Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Tablut

A tablut set made in about 2007
A tablut set made in about 2007

Played in Lapland till the eighteenth century, tablut is the version of hnefatafl for which we have the most complete rules. A king attempts to reach the edge of the board, which has nine rows of nine squares. Eight defenders aid him in his quest, while sixteen attackers attempt to capture him.

History of Tablut

History of Tablut
An account of tablut was recorded by the young Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1732. Unbeknown to Linnaeus, this was a version of a game that had been played in his homeland centuries before, hnefatafl. The game must have been passed to the Saami people of Lapland by the Norwegians or the Swedes in mediaeval times, as chess had displaced it in those countries shortly after the thirteenth century.

The Saami pasted a theme onto the game: this was a battle with a Swedish king and his eight defenders, who were being attacked by sixteen Muscovite attackers. Apart from the theme, this game is assumed to be very close in its rules to the games that the Vikings played.

Linnaeus recorded the game in Latin. He left out only a few details, for instance, who moved first. Some rules were included by example, rather than by direct statements. Some rules were apparently exceptions to others, but were not explicitly stated as such, making them look like contradictions. All this made translation and interpretation difficult.

This led to a faulty English translation, which appeared in 1811 as the first publication of the rules. Done by British biologist James Edward Smith, this translation attempted to resolve the "contradictions" by ignoring or correcting contradictory rules. Thorough playtesting, not within Smith's remit, would expose these rules as unbalanced.

From this situation there sprang a multiplicity of variants of tablut, and of hnefatafl in general, that attempted to rebalance the game by misdirected reinterpretation (of the English rules), by borrowing from other games, or by sheer imagination. This process started in 1855 with the publication of Imperial Contest, the first commercial tablut game, and continued till the 21st century.

Some time after 2010 an untranslated version of Linnaeus' early work was digitised and made available on-line, allowing anyone to see the original Latin rules for themselves. This resolved many problems, and showed that with the exception of a few details, Linnaeus had recorded a perfectly balanced and playable game.

These rules have been re-translated into English and other modern languages, and have been given a number of thorough play-tests in competition. They are now becoming a standard for tablut, and for other versions of hnefatafl on larger boards too.

Rules for Tablut

Rules for Tablut
The rules recorded in Latin by Carl Linnaeus give almost a complete game, lacking only a few particulars, such as who moves first. Below is presented a complete and playable scheme, followed by notes on what has been added, or in one instance changed, from Linnaeus' original Latin description.

1. Tablut is played on a board of 9×9 squares.

2. There are 25 pieces: a king and his eight defenders, and sixteen attackers. These are placed in the shape of a cross with serifs, as in the diagram.

3. The attacking side takes the first move.

4. Pieces move any distance orthogonally, not landing on nor jumping over other pieces on the board.

5. No piece may land on the central square, called the "castle", not even the king once he has left it.

6. A piece other than the king is captured when it is surrounded orthogonally on two opposite squares by enemies. The king can pair up with a defender for the purpose of capturing attackers.

7. A piece may also be captured between an enemy and the empty castle.

8. When in the castle, the king is captured by surrounding him on four orthogonal sides with attackers.

9. When stood beside the castle, the king may be captured by surrounding him on the remaining three sides with attackers.

10. Elsewhere on the board, the king is captured as other pieces.

11. If the king when in the castle is surrounded on three sides by attackers, and on the fourth by a defender, the defender may be captured by surrounding it between an attacker and the king.

12. The king wins the game on reaching any square at the edge of the board. The attackers win if they capture the king.

13. The game is drawn if a position is repeated, if a player cannot move, or if the players otherwise agree it.

Rule 3 is a modern invention. Linnaeus does not state who moves first, but having the question settled one way or another makes it easier to record games and hold tournaments.

In rule 5, the king is barred from his own castle. Linnaeus states that no piece can enter this central square, and this rule interprets that literally.

An addition to the rules not found in Linnaeus' Latin text is the word "empty" in rule 7. This has been added because, without it, rule 11 would be completely redundant. As it is, rule 11 describes the one instance where a defending piece can be captured against the non-empty central square.

Rule 12 is formulated by inference. Linnaeus gives only a few examples of where the king must reach to win the game, all at various points on the edge of the board.

Rule 13 is a modern invention designed to prevent games going on forever or coming to a standstill when neither player is able to win.

Strategy in Tablut

Strategy in Tablut
The 9x9 board used by tablut is the smallest in which the blockade becomes a major strategic consideration. There are enough attacking pieces to close off the defenders' access to the board edge, if the defenders do nothing to stop this.

The king is relatively safe in his castle. But once out into the field, he becomes vulnerable. Though he is captured in the same way as a defender, his vulnerability is greater as his loss ends the game, thus in reality making him a weaker piece. A defender may make bold attacks with the possibility of sacrifice to obtain a better position for its side, the king does not have this capability.

Because the king wins at the board's edge, the defenders must try to make use of open ranks or files, that is, a rank or file with no pieces upon it. If the king can reach an open rank or file, giving simultaneous routes to two opposite edges, then his victory is certain unless he can be immediately captured. It is not possible to block off both routes at once. The attackers must try to take control of open ranks and files as soon as possible, and in the mean time prevent the king from reaching them.

Comments

This site is great, I just discovered hnefatafl an I am excited to start playing. It seems these rules are a bit different from the leaflet. I would like a little clarification on a couple of things. Is the king weaponless? And can the king move back into the center square once he leaves it? Thank for all the great info, I have drawn out a 9x9 board and a 11x11 board to try both hnefatafl and tablut.

Ladnar - 13:27, 14/07/2015

I just read in the leaflet intro that the king can attack so that question is answered. Just need to know if the more balanced option has the king blocked from the throne once he leaves?

Ladnar - 18:21, 14/07/2015

Thanks for your comments, Ladnar! The usual interpretation is that the king can't go back to the central square once he leaves it. I don't personally think it makes sense to lock him out of his own castle, but the Latin rules say something like "none can enter" which, taken literally, includes the king. It's how it's implemented on http://aagenielsen.dk/ too, so I thought I'd go with the flow here.

Damian Walker - 16:17, 15/07/2015

Thanks for the update, what threw me was rule 5 here and rule 5 in the leaflet were opposite. We have played both ways but can't tell yet which is more balanced.

On another note, what started me and my daughter on this discovery was a book she read called "Thrones and Bones" by Lou Anders. It's about a boy who loves the game thrones and bones which is very similar to hnefatafl and tablut. She loved the book so please check it out and let us know what you think. (the rules for Thrones and Bones is at the back of the book)

Ladnar - 17:45, 15/07/2015

Ladnar: On your recommendation I checked out Thrones and Bones.  I think I would have loved the book when I was younger but I'm not as into fantasy as I once was.  I did really like the game, though.  By making the sixteen attacker start squares into "barrows", it really changes the feel of Tablut.  It's a lot harder to move around, and that's intriguing. I did love the way he incorporated the "story" of the game into the actual story.  I checked out the other two books from the library, and while I haven't read them, they seem to do the same thing with those two games.  I like the idea of Queen's Champion, which is chess-like but includes a challenge involving dice that reminds me of Magic the Gathering.  

While I'm commenting, I really love this site as a whole.  Decades ago my brother bought a little Tablut game, which he eventually gave to me.  The board is a photocopy of an embroidered leather board copying the Linnaeus design.  Since then I've marked out a Brandubh board on a sturdy square of wood, and I play that with nice chess pieces.  I like it better than Tablut, I think.  

Because I'm so bad at strategy and tactics, I'm able to play these games solitaire, playing both sides.  I blunder into my own traps and never stop surprising myself.  If I were a better player I think I wouldn't have nearly as much fun.  I also enjoy playing Asalto the same way, taking both sides.  The first time I did that I creeped myself out; those invaders kept marching in like a zombie apocalypse.  But if I think of them as chickens trying to get into the henhouse it's not quite as creepy.

KarenSDR - 13:16, 28/02/2017

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