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.

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