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Newsletter Blast from the Past: Lost Celtic Games

The Ballinderry Game Board
The Ballinderry Game Board

Originally published 6/2006

In 1932 a broken, square wooden board was found in the remains of a crannog (lake dwelling) at Ballinderry, Ireland It contained a 7 X 7 grid of holes, and was carved with designs similar to those common around the 10th century. The central hole was circled, and quadrants marked the four corner holes. Two heads, resembling knobs, or handles, were carved on opposite sides of the board. The Ballinderry Game Board is often referred to as a game called “Fidchell,” (also spelled Fithcheall, Fitchneal, or Ficheall) or Brandhu. What little we know of Fidchell comes to us from references to if in Irish myths and legends. In fact the Irish god Lugh is credited with having invented the game. Lugh was multi-talented god. Among other things, he also claimed to be a wright, a smith, a harper, a sorcerer, and a poet-historian.

“What is thy name?” said Eochaid.
“Not famous,” said he, “Midir of Bri Leith.”
“What has brought thee?” said Eochaid.
“To play Fidchell with thee,” said he.
“Of a truth I am good at Fidchell,” said Eochaid.
“Let us make trial of it,” said Midir.
“The queen is asleep,” said Eochaid, “and it is in her house that the Fidchell -board is.”
“I have here,” said Midir, “a Fidchell -board that is not inferior.” That was true: a silver board and golden men, and each corner there lit up by precious stone, and a bag for the men of plaited links of bronze.
-”The Wooing of Etain” Translated by Osborn Bergin, and Richard Irvine Best, 1937.

Waterford Game Board
An artifact similar to the one from Ballinderry referred to as the “Waterford Game Board.”

In the story “The Wooing of Etain,” quoted above, the god Midir challenged King Eochaid Airem to several games of Fidchell. When Eochaid realized he was playing, and winning, against a magical being, he decided to take advantage of the matter and began to raise the stakes. But little did Eochaid know that his wife Etain was a reincarnation of Midir’s own wife, and when it came to the last game, Midir would recoup his losses by claiming a kiss from the king’s wife as his prize. When Midir took Etain into his arms he quickly seized her and flew off with her to the halls of faerie.

Although rules specific to Fidchell have never been found, most game historians agree that the Ballinderry artifact is most likely a variation on a Scandinavian Tafl, or Hnefatafl game. These games were played by Norse peoples as early as 400 A.D., and were the primary strategy games in Northern Europe before the introduction of Chess. Surviving examples have been found as square boards with grids varying from 7, 9, 11, or 19 spaces on a side. The rules for Tafl games have come to us from a couple of main sources. A version called Tablut was recorded in the diary of the Swedish botanist Linnaeus in 1732. He found the game being played by Alpine Lapplanders and recorded the set up and a description of the rules. An even earlier description of a Tafl game survives in an English manuscript from the reign of King Athelstan (A.D. 925-40). It includes a diagram of a board and the starting positions on a 19 x 19 grid and at least partial rules for the game. Unlike Chess, or Checkers, which are fought by armies on opposite sides of the board, in Tafl games the defender starts with the king in the very center of the board and protected by his pawns, or guards and surrounded by attackers twice their number. The defender wins if the king is able to break the siege by escaping to the edge of the board (or to a corner hole in some variations). The attacking army wins by surrounding the king on four sides to capture him. All of the pieces move any number of spaces, left, or right, or up and down, in the same manner as a rook in Chess. Pawns are captured by trapping, or flanking them between two of your own pieces. (See video below)

One of the few references that provides a hint to the rules for Fidchell
describes how pieces were captured, and it does sound like a description of the captures in tafl games:
“Good,” says Guaire, “Let’s play fidchell.” “How are the men slain?” says Cummaine.
“Not hard, a black pair of mine about one white man of yours on the same line, disputing the approach on the far side.”

– From the tale of Mac da Cherda and Cummaine Fota.

There are some dissenting opinions that argue Fidchell was not a Tafl-style game. One argument suggests that it was not any game that is currently known. Back in 2002, I received a few questions from people via E-mail about a game called Fidchell, or “Celtic Chess”:
When I was in UK last year I played a board game with a friend. It was a circular board and used 2 sets of 29 marbles (black & white). The board was set out in a series of circles with a number of axes from the centre hole to the edges. The object is to make a continuous line of marbles from the centre to the edge, removing any opponent’s marbles either during the initial placement or after placement once all marbles are placed… The game was described as ‘Celtic Chess’”

At that time I had to reply that it didn’t sound familiar to me as a game from the past, and that I thought it was perhaps a modern hybrid game. Since then I found what appears to be the game that he was describing. On a website by the author Nigel Suckling is a description of a game that he calls “Celtic Chess” or “Faery Chess”. After exchanging a couple E-mails with Mr. Suckling it turns out that his game was “inspired” by legendary references to Fidchell, but not really based on any surviving boards, or rules, and he admits that it runs counter to mainstream theories regarding Fidchell. ( See this web page for his own description of the invention of his game )

Another theory is that Fidchell was a British variant of a Roman game called Latrunculorum. Although it is recorded as early as the first century B.C., Latrunculorum itself is a subject of debate among classical scholars. A number of Roman-era game boards in both square and rectangular shapes and in varying sizes are said to be possible examples of it. To add to the confusion, by the 15th century the Gaelic word Fidchell had commonly become used to refer to Chess. (In the “Wooing of Etain” quoted above, the translators actually use the word Chess rather the Fidchell.) In fact, in the modern Irish spelling, “Ficheall” can now be used as a generic for any kind of wooden board game. However, the Ballinderry artifact, with its clearly marked central hole as a possible king’s throne, along with similar square-grid boards which have been found on the Orkney Islands suggest Tafl games more than anything else.

There are a number of other games mentioned in Celtic folklore that from the British Isles that continue to puzzle the modern researcher. Brandubh (meaning black raven) appears in the Irish sagas as early as the 12th century. One such source describes it as a game of 5 men against 8, making it the common ratio for a Tafl game. It would seem well-suited to a small Tafl-like game played on a 7×7 grid like the Ballinderry board, or similar boards found on the Orkneys. Games such as “Buanfach,” “Cennchaem,” and “Conchobair” are also mentioned in Irish legends, but again, details about the them are missing. There are also vague Scottish references to a game of “Ard-ri”, or “High King”.

Gwyddbwyll” and “Tawlbyrdd” are games that are mentioned in Welsh sagas. In one of the Arthurian legends the Welsh hero Owain had a magical game, and while he and King Arthur were playing gwyddbwyll, Owain’s army had the upper hand as long as Owain was defeating Arthur in the game. Tawlbwrdd has sometimes been translated literally as “throw-board” and for that reason it is believed by some to have included dice. Fortunately, a manuscript from 1587 in the Welsh National Library confirms that Tawlbwrdd was unmistakably a Tafl-style game set on an 11×11 grid: “The king in the center of the board and twelve men in the place next to him, and twenty-four lie in wait to capture him” -with the 24 attackers equally spaced on the four edges of the board. The term Gwyddbwyll seems to be older than Tawlbwrdd. Part of the theory in regard to Latrunculorum is that Gwyddbwyll was its Welsh counterpart, and that Tawlbwrdd may have gradually replaced Gwyddbwyll after being imported by Norse and/or Saxon invaders.

In the end, we have to remember that these were probably “folk” games whose rules could have varied from one valley, or tribe to the next. Unlike modern Chess, Checkers, or Backgammon they probably did not have internationally standardized rules. It is also possible that some of the names above were simply regional terms for related games. That they appear so frequently in the surviving folklore does suggest that they were an important part of Celtic culture, and no doubt more than one mead was spilt, or clan feud begun, over the “correct” rules for what should have been a friendly game.

Whatever the truth about these mysterious Celtic games, it is still possible for the modern gamer, or historical hobbyist to play some of the games of the Celtic gods and heroes. Recreations of Tafl games are commercially available. At MacGregor Historic Games, we make our own portable Fidchell game with art based on the Ballinderry board, as well as a larger Hnefatafl set. Or, search for these games under other names including “Brandhu,” “Tablut,” or “The Viking Game.”

More recently I’ve been putting together some videos on how we play some of our games, so here are the basic rules for Fidchell as we play it.

See also my YouTube channel for short videos about some of our other games and my Celtic art.

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Groomporter

Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games

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