A menagerie of Americans—men, women, children and seniors—gather in a quiet public park somewhere and spend a pleasant summer afternoon throwing wood at a king. It’s not some bizarre reenactment of The American War for Independence you’re witnessing. It’s Kubb—the Nordic game that took root in Wisconsin and is slowly growing across the U.S.
Kubb (pronounced “koob”) plays out like a mix of horseshoes, the sadly outlawed “Jarts” and chess. It’s taking hold in the more Scandinavian reaches of the upper Midwest, with Eau Claire, Wisc., emerging as the Kubb HQ.
Eric Anderson, national director of the Eau Claire-based U.S. National Kubb Championship, says the obscure European contest is a perfect social sport as its mix of mild athleticism and strategic thinking welcomes the young and old of either sex. The 45-year-old regional planner and father of two brought a love of the game back from a 2007 visit to Sweden and watched its popularity grow steadily until about 50 tournaments now run every summer across the U.S.
“At this year’s championship here in July, we had 128 teams from 12 states and four countries compete,” Anderson says. “A man has no advantage over a woman, and a team of senior citizens can take on a bunch of kids and have a lot of fun.”
Describing every facet of the game would easily consume the word count allotted to this Kubb reporter, so I offer a cub version of the rules. Two teams face each other on the baselines of a pitch a few yards across (roughly the size of a Badminton or Pickle Ball court). Along the baselines on either end stand five upright wooden blocks. A taller wooden “king” block stands in the center of the pitch on a midfield stripe.
The teams take turns underhand throwing wooden pegs (about the size of a relay baton) end over end to knock over the opposing team’s blocks. Through several rounds, the players toss away until only the king remains. The first team to topple the king wins. However, if an errant lob knocks the king before the other blocks go down, that team loses. So, strategic planning joins with accurate aiming and manual dexterity to forge what players like to call “Viking Chess.”
Conflicting legends say the contest was born in Sweden either with those Vikings tossing around the bones and skulls of defeated armies or as a break time amusement for lumberjacks who used left over cord wood for game pieces. While the former has an undeniable drama about it, the latter is more in keeping with the friendly, all-inclusive environment Kubb fosters.
“You don’t have to be a great athlete to play Kubb,” Anderson explains. “You don’t have to be strong or fast. But, you need to be smart and—most importantly—friendly. It’s a great game to play while you’re getting to know people. And that’s how it’s spreading across the country—by the word of mouth from folks who love it.”