Hnefatafl - the Viking Game

Hnefatafl - Introduction

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Beach Hnefatafl - set made with pebbles and sand - entirely out of rock, in fact
Hnefatafl, the Viking Game

By Tim Millar

Grandmaster and World Quickplay Hnefatafl Champion 2009 and 2010




Introduction

Hnefatafl is a board game for two players. It is also known as “The Viking Game”, “Viking Chess” or “King’s Table”. The name hnefatafl, which may be pronounced as “neffa-taffle”, seems to mean fist-board, but it is clear from documentary sources that fist refers to the special “king” piece possessed by one of the players which begins the game in the centre of the board.

The game dates back at least to the Dark Ages in Western Europe, and is most closely associated with the Vikings, being found wherever they travelled and traded. When chess began to be widely played across Europe in the Middle Ages, hnefatafl fell more and more into obscurity, and almost vanished altogether.

What we know of this game comes from archaeological and documentary evidence (boards and pieces are occasionally found at Viking sites), and some rather ambiguous references in the Norse Sagas. Linnaeus described a version of tafl, called “Tablut”, still being played in Lapland in 1732. His description of the rules was vital in reconstructing the game, because the exact rules have not survived, and are still a matter of conjecture and discussion. However several versions have been found to be well balanced and very playable, and a World Championship is now held regularly.

Hnefatafl belongs to a family of games, loosely called the “Tafl” games (which just means “board” in Old Norse) whose members show many variations of rules and board sizes, but have certain shared features. Firstly, and most noticeably, is the fact that the two forces on the board are of unequal size, and secondly that one force begins in the middle of the board, and the other occupies the edge. Thirdly, one player has a “King” while the other does not. The two players in fact have totally different aims in the game; one is trying to escape, and the other is trying to surround and capture. The final characteristic feature of tafl games is the method of capture – unlike chess, backgammon or draughts (checkers) the tafl games have their own unique capturing move, known as “custodial capture”. We will discuss this later.

The main differences between members of the tafl family of games concern board size, the relative strength of the “King” and whether he is attempting to reach the corner of the board, or the edge.

Hnefatafl is regarded as being easier than chess, though more difficult than either checkers or backgammon. It is one of those games which is quite easy to learn, but more difficult to master, and it is very rewarding to play. I learned this game about 20 years ago, and it is still presenting surprises, despite its relatively simple appearance. Beginners often find it easier to win when playing as white, indeed it can take several games before you start to see how to play as black – you need a careful strategy. That is why it is my intention here to give some strategic guidance, especially to the black side, though there is much to discuss in white strategy too. With intermediate and advanced players, the game is very well balanced.

Hnefatafl games can have a fascinating dynamic. Some games are over very quickly – the white player makes a dazzling assault on a corner, for example, and breaks through – white can win in nine or ten moves if black is not very careful. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the focus of battle can switch suddenly from one corner to another, and later switch back again. If white loses hope of winning a corner, he might suddenly start playing for a draw, by building an impregnable position defending his king – black may have to abandon control of one or more corners in order to prevent this, and another corner battle may break out. Longer games may contain four or five distinct phases like this, and last for over 50 moves.

Like chess, the game represents a battle, but in hnefatafl the forces are very uneven. In some ways it is closer to a raid on a village, something the Vikings certainly knew about. It can also be seen as representing a siege, where a small force is surrounded and outnumbered by a larger one.


The version I am going to introduce here is widely known as “Fetlar Hnefatafl”. It is named after the Shetland island of Fetlar, which is where the annual World Quickplay Hnefatafl Championships are held. It is played on a board of 11 x 11 squares, and features a strong King, and escape to the corners. This rule-set has been extensively tested by the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel, at the World Championships and in hundreds of on-line games.

You can buy hnefatafl sets here and there, and it is very easy to make your own, like the beach hnefatafl set in the picture. The Vikings often made hnefatafl pieces from glass, but certainly would have used sheep’s knuckle bones, shells or pebbles instead. It is even possible that some of the famous ivory “Lewis Chess Men” are in fact hnefatafl pieces. I once made a set out of carrots, using the carrot top as the king.


Before we have a look at the rules, a word on terminology. For convenience, I use the term pieces to refer to all the game pieces including the “King”. I use the term warriors to refer to all game pieces except the King. Thus, the game pieces include one white King, 12 white warriors and 24 black warriors.

Also, I will be referring to the two sides as “white” and “black” even though this convention is not universal, and you may find a hnefatafl set which reverses these colours. Some people prefer to call the two sides “attackers” (round the edge) and “defenders” (in the centre) but this can be ambiguous, as the roles of attacker and defender shift and change during the game, after all, as you will see, the attackers have to defend the corners, whereas the defenders frequently attack the attackers. In fact, it is more common for black to play defensively, and white aggressively. On the whole, it is easier to call the player who has 12 warriors and a King and starts in the centre of the board “white”, whereas the player who has 24 warriors and no king, and starts at the edge of the board is called “black”.