Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings


Compact 37-piece Hnefatafl Game, with F. R. Lewis' layout
Compact 37-piece Hnefatafl Game, with F. R. Lewis' layout

The Welsh called their version of hnefatafl "tawlbwrdd". It was played on at least two different boards: one of nine rows of nine squares, and another of eleven. In the smaller game, a "brenin" (king) and eight defenders fought to escape from sixteen attackers; in the larger game a king and twelve defenders faced 24 attackers.

History of Tawlbwrdd

Tawlbwrdd diagram, 1587
In early Welsh tales, like those in the Mabinogion, a game called gwyddbwyll is frequently mentioned. The name means "wood sense", like the Irish fithcheall. Some people class these games as hnefatafl games, but evidence from Irish poetry identifies them to more likely be imports of the Roman game latrunculi.

In time, gwyddbwyll gave way to the game of tawlbwrdd. In the Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, dating before 1250, costings are given for a game with a king, eight defenders and sixteen attackers. These were given as gifts of office to civil servants, to each rank a game of a fitting value. While backgammon (tapplys) was considered a degrading game and was possibly illegal, tawlbwrdd was obviously highly respectable.

By the sixteenth century the game had lost its central status in Welsh society. But as if in compensation it had gained in size, now having twelve defenders for the king, and 24 attackers. In 1587 it was described as a kind of curiosity in a manuscript by Robert ap Ifan, who gave us a partial set of rules.

The game was brought back to life in the 20th century. A scholarly article by F. R. Lewis in 1941 was followed by an imaginative reconstruction in 1969 by R. C. Bell. In the 21st century a study of the remaining historical material, and some cross-reference with the similar game of tablut for which more complete documentation survives, has resulted in a credible reconstruction.

Rules for Tawlbwrdd

One possible starting position
These rules were taken from the account of Robert ap Ifan in 1587. There are many omissions from that source, so the gaps have been filled by borrowing rules from Tablut, a game more fully described by its contemporary observers.

1. Tawlbwrdd is played on a board of 11 squares by 11, with a king and twelve defenders against twenty-four attackers. Alternatively a board of 9 rows of 9 squares can be used, with a king and eight defenders against sixteen attackers.

2. The king is placed in the centre of the board, with his defenders around him and the attackers at the edge of the board.

3. The attackers make the first move.

4. In his turn a player may move a piece across the board by any number of spaces in a straight line, horizontally or vertically.

5. A piece may not land on another, nor may it leap over a piece.

6. The king moves in the same way as the other pieces.

7. An enemy piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides, horizontally or vertically. That piece is removed from the board.

8. It is possible to capture two or three pieces at once by so surrounding them.

9. It is not possible to capture a row of pieces, however.

10. The defending player wins the game by moving the king to any square on the edge of the board.

11. The attacking player wins by capturing the king.

The manuscript that describes the rules of tawlbwrdd makes no mention of any special uses for the central square. As the game appears to function without them, I have not included them in these rules. But it is entirely possible that this is merely an omission in the Welsh source; it could be that tawlbwrdd was played in an identical way to Tablut described elsewhere on this site.

Strategy in Tawlbwrdd

In the rules as presented on this site, tawlbwrdd is the simplest of all hnefatafl games. It has no special squares on the board; the central "castle" on which the king begins the game offers no protection to him nor impedes the movement of any other piece.

The king being vulnerable to capture by two enemies, no matter where he is on the board, makes him a weak and vulnerable piece. Though given the same powers and defence as every other piece, his loss brings the game to an end, so he must not be exposed to danger in the same way as other pieces.

On either size of board, 9x9 or 11x11, the attackers must try to form an unbreakable blockade around the defenders. The defenders must try to prevent this blockade from forming and to break out and make a safe path for the king to escape. Much of this is common to all hnefatafl games, but in tawlbwrdd special care must be taken to provide the king with the proper protection every step of the way.


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