The 13th Floor

Play KUBB, The Game The Vikings Played… With The Skulls Of Their Enemies!

“If that was a skull, that totally wouldn’t have counted!”

That’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear at the park when you’re learning to play a game that involves throwing wooden batons across a playing field with the goal of knocking down your opponents rectangular blocks, but it was in fact spoken by my nemesis for the afternoon, who had a valid point!

Let me explain. This past weekend, I was invited by my friend and his family to come play an outdoor game called KUBB (pronounced Koob) at their local park. “Fresh air will do you good!,” he said. “Stop staring at that computer and working so much and take a little break. Get out of the apartment!”

“Does this game involve running?” I asked curiously.

“Not at all. And you’ll have one hand free to hold an alcoholic beverage in!”

SOLD!

So what is KUBB?  As they were setting up 3 fields on the grass, I had a tough time grasping exactly what the rules were. Or it could’ve just been the incredibly strong drink I was sipping. But as is the case with most games, the best way to fully “get it” is to just dive in and play.

Basically, here’s the set up. You have 4 field markers forming a rectangle that designate the playing area. Each side has 5 wooden chopping blocks, or kubbs, set up and the object of the game is to knock those blocks over with a series of 6 wooden batons. Once you manage to knock all 5 blocks down, then you have to knock over the “kingpin” in the center of the field. Here’s what the layout looks like:

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Here’s what a typical KUBB set looks like below. The game pieces consist of ten kubbs – rectangular wooden blocks 15 cm tall and 7 cm square on the end, one king – a larger wooden piece 30 cm tall and 9 cm square on the end, sometimes adorned with a red crown design on the top (or in the case of the pic below, the bottom half), six batons – 30 cm long and 4.4 cm in diameter. And lastly six field marking pins, four to designate the corners of the pitch and two red ones to mark the center line. (Only 4 red ones are pictured below.)

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In simplest terms, it’s basically a lawn game that combines horseshoes with bowling, sort of.

The origins of the game are where things get both interesting and also a little vague. It’s thought to have originated as an old Viking game, and has been nicknamed “Viking Chess.” But when the Vikings played it, it didn’t involve wooden blocks. Their Kubb’s were the skulls of their enemies! And to knock them down, they used their enemies femur bones! I also like to imagine that I played it the Viking way this weekend by holding an alcoholic beverage with one hand, while chucking a baton with the other. I can see a Viking holding a large mug filled with beer and laughing jollily as he knocks over what used to be a rival’s skull!

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Other sources cite it as originating in France, or that it was created as a game by Scandinavian children a millennium ago as a pastime for collecting firewood. According to the Wikipedia listing, the Föreningen Gutnisk Idrott (“Society (of) Gotland Games”), formed in 1912, does not list kubb as one of the traditional games from Gotland. Although it’s entirely possible it was called something else. After all, the name originates from the word “kubbspel,” which means “chopping block game.” It’s possible it could’ve been renamed Kubb once they dropped the whole playing with skulls & femurs gimmick and decided to replace those pieces with firewood.

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“The earliest mention of a kubb-like game comes from the second edition of the Swedish Encyclopedia “Nordisk familjebok” (the Nordic familybook) in 1911, where it was called “Kägelkrig” (Skittles war) and is described as a variation of Skitlles and played with a ball.” The version we know today started gaining popularity in the late 1980s when commercial kubb sets were first manufactured and distributed. Now the game is bigger than ever with large tournaments taking place all over the world. In fact, in 2011, Wisconsin declared itself to be the ‘Kubb Capital of North America.’

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So back to my game. At one point, our opponent hit over one of our kubbs and it miraculously fell over and bounced back up, setting itself upright again. To his credit, he’s right. If it were a human skull, it definitely wouldn’t have done that. So of course, we counted it as a knock down on their behalf.

A full KUBB set will run you anywhere between $35-$60 bucks and they’re easily accessible on Amazon. If you want to get creative and play the way the Vikings did, maybe you can draw some skulls on your Kubb blocks!

*Special thanks to Scott & Zane Reynolds.

*Header Photo: iStock

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