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Interview with TAFL Author Jesse Robinson

This is a part of an ongoing interview series with book authors who write about our favorite types of games. Jesse Robinson is the author of TAFL, one of the first books on Hnefatafl. Although the e-book was first self published in 2013, I only just recently had the pleasure of reading and reviewing it. I’m excited to be able to share this interview with others.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in Massachusetts, but upon my son’s birth in 1990, we moved to Portland, Maine… and stayed there until 2005, when I moved to Japan. I have a “9-5’er” where I work in freezers at a food warehouse, but I’m also a maker of musical instruments - started way back when I was 13.

How did you first learn about hnefatafl?

If I remember correctly, my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Dobbins, from Farnsworth Elementary School in Peabody, Mass. (which later became an old folks’ home), had gotten our class into trying out different board games from around the world, including such games as “Warlord”, from China (or… was it Mongolia? Hmmm… ), and Shogi, from Japan. Since then, I’d seen Hnefatafl boards while thumbing through a book or two in libraries, but didn’t really research it much until years later. Once I did, I was intrigued.

What drew you in about it compared to other ancient board games?

Well, it seemed at first glance to be set up a bit unfairly, as one side had nearly double the pieces of the other… until I tried playing, from one side, and then the other. The side with the lesser amount was in the middle of the board, and outnumbered by the other side, surrounding the first group. Something about the positioning in this way, seemed to help things even out as the game played out in its unfolding strategies. It was quite interesting in that it seemed to be a fairly good example of war being made upon an encampment by surprise attack of some marauding horde. lol

What inspired you to write a book about hnefatafl?

It seemed not very well known out there, relatively… and I’m of both Native American (Siksika/Mohawk-Cree) and Norse descent - so I was attracted to the game as a part of the Nordic heritage. But I’d noticed that online, board game forum trolls would bicker and argue with each other about “the REAL AUTHENTIC rules”… when there really weren’t any, beyond the absolute basics. It seemed far more likely that, different camps, different kingdoms, different cabins and homes, different longboats… all had their specific preferences.

How long did it take to write the book?

Not really sure… I wanna say, less than a month, maybe? It wasn’t like a novel or anything… more like an introduction and list of rules/tutorial sort of thing, so it kind of wrote itself fairly quickly.

How did you feel when you first published it?

Uhm, good, I think… pretty much not unlike getting something on my “to-do list” crossed off, at first - but when I started getting some nice reviews, it felt kinda kickass 😊

What was the hardest chapters to write?

Hmmm… maybe the introduction? I tried my darnedest to express my passion, but without rambling on and on… ahahahaha

You also wrote a book about Nine Men’s Morris, what was the inspiration behind that?

It’s fairly related, in that, the oldest known finding of an ancient Tafl board was found amid a shipwreck (if I remember correctly), but the interesting thing was that a Morris board was found on the reverse face of it, for a bit of alternate game play. Also, as the Tafl board had gone through many phases of evolution in size and rules as it went from kingdom to kingdom, so did Morris… and perhaps had become even more spread world-wide.

Are there plans for more books or updates to the current one?

I had planned to do one on the many incarnations/rule-sets of Mancala, and also another on Egyptian Senet/Game of Ur. Not sure when I’ll finally get up off me arse and write them out, though… someday 😊

How many hnefatafl sets do you own?

I used to have a few I made, but now only one… but I plan to construct the largest one, Alea Evangelii, out of hardwoods sometime in the future.

Do you have a favorite set?

My present portable one - a buckskin pouch full of coloured glass “flat marbles” for the pieces, and when the pouch has its drawstring loosened, it lays flat… with a Tafl board inked on one side, and a Morris board on the other.

What is your favorite historic hnefatafl variant?

Not sure… I suspect that once I make that BIG one, that will be my favourite - but the smaller sized board variants are wonderful for toting around in a pocket-sized build, or even with coins on a board face drawn on paper.

What is your favorite modern variant?

The app on my phone. hahaha

How often do you play now?

Actually, it’s been many months - life things have been drastically taking my attention away. Changes in family (deaths, divorces, etc.) and my moving my workshop to a new location, bit by bit, has kept me busy - but I’m still a lover of the game. Plans for that big one I’d mentioned keep evolving in my mind 😊

Have you ever experimented with creating your own tafl variation?

Ideas HAVE floated through my mind, yes… like a gi-hugic version of Alea Evangelii… perhaps with certain “hazzards” to avoid on the board, with some sort of penalties for landing in them… it’s a work in progress ^_~