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Kubb is a lawn game where the object is to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden sticks at them. The word "Kubb" (rhymes with rube) means "wooden block" in the Gotland dialect of Swedish.
Rules vary from country to country and region to region, but the ultimate object of the game is to knock the king over before your opponent does. This, combined with the fact that there is a surprising level of strategy that can be used by players, has led some players and kubb fans to nickname the game "Viking Chess." However, unlike chess, if a player knocks over the king before achieving their objectives, that player instantly loses the game. But some games have been known to last for hours.
The game can be played on a variety of surfaces such as sand, concrete, or grass. The French preference for a shale-on-clay surface has some merit, not least that damage to the surface can be quickly repaired. Arctic Kubb is played under the same rules on ice -- preferably on frozen lakes or rivers -- and the sliding shots it enables are preferred by some connoisseurs. Prior to his drowning, Chuck King was a renowned specialist on the Arctic Kubb circuit.
Kubb is a good game for supervised children, but in such cases, the 8-metre pitch length specified in some instructions needs to be shortened.
It is often claimed that the game dates back to the Viking Age and survived on Gotland, but this seems to be a marketing ploy by manufacturers of Kubb games, and is unverifiable. There is anecdotal evidence of Kubb being played in various places in Sweden in the early 20th century, but how similar those rules are to the ones used today is unknown. The Föreningen Gutnisk Idrott (The Society of Gotland Games), formed in 1912, does not list Kubb as one of the traditional games from Gotland. The Venerable Bede records that on payment of danegeld, the Saxons would occasionally play a game on the shore, with a horse's skull as the central king piece. Cubthert of Mercia was said to be outstanding at pillyge, which is taken to be the hitting of the kubbs on the back row, and ryp, whose meaning is unknown.
The game does show some similarity to other types of bowling games, and may share a common medieval source with them. However, the most distinct feature of Kubb, that it is played by teams on a two-sided field, seems to be an invention from the 20th century. Gole's seminal 'Handbook on Kabaddi' (Maharashtra State Kabaddi Association 1978) claims a strong link between the Punjabi game and Kubb, without proving the direction of influence.
Kubb bears similarities to the 19th century indoor wargame Cue-boule. These tended to be battle recreations of the Napoleonic era in which players would lob an object at the lead or tin soldiers of the opponent. (It is said that the Prussian artillery reused the cannonballs of its enemy where it could.)
By the 1860s, Harrow schoolboys were playing a game called Kabul (also recorded as Kabbul), in which junior boys or minor miscreants would stand in position in the gymnasium, and opposing teams of prefects would kick three footballs at them. It is believed that former Harrovians employed in the Indian Civil Service modified this demeaning game for the recreation of their Indian servants.
Commercial Kubb sets were first manufactured in the 1990s, and the the game quickly became very popular. It has now gained international interest, and since 1995 the World Championship has been held on Gotland each year.
edit Game pieces
There are typically twenty-one game pieces used in Kubb:
- Ten Kubbs, rectangular wooden blocks about 15 cm tall and 8 cm square on the end.
- One King, a larger wooden piece around 30 cm tall and 10 cm square on the end, sometimes adorned with a crown design on the top.
- Six Sticks, wooden batons around 30 cm long and anywhere from 3–5 cm in diameter. These are thrown and would hurt if they caught you in the testicles.
- Four Stakes, or other markers, to designate the corners of the pitch.
There is considerable variation in the design of these pieces. In some sets, every piece apart from the King has a circular cross-section, whereas in others, every piece has a square cross-section. There is a clear need for standardisation, as the winner is usually the most accurate thrower of the pieces. But as there can be no intellectual property in what some claim is an ancient game, it is unlikely that a commercial organisation will be able to impose such a standard.
Availability of the game varies widely from country to country. In the UK, it's rare to find a shop selling the game, so most purchases are via the Web. But in Nordic countries, you can often pick up the game at your local petrol station if you buy more than 2 gallons. The Friesian musician Wud Thrwyr has built up an extensive collection of antique Kubb pieces, some exquisitely carved and dendrochronologically dated to the early 19th century. Many of the pieces were on loan from the museum of the Slovenian, Lumpsa Timmba, before being permanently gifted after the Yugoslav aggression of 1991. Sadly a fire in 1995 not only destroyed the entire collection but was possibly also fuelled by it.
Kubb is typically played on a rectangular pitch approximately 5 m by 8 m. Although there are no official rules as to the size of the field, the dimensions can be altered for younger players or to accommodate faster games. Typically the pitch is grass, but kubb could also be played on sand, snow, or dirt.
Stakes are driven into the ground at the corners of the pitch. No other markers are used to demark the field's boundaries, although a league in Somerset uses twine (in Swedish known as "Klumpa ihop sig av tvinnar" - literally "The chord that cannot lie".) to assist in discussions when fallen kubbs are returned. The narrow ends are called "baselines."
The king is placed in the center of the pitch, halfway between baselines. An imaginary line drawn through the king and paralled to the two baselines divides the field into two halves.
The kubbs are set up across each baseline, five to a side.
Any number of people may play kubb, but typically matches are one-on-one or two teams of two.
There are two phases for each team's turn:
- Team A throws the six sticks, from their baseline, at their opponent's lined-up kubbs (called Baseline kubbs). Throws must be under-handed, and the sticks must spin end over end. Throwing sticks sideways or spinning them side-to-side is not allowed.
- Kubbs that are successfully knocked down are then thrown by Team B onto Team A's half of the pitch, and stood on end. These newly thrown kubbs are called field kubbs.
Play then changes hands, and Team B throws the sticks at Team A's kubbs, but must first knock down any standing field kubbs. (Field kubbs that right themselves due to the momentum of the impact are considered knocked down.) Again, kubbs that are knocked down are thrown back over onto the opposite half of the field and then stood. In New Zealand, knocking down a Baseline kubb before all field kubbs would result in the throwing team forfeiting the rest of their turn.
If either team leaves field kubbs standing, the kubb closest to the king now represents that side's baseline, and throwers may step up to that line to throw at their opponent's kubbs. This rule applies to field and baseline kubbs only; fallen kubbs are thrown from the original baseline, as are attempts to knock over the king.
Play continues in this fashion until a team is able to knock down all kubbs on one side, from both the field and the baseline. If that team still has sticks left to throw, they may make one attempt at knocking over the king (In Somerset, as a sporting gesture, right-handers will attempt this using the left hand, and vice versa). If a thrower successfully topples the king, they have won the game.
However, if at any time during the game the king is knocked down by accident -- even by a newly thrown kubb -- the offending team immediately loses the game.
Victors are typically determined by playing best two out of three. For friendly games between Kubb clubs, and for private games between opponents of widely different standards, the Tjaereborg Handicapping System can be used. If the difference in the current standing between two opponents is between 10% and 20% -- for instance, if Gunther is on 79% and Erika on 63% -- then Gunther gets one fewer stick to throw. And for each additional 10% band difference, a further stick is conceded, down to a minimum of two sticks.
For those with no garden: Kubbuteo !