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Hnefatafl: Viking Chess

Updated on October 22, 2014
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Jeff Johnston is a medieval reenactor and avid history fan. He is also the publisher at Living History Publications.

a hand embroidered hnefatafl board made by my fiancé
a hand embroidered hnefatafl board made by my fiancé

Kings Table

Hnefatafl is a Viking board game similar to chess, it requires strategy and forethought. During the Viking Age playing hnefatafl was considered one of the noble skills all knights should know.

The name Hnefatafl translates literally to "King's Table" or possibly "Fist Table" (game of the fist) and was often referred to simply as Tafl in the norse sagas. Technically tafl refers to any number of games. There is Skáktafl which is chess, Halatafl which is fox table or fox and geese, and several more. Hnefatafl however was the most popular tafl game by the end of the viking age and was considered to be the game of kings.

It's a game that the exact rules have been lost to history, no one knows exactly how it was played. Several attempts have been made to recreate the game and in certain groups, such as the SCA, hnefatafl is a popular game to play once again.

Image is of a hnefatafl board I made.

Hnefatafl Sources

The sagas of the vikings are the primary source of almost all of modern knowledge of the culture of the Vikings. These sagas are part mythology, part history, and part poetry. I have selected those sagas which contain some of the best examples of Hnefatafl being played by vikings. I have also included Robert Charles Bell's "Board and Table Games From Many Civilizations" as it contains a suggested method of play and some great examples of extant boards and pieces.

The Nine Noble Skills

I can play at tafl,

Nine skills I know,

Rarely forget I the runes,

I know of books and smithing,

I know how to slide on skis,

Shoot and row, well enough;

Each of two arts I know,

Harp-playing and speaking poetry.

-- Earl Rognvaldr Kali

By Wilhelm meis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Wilhelm meis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hnefatafl Game Board Set Up

This is the layout of the standard Hnefatafl game board. The white pieces are the attackers, and the red, the defenders. The red piece with the cross is the king. As you can see the attackers far outnumber the defenders, in fact there are twice as many attackers as there are defenders, don't let this fool you, the attackers do not have the advantage in hnefatafl, the game favours the defenders considerably. Many players don't consider a person to be skilled at hnefatafl until they master winning as an attacker.

A hnefatafl board I made, pieces are 3d printed in sandstone
A hnefatafl board I made, pieces are 3d printed in sandstone
Hnefatafl
Hnefatafl

A really nice period looking table. It looks like the pieces may have been modeled after the Lewis Chess Set.

 

Hnefatafl Game Play

Hnefatafl is an extremely simple game to learn, but an exceedingly difficult game to master.

Legal Moves

All men move in the exact same fashion. They can move any number of squares up down or side to side, diagonal moves are not allowed. The attackers cannot land on the king square or the corners. In some variants the defenders cannot land on the base (starting positions) of the attackers.

Capturing a player

As I mentioned earlier the game is weighted in favour of the defender, this is due to the fact that the king is such a powerful piece. Every other piece can be captured by having two opposing men on any two of the four surrounding sides. The king however requires that three opposing men take him (some variants require four). However a capture does not occur if a player moves into a position that would result in a capture, in these cases an extra opponent must move into an attack position.

The reasoning for the capture method is that hnefatafl is seen as a battle ground and each piece represents a viking warrior. A single warrior can hold off another indefinitely, however if a second warrior moves in then the warrior is outmatched. Now if a single warrior surprises two warriors he can again hold them off, a third warrior is required. In the case of the King the King is the most powerful warrior in the land, as such he can handle more warriors at once.

Winning

The game ends when the attackers capture the king or the king "escapes" to one of the four corners, or in some variants just to any edge of the game.

Dice, Introducing Chance Into the Game

There is some evidence that dice would sometimes be used to play tafl. To include dice in the game one or two dice would be rolled the number that comes up can be considered one of three ways depending on which method you want to use (use the same method always in any one game):

  • maximum number of spaces a man can move for that turn

  • total number of spaces a man MUST move in that turn (this method makes gameplay extremely frustrating)

  • total number of spaces that any combination of men can move ie. if you rolled a six one man could move two spaces, another one, and a third three

Alternate Versions

There are many other methods for playing Hnefatafl, the main variants do not alter game play at all only the board and how it is set up. Board sizes range from 7X7 (Ard Ri) all the way up to 19X19 (Alea Evangelii)

Alternate Board Setups

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Alea evangelii 12th century Anglo Saxon versionImage By User Rsalen on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsTawlbwrdd Welsh versionImage By User François Haffner on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBrandub Irish versionImage verified as public domainArd Ri Scottish variantImage verified as public domainTablut comes to us from Sápmi and is possibly the best documented version.Image By Wilhelm meis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alea evangelii 12th century Anglo Saxon versionImage By User Rsalen on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Alea evangelii 12th century Anglo Saxon version Image By User Rsalen on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tawlbwrdd Welsh versionImage By User François Haffner on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tawlbwrdd Welsh version Image By User François Haffner on fr.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brandub Irish versionImage verified as public domain
Brandub Irish version Image verified as public domain
Ard Ri Scottish variantImage verified as public domain
Ard Ri Scottish variant Image verified as public domain
Tablut comes to us from Sápmi and is possibly the best documented version.Image By Wilhelm meis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tablut comes to us from Sápmi and is possibly the best documented version. Image By Wilhelm meis (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Avacal Games Guild is a group of people in the SCA Kingdom of Avacal who are interested in Medieval games

Badge of the Avacal Games Guild
Badge of the Avacal Games Guild | Source

© 2013 Jeff Johnston

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    • CuAllaidh profile image
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      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Aunt-Mollie: thanks... I discovered the game a couple of years back at an SCA teaching event, had such a blast had to make my own board and spread the word :D

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      Aunt-Mollie 4 years ago

      I've never heard of this before, but you've got a great explanation here.

    • CuAllaidh profile image
      Author

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @JoshK47: It is quite a fun game. Faster paced the chess, but still mainly strategic.

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      JoshK47 4 years ago

      This seems pretty cool! I may need to try this out!