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Early Irish Board Games

Board games may be classified under three headings: race games, chase games and battle games. [30] The distinction between chase games and battle games is sometimes slightly obscured, so the classification cannot be regarded as completely watertight. In a race game the object is to reach the terminal point as quickly as possible and the moves are controlled by the casting of dice. Nowhere do we find reference to dice with either fidchell or brandub, and we may thus safely exclude race games like blackgammon etc. In chase games a single piece tries to break through a formation of opposing pieces and reach the edge of the board, thus escaping the hunters.

A more complicated variant of this family is that in which the quarry is protected by a number of defenders usually half the number of the attacking party. In such cases capture is by enclosure, i.e. a man is taken when two pieces of the opposite side occupy the squares adjacent to it and in the same straight line. German fox-and-geese is an example of the simple type of chase game, and Lapp tablut is an example of the complicated type. In battle games the sides are equal, and the object is to drive one's opponent off the board, or, rarely, to capture some chief piece. Chess and draughts are battle games.

Before examining the comparative material it may be useful to summarize what we know of fidchell and brandub from the Irish literary sources.

Fidchell was played on a four-sided board between two individuals. It seems normally to have been won by alternate players. The lines of the board were straight and there were black and white on them (?chequered as a chess board, or more likely black and white pieces). Capture was by enclosure. The normal move was probably that of the Rook in chess. The pieces of the opposing sides were of different colour or material, and apparently there were an equal number on both sides. The object of the game was the capturing of one's opponent's pieces, if not his annihilation. There seems to have been some move called "a move of banishment."

Brandub was played on a board with a centre square marked, and this was reserved for the branan. There were, perhaps, [31] The game was played with five pieces on one side and eight on the other.

We will now examine the known games which have the feature capture by enclosure in order to elucidate, if possible, the nature of fidchell. This leads, as shall be seen, to the elucidation of brandub.


30. Murray, op. cit.

31. In allegorical statements the facts usually have to fit the allegory and not vice-versa.

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