Tuesday, September 28, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Tafl Review

Yesterday I continued the Colonial Gaming series with a look at Fox & Geese. There’s no version of Fox & Geese in the app store, but I did find a compilation of Tafl games, which are closely related.

Simply called Tafl, this app is the work of Machine Codex, which has done a good job at translating these games to mobile formats. The features are different for iPhone/Touch and iPad. The version I tested on my Touch includes Brandubh, Fidchell, Ard Ri and Tablut, while the iPad version adds Tawlbwrdd, Hnefatafl and Alea Evangelii as well.

The visuals are appealing, and the touch inputs are as simple as you can get. You just touch a checker and move it. It works perfectly well.

The four games are all variations on the classic Tafl gameplay, in which each side has a different number of pieces and different victory conditions. The first three are played on a 7x7 checker board, which creates an odd rank and file at the center of the board. This is where the “king” player usually begins. Tablut is played on a 9x9 board. The white side is the defender, while the black is the attacker.

Brandubh is a an Irish form of the game, and the name means “raven black.” This may be a reference to the color of one side, to a bit of lore suggesting that the game is about ravens attacking a king, or to something else entirely. No one really has any idea, since references are limited to a couple ancient poems and even the reconstruction of the game is hypothetical.

In Brandubh, the white player has four regular pieces and a special king piece called the “branan” (or “chief”). The black player has eight regular pieces. Both sides may move along the rank and file any number of spaces, like a rook in chess. Any piece surrounded on either side is captured and removed. The goal of the white player is to get the king from his starting place at the center of the board (the “Throne”) to one of the four corners, or “Keeps.” The goal of the black player is to prevent this.

Fidchell is a similar game with sketchy origins, and any modern version is pure guesswork. The version in the Tafl app simply doubles the number of checkers in play: eight white plus a white kind, and 16 black, although it’s still played on a 7x7 board.

Ard Ri is Fidchell played with a different configuration. In place of the cruciform layout of Brandubh and Fidchell, it groups the nine white checkers in a block at the center.

Tablut is the best known version, and for a very cool reason. Biologist Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, discovered people still playing the game in 1732 during an expedition to a remote area of the Laplands. They used boards made of reindeer hides, featuring 9x9 grids. Since he didn’t speak the language, Linnaeus sussed out the rules by observation, referring to the white pieces as Sweeds and the dark as Muscovites. The version in the app is played on a 9x9 board with 9 white versus 16 black.

At $3, the app might seem a little high for an abstract strategy game, but it’s a hybrid iPhone/iPad version with a good AI, and is the only worthwhile electronic version of these games that I’ve ever played.


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