The Rules of Fidchell
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle
The Rules of Fidchell
We are delighted to be able to present to you the rules of Fidchell, the Irish game of kings! This game can be purchased, but it's easy to get started and try it out for yourself. All you need is a 7 x 7 board, which can be squares or pins marked out - even on paper - 16 white or attacker pieces, a king piece, and 8 darker-coloured defender pieces, two champions from each province.
The aim of the game is for the king to escape, or for the attackers to capture the king.
The ancient game of Fidchell or “wisdom of the woods” is woven through many Irish stories. It is older than chess by far, and legends tell it was invented by none other than Lugh of the Tuatha De Dannan, and predates chess by many centuries.
Fidchell held a central role in the celebrations of Lugh, and at Samhain festivities as well, where it was consulted for prophetic hints about the year to come. No battles were allowed except those which took place on the Fidchell board. It was reserved for the nobility, the warriors, and the druids for a long time - and they were required to master it!
Those skilled in Fidchell were held in great esteem as people of cunning mind and wit, adversaries to be respected.
This is one of the tales which explains how to play it, Mac de Cherda and Cummaine Fota:
"Good," says Guaire, "Let's play fidchell."
"How are the men slain?" asks 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 (?)"
"My conscience, indeed!" said Cummaine, "I cannot do the other thing, but I shall not slay your men, you will not slay my men."
For a whole day Guaire was pursuing him and he could not slay one of his men.
"That is champion-like, o cleric," said Guaire.
There are many other legends providing different instructions, and it seems that each Dún or household had its own version, in much the same way that poker games have their own house rules depending on where you play. The most commonly accepted rules are presented first, then the optional rules and then some variations afterwards. It would be as well to try out different rules and see which ones you like best.
- The defenders or King's champions go first, in layout A
- If the King reaches the edge, he wins, see image E
- If the King is surrounded on four sides by the attackers, the attackers win, see image D
- Pieces can move up, down, left and right like the castle or rook piece in chess, see image F
- Pieces may not jump other pieces
- Do not announce check or check mate
- Pieces are captured by trapping them between two of your own pieces, see images B and C
- Pieces can voluntarily land between two pieces without being captured, and stay there on the next turn too
- Only the king may occupy the throne, others can pass over it
- The King may also be captured with an adjacent defending piece, that is to say the King cannot move for whatever reason due to enemy movement
- Any pieces can be captured against the throne
- No skipping turns
- Double traps may happen when two pieces are trapped by an opposing piece moving in between them
- The King can’t help in capturing pieces
- The King can be captured with two pieces
- Pieces can only move one space at a time
- A piece can sacrifice itself on the throne to capture another piece, but is also lost
- The King can be captured against throne
- Corner squares act like opposing pieces
- The King must reach a corner to escape to one of the four provinces
The Ard Rí or High King Variation, see image G
- The King can be captured against the edge
- The King must reach a corner to escape one of the four provinces
- Only the King can occupy corners
- Corner squares act like opposing pieces
Lannach, the Cunning Sword Variation, see image h
- The attackers make the first move
- The King can only move one square at a time
- The King alone can occupy the throne and corners
- If the King reaches an edge, he can move more than one space along the sides
- The King wins if he reaches a corner
- The King can be captured against centre or corner squares
Brandubh – the Black Raven, see image i
- The attackers make the first move
- The King cannot capture
- Pieces can be captured next to corner square
- Only the King can occupy corner squares
- The King can be captured against sides
Throwing the Bones:
At the beginning of each turn, both combatants throw a single knucklebone
- If it lands wide, you can move normally, see image J, 1 and 2
- If it lands on the narrow side, you may not move in this turn, see image J, 3 and 4
A different variation means you can roll the bones to see how many spaces you can move in this turn, divided between your pieces or used by only one piece, which should be agreed before play begins
- Wide Height or Cnoc – 1 (4 by the Roman style) see image J, 1
- Wide Mouth or Béal – 3 (3) see image J, 2
- Narrow Height – 4 (1) see image J, 3
- Narrow Mouth – 6 (6) see image J, 4
Fidchell boards were often very ornate, richly carved and with gold and silver pieces, and even set with gemstones. In the cattle raid of Froech, friend of Queen Maeve, a board is described as being made of white gold, and the edges and corners were of gold, while the pieces were of gold and silver, and a candle of precious stone provided light, while the board itself was too heavy for a boy to lift, as is written in Amra Columcille. Fidchell boards were listed as part of the tribute demanded by kings.
If you'd like to purchase the board in the images, it can be bought from O'Gowna Studios here, https://ogowna.com/shop/ols/products/irish-game-heritage-week-fidchell-chess but be sure to ask him for extra white pieces via email or phone first since he only sells the Lannach Variation out of the box.
Have fun! It is said that Lugh had two homes, one of which is marked on the map below.
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We are delighted to be able to present to you the rules of Fidchell, the Irish game of kings! This game can be purchased, but it's easy to get started and try it out for yourself. All you need is a 7 x 7 board, which can be squares or pins marked out - even on paper - 16 white or attacker pieces, a king piece, and 8 darker-coloured defender pie ... [more]
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