How Kubb Works


A player prepares to throw a baton in a game of kubb.
A player prepares to throw a baton in a game of kubb.
©iStockphoto.com/linus_forsberg

Lawn games can be fantastic fun; from bocce ball, to croquet, to ladder balls, to the bean bag toss, these pastimes blend competition and leisure. Throw in a charcoal grill and a cooler of icy drinks and suddenly lawn games become a foundation for a whole outdoors lifestyle. And that's before you've even tried playing kubb.

Kubb (it rhymes with tube and means "block") is ultimately a game where you try to knock down wooden blocks. That's it. Yet this is a lawn game of potentially epic proportions, and one with a potentially horrifying and bloodcurdling history, to boot.

Kubb is a deft combination of simplicity, skill, fortune and strategy that no bean bag game can match. Games can last from anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour. You can play just about anywhere. And although it seems a bit complicated at first, kubb is actually a straightforward pursuit. For many players, it's also ridiculously addictive.

The game is sometimes called a cross between horseshoes, bowling and golf. Yawning already? Don't click away just yet, because kubb combines the best elements of those games for a strangely primal challenge.

In Kubb, there are three types of playing pieces: six batons, 10 kubbs and a king. The batons are cylinders 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) long. The kubbs are blocks 2.75 inches (7 centimeters) square and 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) tall. And the king is a block 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) square and 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) tall, and is often topped with a perky crown.

Opposing teams, which consist of anywhere from one to 20 players, take turns throwing batons in an attempt to knock down the other team's kubbs, which are placed at opposite ends of a rectangular pitch. Once the kubbs are toppled, you can attack the king. Knock down the king and you win the game.

There's more to kubb than immediately meets the eye, though. With intricate details that can turn the tide of a game at any moment, kubb is simple enough for children and layered enough to engage adults for hours at a time.

Keep reading and you'll see more about this oddly invigorating game. Ladderball and lawn darts? We hardly knew ye. Kubb craze is on the march across the globe.

Wear Your Viking Hat

Did Viking longboats carry kubb sets? The origins of the game aren't certain, but it's sometimes referred to as Viking chess.
Did Viking longboats carry kubb sets? The origins of the game aren't certain, but it's sometimes referred to as Viking chess.
©iStockphoto.com/Delanvital

There are stories that kubb originated in Scandinavia a millennia ago. These tales often allude to idea that bored Vikings needed a way to kill down time, so they scavenged bits of lumber and created kubb, which is also sometimes called Viking chess.

A more exciting (and gruesome) version of the story indicates that the Vikings used human bones for the baton kubbs and a skull for the king piece. That's one way to use the spoils of war.

Yet another twist on the story indicates that the game was the brainchild of Swedish King Gustav Vikstrom III in the early 1600s. It's said that the king used kubb as a way to resolve disagreements between various factions across his lands. If there's any truth to these legends, the losers had it rough -- their livestock was slaughtered, along with their families. Suffice it to say that the stakes in modern day kubb are not quite so chilling.

No one really knows the genesis of kubb. We do know, however, that kubb's first and most stalwart backers probably originated in Gotland, which is an island just off of the east coast of Sweden. In the 1990s, kubb became more popular on the mainland, and since then it's caught on with game lovers in other parts of the world, particularly in Great Britain and Australia. In the U.S., major chain stores carry kubb game kits, a fact that proves kubb is anything but an isolated phenomenon.

These days, there are kubb clubs and tournaments in numerous countries. The world championship tournament is held annually (more or less -- the dates aren't always exact) in Gotland. Nearly 200 teams of six players each may arrive for this tournament to challenge each other for the kubb throne.

But you don't have to travel all the way to Sweden to develop a taste for this blocky diversion. You can play almost anywhere, with anyone, and it will cost you next to nothing. On the next page we'll show you just how to start on your quest for kubb glory.

Kubb Rules

The rules of kubb are easy enough to understand, but they are a tad more involved than those in a game of say, bean bags. The best way to learn is to play. Here's how you get started.

You can buy a kubb kit online or in many hardware stores. A word of note about some of these games sets: Some stores sell versions of the game that don't even remotely resemble the original, so be sure to double-check a product before you buy.

You can even make your own set from lumber that you might already have lying around the house -- see the first page of this article for the dimensions.

With your kubb set in hand, you must mark the playing field (or pitch) using corner pins. In championship rules, the pitch measures 8 meters (26.2 feet) long by 5 meters (16.4 feet) wide. It's not uncommon for casual or new players to shorten the field to 6 meters (19.7 feet) by 4 meters (13.1 feet) to make the game easier and faster. Some players mark the out of bounds line with chalk or other material that doesn't interfere with game play.

You can establish your pitch nearly anywhere. Kubb works on a sandy beach, an ice-covered lake, or a fairly level part of your own yard. If you make your game pieces from foam, you can even play inside.

Then, each team sets up its five kubbs, placing them at even intervals at the far ends of the pitch, on the baselines between the corner pins. The king goes directly in the middle of the pitch, on the centerline.

To determine who goes first, one person from each team tosses a baton from their baseline towards the king. Whoever lands closest to the king without touching it may go first; for this example, we'll refer to this as Team Stark. The second team, who we'll call Team Lannister, may choose the side of the pitch it would like to play from.

Then, the battle commences. From behind its own baseline, Team Stark throws its batons, one by one, at the kubbs on Team Lannister's baseline. Each throw must be underhand and the baton must spin end over end. No overhand throws are allowed, nor are sideways or helicopter throws.

In a perfect game, Team Stark would strike down each of the Lannister kubbs and still have one baton remaining, which it would then use to knock over the king and then end the game. This almost never happens, though. On the next page you'll read about how a game of kubb proceeds.

The Battle Rages

The king block in a game of kubb, topped with a jaunty wooden crown.
The king block in a game of kubb, topped with a jaunty wooden crown.
©iStockphoto.com/Pulvret80

It's possible that a game will end in the first six throws. However, it's much more likely that some of the Lannister kubbs will still be standing after the Starks run out of batons. In that case, once all of the Starks' batons are thrown, the Lannisters begin their turn.

In the most basic version of the game, toppled kubbs are removed from the pitch as they fall, until the king is finally taken down. However, in one of the most widely played versions of this game, toppled kubb go right back into play. Here's how:

After the Starks run out of batons, the Lannisters pick up their fallen kubbs and throw them into strategic positions onto the Starks' side of the pitch. Then, the Starks stand these kubbs right where they fell. These are now called field kubbs.

To begin their attack, the Lannisters must first topple all field kubbs. Once the field kubbs are down, the Lannisters may go after the Starks' baseline kubbs, and if successful, may then attack the king.

Let's say the Lannisters throw all of their batons and some of the Starks' field kubbs are still standing. Just as the Lannisters did before, Team Stark picks up all fallen kubbs and then tosses them to the Lannisters' side. There's one twist -- Team Stark leaves one of their still-standing field kubb in place.

Then the game changes in a hurry. Team Stark is allowed to advance to a temporary baseline created by the remaining field kubb that Team Lannister failed to overturn. This temporary baseline creates a tremendous advantage because Team Stark will likely be in closer range, making all of the kubbs on the Lannisters' side much easier to overturn.

If Team Stark knocks over all of the Lannisters' kubbs and then the king, it wins the game. If not, Team Lannister tosses back fallen kubbs to the Stark side and another round begins. This back-and-forth continues until one team is finally able to knock down all of the kubbs and then the king.

During all of this, many players take pride in the quality of their Viking trash talk, perhaps hoping to distract the other team (or maybe just to speak in a funny accent). As with all lawn games, kubb is often interrupted by tasty snacks and drinks, a fact that undoubtedly adds to its appeal.

Now that you know the basics of kubb, read on for some of the finer points on game play.

Kubb's Critical Points

There are a few detailed kubb rules that make the game more sophisticated than just a bunch of block bludgeoning. Here are key points to remember:

In kubb the king is ... well, king. As with the 8 ball in billiards, the king must always fall last. A team that advertently fells the king prematurely automatically loses; in another version of the rules (in which a resurrection king is allowed), it means that team forfeits the rest of its turn, the king is righted, and the other teams goes on the attack.

Each match consists of three games (also called sets). To win the match, you must win two of the three games.

When a team throws kubbs into the field, sometimes they bounce out of bounds. You get a second chance to throw an out-of-bounds kubb. In the event that it goes out of bounds once again, the opposing team takes control of the kubb, which is now called a penalty kubb. A penalty kubb presents an interesting opportunity for the defending team, because they can place this kubb wherever they like. The only restriction is that the penalty kubb must be at least one baton length from the king or the corner markers.

Stacking (also called piling) is still another option that changes game play. When stacking is allowed, any thrown kubbs that hit each other are subsequently stacked (in a Jenga-like tower) in the field. These stacks obviously make field kubbs a lot easier to strike down, as multiple kubbs will fall easily when a baton strikes them.

In formal play, there must be at least two players for each team. In championship play, there are normally six players per team. The batons are distributed equally amongst team members, so teams with a greater number of skilled throwers have a substantial advantage.

In informal play, there can be any number of team members in each team. What's more, people can join or leave the game whenever they feel like it -- in other words, whenever they decide it's time to grab another grilled hamburger or beer. Because no one has to keep score, it's easy for random people to enter or exit the game at any time.

Kubb Strategy and Tactics

You don't HAVE to dress as a Viking to play kubb, but it couldn't hurt, right?
You don't HAVE to dress as a Viking to play kubb, but it couldn't hurt, right?
©iStockphoto.com/CREATISTA

In the bean bag toss or ladderball, one team is always on the offensive, and short of screaming or physically interfering with a throw, there's nothing the other team can do stop the attackers. In kubb, however, there are a number of defensive moves involved.

For one, you must think strategically when you're throwing kubbs. If you throw kubbs close to the centerline and then fail to overturn them, the other team suddenly has an opportunity to advance forward to a temporary baseline and knock down all of your kubbs from close proximity. On the other hand, if you throw your kubbs deep into their territory, they may be harder for you to knock down. But as a consolation, the opposing team won't get great field position.

Like batons, you must throw kubbs underhanded. Unlike batons, you can spin the kubbs in any direction you like. Adding directional spin can be extremely useful when you're trying to place kubbs in tricky or tight positions. Spinning the kubb precisely is often called drilling, and there are endless tactics you can use to group field kubbs as tightly as possible so that you can knock them down more than one at a time. Some kubb fanatics consider drilling to be the skill that separates amateurs from assassins.

Also, when it comes to raising field kubbs, you'll need to think ahead. The rules state that two corners of the kubb must remain touching the ground as you raise it. Because kubbs are four-sided, this means each kubb has two possible positions, or footprints. When there are multiple field kubb in question, it's generally best to separate them with as much horizontal space as possible. In doing so, you make it much harder for an attacker to overturn more than one kubb at a time, dominos style.

Penalty kubb placement also adds spice to the game. Place penalty kubbs close to the king and your opponent will worry about accidentally hitting the king. In addition, you can change the angle of the kubb. With the flat face towards your opponent, the kubb is easier to overturn, but if you turn the kubb's corner toward your enemy, you make it just a little harder to knock down.

No matter how much you hone your throwing skills, there's always an element of luck in kubb. The variation of playing surfaces means a lucky -- or unlucky -- bounce can turn a bloody rout into a heartbreaking defeat in an instant.

These elements are the essence of kubb. For many people, this is more than a lawn game: It's an obsession. It's a worldwide game with a weird name, and it's coming to a yard near you.

Author's Note: How Kubb Works

Full disclosure -- I had never in my life heard of kubb until I started researching this article. As someone who loves to play ladderball (but struggles to keep track of the score) I was immediately drawn to the elegance and simplicity (and touch of brutality) that is kubb. So of course I proceeded directly to a store to buy a game set. It does take some finesse and accuracy to throw batons, but after a few games I started to zero in on the kind of wrist flick it takes to zing kubbs. Although I'm very much a kubb novice, I can see just how enthralling this game must be for true devotees.

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Sources

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  • Des Moines Kubb. "How to Play Kubb." (July 21, 2013) http://desmoineskubb.com/rules-and-tools.php
  • Kubb, The Viking Game. "How to Play Kubb." (July 21, 2013) http://www.oldtimegames.com/howtoplay2.html
  • Kubb, the Viking ame. "The Rules of Kubb." (July 21, 2013) http://www.kubb.co.uk/Kubb_rules%20.pdf
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  • U.S. National Kubb Championship. (July 21, 2013) http://www.usakubb.org/
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