If a captor is able to make another capture immediately following his previous one, and wishes to do so, he can keep going for as long as he has enemies to jump.

Play continues until the opponent's leader is captured, OR until the leader is the only man left, OR until the opponent is unable to make any move. NOTE: Guard the leader's son very carefully - he is a very valuable piece and the game can quickly turn tables if you lose him, even if you had a significant lead. In fact, fortunes can change rather rapidly in this game so be careful not to make any silly mistakes.

Rules Variants

Rule variants are sometimes employed by gaming enthusiasts to speed games up or to add extra strategic considerations. Some people think the Dablot Prejjesne endgame can be a bit long and drawn out unless one of the first two variants are implemented. This does rather pose the question "what's the rush?" but I suppose if you are not living in the frozen North, you might want to take advantage of the lighter evenings to take a stroll instead of staying huddled by the fire because the temperature is minus 40 outside. Anyway, the first two variants are fairly common and I've presented some additional variants of my own.

Variant 1) Compulsory Capture - "You can't Get the Staff!"

This rule states that soldiers must capture if they can, though for leaders and their sons capture remains optional. You can rationalise this by deciding that the lowly soldiers or tenant farmers can be lured into making damaging rash attacks and that these might sometimes thwart the plans of their leaders.

The rule does raise one or two difficult questions regarding the extent of the capture the player is forced to make, when more than one capture is possible in the same turn. Before starting play, players need to be clear about whether or not the capture must take precedence over any other capture by the same player and whether or not he is permitted to make an optional capture with his leader or son instead.

I think the most playable solution is to decide that if a player is put in the position of being able to make a capture with a soldier in his turn, he must do so and it must take precedence over a capture with a leader or his son. The player is only committed to making the first jump when multiple jumps are possible. If more than one capture by soldier is possible in the same turn, the player may choose which one to make.

Variant 2a) "Ever Onward"

In this variation, regular soldiers may not move backwards, either straight or diagonally, though higher ranking pieces are permitted to do so.

Variant 2b) Promotion

This is an extension of Rule Variant 2a. Whilst rank promotion is not normally played when using the "Ever Onward" rule, you might decide to allow promotion from soldier to the rank of officer (or equivalent) upon reaching the opposite edge of the board. This allows a soldier to move again rather than simply getting stuck at the far edge of the board. A soldier or tenant that gets promoted to the rank of officer has the same rank as a leader's son - 2 points. A regular is therefore worth 1 point; an officer / promoted piece OR a leader's son is worth 2 points and the leader is worth 3 points.

Using draughts (or checkers) as playing pieces, you can easily stack pieces to present the different ranks, so that a double stack is worth 2 points and a triple stack is worth 3. Only a promotion of rank 1 to rank 2 is possible as there can only be one King. I don't think it is appropriate to restrict promotion according the number of draughts available because that rule effectively punishes players who have had none of their pieces captured. Consequently you will probably need to have more than one set of draughts pieces available. Please note that a full sized game of Dablot Prejjesne is played on a board of 6 x 7 points with a total of 28 soldiers, so it would be even more necessary to have multiple sets if you wished to play the full game using draughts as playing pieces.

full sized dablot game

Taking the idea further, you might decide to allow a 4th rank to be created so that a soldier is worth 1 point and an officer is worth 2 points. The leader's son is worth 3 points (played with a stack of 3 draughts), while a leader is worth 4. You could, in fact, have a field day introducing additional ranks such as NCOs, commissioned officers, Captains and so on. It would be necessary to restrict each piece to one promotion per game using the existing rule and you may decide to limit the availability of specific ranks in other ways. The promotion rule may make the game a little unnecessarily complicated, but I think it is fun to try these things to see how they play out once you have a reasonable grasp of the strategy of the basic game.

Variant 3) "Officer Material"

An additional promotion style variant I dreamed up requires the use of flippable pieces where the reverse side of a piece can mark the piece out as different in some way.

As per the normal rules, any piece is permitted to move in any direction, BUT a soldier that never moves backwards is designated "officer material" and may be promoted to a 2 point piece upon reaching the far side of the board. If a soldier makes any backwards move during play, flip him over to reveal a mark of some kind on the underside of the piece - perhaps a stripe or spot of a contrasting colour. Such a piece is no longer eligible for promotion upon reaching the far side of the board. However any soldier or farmer who makes it to the far side of the board without having retreated even once up until that point in the game is marked out as "a cut above the rest" and becomes promoted to the rank of a 2 points piece upon reaching the far side.

You can used stacked draughts to indicate his promotion or if you are using special pieces, you will need to make some additional "sons" or unique pieces that play like them. Marking the under sides of disc style pieces such as draughts could provide an alternative method for indicating a promoted piece if you are not using stacked draughts, but that couldn't be implemented at the same time as this rule variant.

Variant 4) Action Points

Here, by prior agreement, each player is permitted to perform three actions in his / her turn - whether to move three individual pieces one space each, one piece three spaces or two spaces with one piece and one space with another.

The same rule applies to making captures. You may perform up to three captures in succession with the same piece OR you may make up to three individual captures using up to three of your pieces. Again, it is about totalling up to three individual actions. These can be done in any combination, so it is possible to perform a double capture with one piece and a single capture with another. Note that this rule does limit multiple captures using the same piece, which are unlimited in the regular rules.

Variant 5) Ambush Prejjesne

Here it is possible for a player to make a series of successive jumps in the same turn with multiple lower ranked pieces in order to gang up on and overcome a higher ranked enemy. If a piece is jumped a number of times equal to its rank in the same turn it is removed from the board, just as it would be if being captured by a piece of the same rank or higher.

Two soldiers are able to jump over the enemy son and capture it. Similarly, a son plus a soldier is able to ambush the enemy leader. Alternatively, three soldiers may make three jumps to capture the enemy leader.

IMPORTANT: the entire manoeuvre must possible from the outset. You may not make any of the individual moves that would comprise the ambush and then cease part way.

Endgame

By now you may have figured that I am something of a gaming nut as well as a martial arts obsessive. If you have any comments or questions about strategy gaming, please feel free to contact me through the contacts page.


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