Gwyddbwyll and Tallfwrdd, Ancient Welsh Board Games
Long before chess came to Europe from India, the British Celts were playing board games where the object was to capture a central ‘king’ piece. Two variants of this game existed, Gwyddbwyll and Tallfwrdd.
Gwyddbwyll, literally meaning ‘wooden wisdom’ (and thus it is related to the Irish game Fidchell) and is known predominantly from mythological sources. Indeed, the game features in three of the Welsh epics known as the Mabinogion: The Dream of Magnus Maximus, Peredur son of Efrawg and the Dream of Rhonabwy.
In terms of popular belief gwyddbwyll is played on a 7×7 board and this ties-in with the Ballinderry Game Board found in 1932 during the excavation of a “crannog”, or lake dwelling at Ballinderry, West Meath, Ireland. It seems that the game was played with a king and four princes (or defenders) against eight opponents (or raiders).
The king is placed in the centre of the board, flanked by four princes. The aim of the game being to move the king to the safety of one of the corner squares. Eight attackers are evenly spaced along the edges of the board. The king wins by moving from the central space to one of the corners of the board and only the king is allowed to enter the central space at any time. The king loses if the attackers surround him or if all the princes are lost. Capture of the princes or attackers is accomplished by blocking the opponent’s piece between two of your own. However a piece can move in between two opposing pieces without being captured. Each piece can only move one orthogonal space at a time (ie only forwards or backwards). If not occupied by the king the centre square counts as an additional ‘man’ ie any piece (except the king) sandwiched between it and another piece is captured. The king can also be captured at the edge of the board by only three opposing pieces. Which means that if the attackers are down to only two men the king’s side has won by default.
In contrast, Tallfwrdd (literally peg-board [though the name can also be derived from tafl ‘to throw’, referring to the die with which the board is played]) is known from historical sources. It is described in the Cyfrraith Hywel Dda (The Laws of Hywel Dda) which specifies the value of a towlbwrdd which shall be provided to various members of a king’s court (and which they may neither sell nor give away) as well as the value of the king’s towlbwrdd; the latter “is worth six score pence, and that is shared thus: sixty pence for the white forces, and … thirty pence for the king, and … three pence and three farthings for every man”. Which would seem to imply that the game was played with a king and eight ‘princes’ or ‘defenders’ against sixteen ‘attackers’.
More detail is given in the 1587 manuscript of Robert ap Ifan in Elizabethan Wales, which supplies us with a sketch of a ‘towlbwrdd’ board as an 11×11 square. and a description of the setup and play which is, unfortunately, inconsistent with the previous information in that it places a king and twelve men against twenty-four men (though at least it is consistent in balancing the king against half of the opposing men.) The setup calls for the king to be placed in the center of the board with his own men in the squares nearest to him and the opposing men in the middle of each side, an ambiguous description at best.
This current interpretation an 11×11 board with a central king surrounded by twelve princes or defenders. Each side of the board starts with six blue attackers, giving 24 in total. The central square is important as it can only be occupied by the king, though other pieces can cross it, as long as it’s unoccupied. Play proceeds by alternate turns and though the extant documentation does not describe who is to move first it would seem natural that the attacker would do this (after all the king is defending against an attack). The king also has an inherent advantage in the game and giving the attacker the first move goes some way towards reducing this.
All pieces move orthogonally (ie forwards or backwards like the rook in chess). They can move any number of squares but cannot jump over another piece and the square moved into must also be vacant.
Any man (other than the king) can be captured by being sandwiched between two opponents (ie when two of the opponent’s men occupy adjacent squares in a straight line with it). Some variants of the game allow pieces to move into squares between opposing men without being captured, but others do not allow this. It is also unclear whether the king can participate in captures; though the game is more even if this form of capture is disallowed. Also, as no other piece apart from the king can occupy the central square it may be possible to use this as an additional man and pieces can be captured by being sandwiched against it.
The king’s side wins if the king reaches any edge and the king also wins by default if the attackers are down to three or fewer men. The attackers can only win by capturing the king; surrounding him on all four sides by their men. However, a variant based on gwyddbwyll would allow the attackers to win if all the princes (king’s defenders) have been eliminated from the board.
There should be enough information here for you to re-create the games, but if you need more information and pictures use the links below: