Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

A Glossary of Hnefatafl Terms

This is a glossary of terms that have been used in discussion of hnefatafl games. It is a work in progress, taken from some old research. Over the coming months I hope to correct, expand and illustrate it.

alea evangelii: an historical variant of hnefatafl played in England and Ireland in the tenth century. A king and twenty- four defenders faced forty-eight attackers on a 19×19 board.

ard ri: a modern variant of hnefatafl, said without evidence to be based on an historical variant played in Scotland. A king and eight defenders face sixteen attackers on a 7×7 board.

attacker: a piece on the side attacking the king. I have tried to avoid using this term to refer to the player controlling that side (see attacking player).

attacking force: the attackers taken as a whole.

attacking player: the player controlling the attacking force.

base camps: the starting positions of the attackers. In some modern variants these have special significance. Some edge victory games exclude base camps from the king's objective; some prohibit the king or other pieces from entering; some others make these squares hostile.

besieger: an alternative name for an attacker.

blockade: a formation of attackers which completely surrounds the defending force, such that it is impossible for the king to break out.

branan: the name of the king piece in brandubh.

brandubh, brandub: an historical variant of hnefatafl played in Ireland in the tenth century. A branan and four defenders faced eight attackers on a board of 7×7 cells.

brannumh: another name for brandubh.

brenhin: the name of the king piece in tawlbwrdd.

castle: the Anglicised name of the konokis or central cell in tablut.

cell: a square, intersection or peg-hole on the board, on which a piece may sit.

citadel: an unspecified aspect of the game of alea evangelii, taken speculatively in this book to refer to one of the four marked corner areas of the board.

city: an unspecified aspect of the game of alea evangelii, taken speculatively in this book to refer to the central cell of the board.

corner escape, corner victory: a shorthand to describe games in which the king has to reach a corner in order to win the game.

count: an unspecified aspect of the game of alea evangelii, taken in this book to be a piece on the attacking side. custodianship: the method of capture used in all hnefatafl games, of enclosing a piece of one colour in between two of its opponents.

custodial capture, custodianship: the term for capturing a piece by surrounding it on two opposite sides, as in hnefatafl, ludus latrunculorum, petteia, agon and other games.

cyningstan: the name of the king in Anglo-Saxon games. defender: a piece on the side defending the king. defending force: the king and defenders considered as a whole.

draw fort: an invincible construction of defenders around the king, within which he can move back and forth indefinitely, forcing a draw. These are prohibited in some games, while others (e.g. Copenhagen) make a distinction between draw forts in the middle of the board and draw forts at the edge.

duke: an unspecified aspect of the game of alea evangelii, speculatively taken in this book to be a defender.

edge escape, edge victory: a shorthand to describe a game in which the king wins on reaching the edge.

encirclement: an alternative term for blockade.

enclosure: the method of capturing the king in some games, of surrounding him on all four sides by attackers, or by a combination of attackers, restricted squares and/or the edge of the board.

fork: a position in which a piece simultaneously attacks two enemy pieces, in such a way that only one enemy piece may be saved.

great square: in the initial layout of alea evangelii, the king and the diamond-shaped group of defenders around him are referred to as the great square. It is not, as may be otherwise reasonably supposed, a name for the central cell.

hnefatafl: this is the name given to the game in later Icelandic sources. It is presumed that the name succeeded tafl when other board games were introduced, most of which took tafl as a suffix; the hnefa- prefix being added to distinguish hnefatafl from the others. Nowadays it is often used as a generic name for all variants of tafl/hnefatafl.

hnefi: the name for the king in Icelandic sources.

hostile: describes a restricted cell which may be used to capture pieces as if a piece was sat upon it. Thus the central cell is usually hostile to the king, and restricted corner cells are often hostile to all pieces. See also base camps.

hunn: the Icelandic name for attackers and defenders, i.e. pieces other than the king.

intersection: a cell on the board of such games in which pieces are placed on the points where the lines cross, rather than in the squares.

king: the most important piece in hnefatafl. It must escape from the board, with or without the help of its defenders, to win; the attackers must capture if they are to win instead.

konokis, konakis: the name of the central square in tablut, rendered as castle in English, but also known as the throne. The spelling used in the English translation of Linnaeus is konokis.

Muscovite: the name given to an attacker in tablut.

orthogonal: the horizontal and vertical directions on the board; the opposite or complement of diagonal. All movement and capture in hnefatafl is orthogonal.

pin: a situation in which a piece is held in position not by blockade, but by threat of some serious and immediate consequence if it is moved. For instance, a defender beside the king is pinned if attackers surround the king on the three remaining sides, while a fourth attacker is in position to land on the fourth side if the defender should be moved.

primus vir: mediaeval Latin for primary man, the name of the king in alea evangelii.

raichi: a position in which the king has an open route to the edge of the board after his move. The word comes from tablut, in which the king wins upon reaching the edge of the board. It can be applied to variants in which the king must reach the corner of the board, in which case it means the position in which the king has an open route to a corner. While analogous to check in chess, it is not usually applied to equivalent positions where the attackers threaten to capture the king.

shieldwall: a method of capture found in modern hnefatafl games. A row of pieces is captured at the edge of the board by completely blockading it against the edge, with no empty spaces within the blockade. This has some resemblance to capture in go.

square: a cell on a lined board in games where the pieces sit in the spaces formed between the lines, rather than on the intersections where the lines cross.

Swede: a defender in the game of tablut.

tablut: a variant played in Lapland in the eighteenth century, where a king and eight Swedes face sixteen Muscovites on a 9×9 board.

taefelstanas: an Anglo-Saxon name for attackers and defenders, i.e. pieces other than the king.

tafl: the older name for hnefatafl in Icelandic sagas. It may even at this time have referred to board games in general, as nine men's morris was played from an early period. Later games included skaktafl (chess) and kvatrutafl (backgammon), and the words tanntafl and possibly halatafl referred to types of gaming board. As some people still use tafl to refer also to other hunt games like fox & geese, I have used hnefatafl throughout this book.

taflborð: a Norse name for the hnefatafl board.

tawlbort: a board for playing tawlbwrdd.

tawlbwrdd: 1. a variant, or two, played in Wales from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries. Early games had a brenhin and eight werin facing sixteen attackers (also possibly called werin) on an unspecified size of board. By the sixteenth century it also referred to a variant with a king and twelve defenders against twenty-four attackers on an 11×11 board. 2. The word tawlbwrdd can refer to the board itself.

tuichu: a position in which the king has routes to two edges of the board, be they opposite edges or adjacent. The word comes from tablut, in which the king wins on reaching the edge of the board. The word can also be applied to variants in which the king must reach a corner, in which case it means that the king has routes to two adjacent corners. As it is impossible for the attackers to block both routes in one move, the king is considered to have won upon reaching this position. It is analogous to checkmate in chess, but is not normally applied to positions where the king cannot escape from a threatened capture.

variant: a particular rule set for playing hnefatafl; a member of the hnefatafl family of games. Alea evangelii, brandub, tablut and tawlbwrdd are historical variants; Copenhagen, Fetlar, Magpie and sea battle tafl are modern variants.

weaponless: used to describe the king in games where he cannot take part in captures. This comes from one interpretation of a riddle in the Herverar saga. Others insist that the "weaponless" refers to the pieces in general, as "voiceless" does in another Irish poem, a poetic way of distinguishing the pieces from real warriors. But the concept of a weaponless king is supported by Robert ap Ifan's description of tawlbwrdd, and tacitly by Linnaeus's silence on the subject.


Excellent! very good idea, doing a glossary. If you want to expand it later, you could add blockade, corner escape, custodial capture, draw fort (edge and centre), game balance, guillotine, gambit opening, edge escape, encirclement, hostile base camps, shieldwall capture, orthogonal and maybe zugzwang

Tim Millar - 08:26, 31/08/2014

Thanks Tim for the suggestions! Hopefully I'll get time to add those in the next week or so. I may also prune the list to use only those terms that are mentioned elsewhere on this site - as well as making sure I'm consistent in my use of the terms.

Damian Walker - 12:13, 31/08/2014

Absolutely :)

Tim Millar - 15:11, 31/08/2014

In some titles of games i see a -w but have no idea what it means. For instance, what is the difference between sea battle 204577 and sea battle 204577 -w? Does it mean weaponless? I thought the cargo ship is ALWAYS weaponless?

Jordan - 02:13, 08/01/2022

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