Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Alea Evangelii

Damian Walker's go board is being abused for the alea evangelii trial.
Damian Walker's go board is being abused for the alea evangelii trial.

The largest hnefatafl game of them all was played in Anglo-Saxon England. It featured a board of nineteen rows of nineteen playing spaces, on which 73 pieces sat: a king, 24 defenders and 48 attackers. This extravagant game looks both impressive and daunting. Indeed, it seems not to have been played thoroughly since mediaeval times, as many modern reconstructions are very one-sided.

History of Alea Evangelii

History of Alea Evangelii
In about 1140, a manuscript was written which contains a diagram for a game on a large grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines, crossing to give 361 points on which some pieces were placed. It called this game "alea evangelii", or the game of the gospels. The text accompanying the diagram (except for two paragraphs) concentrates on using the game as a metaphor for the gospels, allocating various pieces to each of the evangelists and drawing other parallels based on numerology. The exceptional paragraphs are:

"Alea Evangelii [the Game, or Playing-board, of the Gospel], which Dubinsi bishop of Bangor brough away from the king of the English, that is, from the house of Athelstan king of the English; depicted by a certain Frank and a Roman sage, that is, Israel.

"If any one would know this game fully, before all the lessons of this teaching he must thoroughly know these seven: to wit, dukes and counts, defenders and attackers, city and citadel, and nine steps twice over."

No other evidence of the game exists before or since. Nothing survives from Athelstan's time. Some link a very early board, found in Vimose, Denmark, to alea evangelii because the surviving edge contains eighteen squares (i.e. nineteen lines), but the reverse of that board shows that the two games it bore were Roman.

All of the pieces on the board of the manuscript diagram were shown in black, except for four. In 1955 the board game historian H. J. R. Murray proposed a scheme that divided the pieces into two sides. More recently players and scholars have found difficulty in creating a balanced game with this layout, as the attackers seem to be overwhelmingly favoured. This has resulted in a number of imaginative solutions, some involving special pieces invented out of the "variegated men" mentioned in the manuscript.

An alternative was first proposed in the 21st century by Sten Helmfrid, swapping around some of Murray's allocations of black and white pieces, and initial play-testing in 2015 has shown that this interpretation may lead to a fairer game. The study of alea evangelii is still on-going, however, so no proposed set of rules has so far gained ascendancy.

Rules for Alea Evangelii

Rules for Alea Evangelii
Alea Evangelii is played by two people on a square board. The board has 19 rows of 19 squares. Sixteen squares in the corners are marked, as is the central square or castle. One player has a king and 24 faithful dukes, while the other has 48 rebellious counts.

1. The game begins with the pieces set out as in the illustration.

2. The counts take the first move, play then alternating between players.

3. In his turn a player moves one of his pieces in a straight line, horizontally or vertically.

4. No piece may land on another, nor is there any jumping.

5. No piece can land on the central square, not even the king when he has left it. All pieces may pass over it when empty, however.

6. Only the king may move to the marked corner squares; see rule 11.

7. Dukes and counts are captured by surrounding them with enemies on two opposite sides, horizontally or vertically. Two or three men may be captured simultaneously if each falls between the moving piece and another enemy.

8. When still on the central square, the king is captured by surrounding him on all four sides by counts. If he is next to the central square, he may be captured by surrounding him on the other three sides. Anywhere else on the board, he is captured in the same way as dukes and counts.

9. The marked squares at the centre (when empty) and the corners may be used to capture pieces by either player, as if their own pieces sat upon them.

10. A piece may come to rest voluntarily between two enemies, without being captured.

11. If the king moves to one of the marked corner squares, he has escaped the board and wins the game.

12. If the king is captured by his opponents, then he has lost the game.

This set of rules borrows heavily from tablut, another game of the hnefatafl family whose game-play is better documented. The tablut rules are modified so that the king must reach the (enlarged) corners, a change suggested by the text and diagram of the manuscript from which our knowledge of alea evangelii comes.

Strategy in Alea Evangelii

Strategy in Alea Evangelii
There has been insufficient play at high levels to ascertain the strategies for this game. Scholars are still tinkering with rules and alternative board layouts to try to achieve a game that is balanced. The strategic success of these experiments remains to be proven.

Most sources, on-line and in books, give a starting layout by H. J. R. Murray, shown here. But experiments in play with any traditional hnefatafl rules show that the defenders are too boxed in to make any headway. A few may escape the central blockade before it is completely closed, but the extra attackers outside are enough to easily neutralise them.

The alternative starting layout, in which the "variegated men" of the manuscript are interpreted as defenders among the diagonal rows of attackers, seems to work better. These outlying defenders are not in a particularly strong position themselves; the attackers' rearguard still contains them and any outward move will offer a sacrifice. But they do make it more difficult for the attackers to complete a blockade, and their sacrifice when carefully made could allow others to escape.


 Why is the layout of pieces shown in your top photo and in the diagram labeled "Rules for Alea Evangelii" different from the one shown with the label "History of Alea Evangelii" (and also shown in the photo of the original manuscript on Wikipedia)?  I think it possible that the manuscript may be showing a game in progress (since it is not completely symmetrical in the position of all the pieces), but the black pieces near the corners seem like they should be in the top row at positions 3, 5, 15, and 17, but are now shown at 3, 6, 14, and 17 in the currently used version (I assume the same would be true for the pieces on the bottom row, although it appears that the pieces on the bottom right may have been moved). All the pieces that should apparently be in the 5 and 15 columns are now in the 6 and 14 columns. I wondered if this was changed in the current layout for play balance or something?

Richard Murray - 10:44, 06/10/2019

Why do Anglo-Saxons play Hnefatfal on a WeiQi Board?

And why does an Irish monk try to explain this game with an allegory of religious nature and some mathematic ideas?

Hello everyone, i am just writing down some thoughts on this and please do not be offended in any way because this is a particularly interesting mystery. So hear are my points:

# I think that through some form of trading the game of WeiQi/Go came to the west of europe. Not to many people and possibly only in a few hands. The fact that this board coincides with the unequal number of ranks/columns that is common for all tafl games may have caused whomever got its hands on it to make use for a game of this kind... possibly due to a lack of access to the rules of WeiQi/Go. Or ist just a coincidence :-D

# As the other comment indicated the diagram in the original script is not a complete diagram of the starting positions. The diffenrence is on one side the unsymmetrical placement of pieces in the outer range AND the absence of 2 of the mentioned 73 pieces of the complete set. Only 71 are in the diagram. thart must mean 2 of the have only been captured? But since none of the inner pieces seemed to have been moved that leads to the conclusion that some of the outer pieces are not black counts but in fact white dukes. The designation of the Kings seat as city an the outer corners als citadels may possibly open the thought of the 2 guarding pieces next to the corners are white dukes which guard the citadels in the name of the king... that in turn can mean that the surrounding array of counts around the city is made completely of black counts. If we assume the 73 as complete count of all the pieces and also follow the usual 2:1 relation between attacker and defender (48attackers + 24defenders +1king = 73) then when look at the 71 pieces in the original manuscript. 2 pieces must have been captured... but if the outer pieces are all black and the inner pieces have not moved in any way... how did 2 of the pieces got captured? Only if some of the outer pieces are defenders this makes sense. And that is only possible under the prerequisite that the manuscript records a game in progress whit some pieces having moved in the outer ranges. 

# Countering the idea that the 8 dukes guard the citadels would of course be the fact that they would easily been captured against the citadels if they in fact would consist of 2 by 2 points/squares. Here is one explanation possible: the Citadel consists of only one square exactly in the corner and there is a one point/square gap between the guard dukes and the citadel in order to avoid them being "slammed against the citadel" using the citadel as capturing stone in the early stage of the game. 

# The 4 specially marked squares/points in the diagram are kind of difficult to explain. One potential thought is the presence of 4 dukes within the enemy line. My theory would be that there are possibly are 4 rebel(counts) leaders on designated positions? If they are pieces with different capabilities remains to be seen. Considering the possible explanation of special pieces with the potential relation to a chess game might underline that potential. I have a different approach on this. Why does a kings only way of winning consist in fleeing into a corner? An agressive mind might consider taking the rebels head on by eliminating the heads of the rebellion altogether in order to win back the control over the kingdom. After all the game should reflect a potential situation in which a ruler might find himself? To do that you must have at least some idea where to find these leaders of the pack?

#I will try to make up an alternative starting diagram asap i just don't know if i can just paste it as a picture in the comment.

Thanks for reading this and perhaps some of my thoughts can point to a new direction.

Thomas Henning - 15:34, 25/04/2020

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