I first discovered Wood Sense (or Gwyddbwyll in its native Welsh) in the pages of the Mabinogion, the ancient book of Welsh folk tales. The Dream of Macsen Wledig talks about two brothers playing this mysterious game in front of a fire whilst an old man carves a piece out of solid gold. I was naturally intrigued as to what this unpronounceable game was all about, and after a trawl through various sources, I came across the research of Dyfed Lloyd Evans. His theories described a tactical game, somewhere between Chess and Draughts in its complexity, with fresh strategic possibilities and a neat back story…
A King is traveling through a wood with his four loyal Princes. Suddenly in a clearing, the party is surrounded by eight brutal Soldiers and the game commences. It is the goal of the King to reach the edge of the clearing and safety, while the job of the Soldiers is the surround and capture the King.
You can play an online version of the game developed by the genius minds at Inkco. Click here to try it out.
I started to test the game against friends with simple boards made from coins, paper, plasticine, whatever was laying around. Soon we saw the possibilities for making more beautiful, elaborate boards and pieces, starting by hacking up an old nest of tables. It was a real thrill to start to play this game from antiquity, to develop new strategies and ideas whilst pushing tactile wooden pieces round the ancient seven by seven grid. A big test came on a stag do in the Wye valley; instead of combating our hangovers with an early start on the second day, we nursed our aching skulls with mugs of tea and gentle games of Wood Sense deep into the evening. The soft clatter of wood on solid wood punctuating the hush of soothing contemplation.
When we were confident the game would be enjoyed by a modern audience, we decided to present it to our friends at Green Man Festival. I asked a good friend of mine, Tom De Gay to hide a Wood Sense King near their offices to complete a set I sent through the post. The piece was placed in Bunhill Fields a secret corner of East London housing the resting place of Daniel Defoe and William Blake amongst others. It was a perfect example of the treasure hunt we were about to the construct; a guided journey around the hidden gems of the city.
We were asked to create a puzzle in 6 major UK cities, using a Wood Sense board at the centre and a hidden King as the goal. The Kings were placed in boxes locked with a 4 digit code, which could only be deciphered by finding most, or all of the 8 soldiers we distributed around the cities.
These Soldiers were created by staff and students from Leeds Metropolitan university in a beautiful hidden corner of the Headingley campus. We used a wide variety of green and growing materials to create the figures, some were ready to be placed in Cardiff straight away, whilst others were left to sprout and flower in the spring sun and rain.
In each city, we placed the figures in beautiful green spots, and corners often overlooked. In Cardiff we were lucky enough to be given a plot in Bute Park and we sneaked a figure onto the waterfront of the old docks. In the East End of London, it was hard to find a space where there wasn't any guerrilla art, but we were pleased to collaborate with venues and shops like 93ft East, Cargo, Labour & Wait and Le Grenier, who dutifully held on to our little wooden figures. We managed to hide soldiers in some of Brighton's most iconic spots, from the pavilion to the pier, and sought out a few less well know corners as well. Manchester and Leeds held many interesting nooks and crannies, their industrial waterways providing a fascinating mix of renovation and decrepitude. The final set were placed all over Bristol, from the legendary establishments of Stokes Croft to the glittering new home of Wallace and Gromit by the banks of the river Avon.
The games too, were placed in friendly and interesting venues in each city. From lightships and record shops to cinemas and legendary venues, I'd like to thank our partners in Cardiff, London, Brighton, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol for being the hubs of our project. Many new Wood Sense fans were created in these venues, as curious patrons discovered the simple rules and hidden depths of the game. Then in each city, frantic races began to seek out the 8 soldiers, solve the puzzles and find the Kings.
One by one, the winners were crowned and the game of Wood Sense was being adopted by eager players around the country. Stage one of the project was complete and we turned our attentions to the Green Man Festival site in the Black Mountains of Wales...
Click here for more photos of the project.
Click here for the Wood Sense website.