Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Hnefatafl Revival

Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust
Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust

Linnaeus' notes on the game of tablut were written in Latin and remained unpublished for many years. Neither was Robert ap Ifan's manuscript published, with its description of tawlbwrdd, so these late sources of information could not help to keep the hnefatafl alive. But in 1811 there was an English Translation of Linnaeus' diary, and during the ensuing century his description of tablut began to attract attention.

The nineteenth century was a boom time for board games, and many manufacturers were basing their commercial board game products on traditional centuries-old ideas. Linnaeus' description of an obscure game was taken up and a small number of companies began publishing an interpretation of tablut.

Imperial Contest diagram
 In 1855, after an absence from history of 120 years, hnefatafl reappeared in the form of Imperial Contest by Jaques of London, a Crimean War game, closely modelled on Linnaeus's rules. The Russian forces were the defenders, and the attackers were the four nations of the alliance: the British, the French, the Ottomans and the Sardinians.  As it was probably the first commerical reproduction of hnefatafl, Jaques experimented with the rules in order to achieve a balanced game. The king in this version (the "Russian Emperor") is limited in his power. The game was copied in this form as an American Civil War game, "Freedom's Contest" or "Battle for the Union".

H. J. R. Murray's History of Board-Games
 Early in the twentieth century, more and more scholars started to take an interest in board games, and some of them gave tafl their particular attention. Authors such as D. W. Fiske and H. J. R. Murray tried to reconstruct the game, while historians and archaeologists like J. A. Robinson and H. O. Hencken tried to make sense of early manuscripts and archaeological finds.

By the 1960s the game attracted commercial interest, with games like Goldfinger (another tablut derivative), and at least one reproduction in a children's book. As well as tafl variants, there grew up separate games which clearly took Hnefatafl as an inspiration, such as 3M's Breakthru. This trend continues, with popular implementations like The Viking Game continuing to sell well, and derivative games like Thud coming to market in the 21st century.

Next: Hnefatafl Today


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