A small, cleared-out space in front of the Portman Park recreation building in eastern Duluth was filled with satisfying wooden plinking sounds on Sunday as brothers Shane and Erik Linge, and Shane's wife, Jenny, faced off in a game of kubb.
"He practices here every day, so he's going to be really good," said Shane, gesturing to Erik.
"No pressure!" Erik shouted back.
The players took their starting positions behind opposing rows of five wooden blocks placed 8 meters apart. In the center of the field stood one larger wooden block known as the king. Before the players could start the game, they had to decide who would go first. Erik and Shane each threw a small wooden baton at the king. Erik hit the block, Shane was a little short, so Erik got to go first and the game got underway.
Kubb is a traditional Swedish yard name that originated on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea just off the coast of Sweden. It was originally played by Vikings and is often referred to as "Viking chess" due to a legend that the first players would play the game using skulls and femurs.
Today, the game is played with wooden blocks and batons and closely resembles a cross between horseshoes and bowling. It's a game that's possible to be played on any terrain, be it sand, grass or snow. The game has grown in popularity internationally, with Eau Claire, Wisconsin, hosting its first U.S. National Kubb Championship back in 2007. It started with 15 teams but has now grown to 128 teams, including Shane, Erik and Jenny Linge.
The Viking lineage is what first drew the Linges to the game. Erik first heard about kubb two years ago at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.
"My wife and I play music down there and saw the Viking encampment had a kubb pitch set up and they were teaching people," Erik said. "We looked online and saw there was a whole community of people playing it, but no one up here yet."
Erik and Shane decided to start the Lake Superior Kubb club in May 2019.
"It's not really an organized club with people paying dues or anything like that," Shane said. "We're just on a mission to spread kubb in the area and get people playing."
To start introducing people to the sport, they hosted weekly "Kubb in the Park" nights every Thursday at various parks in the Twin Ports. With enough interest, they created a fall league at the Beacon Sports Bar and Grill in Hermantown. Last year they introduced over 300 people to kubb at the Lake Superior Ice Festival, where they're set to return again at the end of January.
"It's a super easy game to learn," Shane said. "It looks difficult at first, but if you play a game or two, you really get the idea."
Here's how the game works:
Players must knock down their opponents kubbs by throwing their batons end over end at the blocks. But each kubb that gets knocked down has to be thrown back onto the playing field (known as inkast) at the end of each turn if all the kubbs are not knocked down.
"That's where the strategy comes in," Shane said. "That's the hardest part to learn, just like chess. It takes some time. We're still learning."
The player who knocked down the kubb gets to inkast the kubb, but must make sure the kubb lands on their opponent's side of the pitch, or else the defender gets to choose where to place the kubb, now known as a field kubb. The first player to knock down all their opponent's field kubbs, base kubbs and the king kubb wins. But they must be careful to not knock down the king kubb before knocking down the rest.
"That's just like the eight ball in pool. If you knock it in before the other ones, you automatically lose. Same concept," Jenny said.
There's a little more to it, but Erik said it's easier to see the game in action and try it out than to read a description.
"I was a little lost when I first started reading the rules, but after watching some videos on YouTube and trying it out, it started to make sense," he said.
Interested players can check out this Swedish game during the Lake Superior Ice Festival at Barker's Island in Superior from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 30. Follow Lake Superior Kubb on Facebook or visit lakesuperiorkubb.com for more "Kubb in the Park" and other events.