Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Jumping Frog Toys Review

Hnefatafl by Jumping Frog Toys
Hnefatafl by Jumping Frog Toys

In Dorset, England, a company called Jumping Frog Toys manufactures traditional toys and games. The games represent many eras and many parts of the world, though all have in common the format of dowel or peg pieces, and a board with drilled holes for playing spaces. One of these games is hnefatafl.

Recently I took delivery of a set of hnefatafl from Jumping Frog Toys. I have played a number of games with this set, and have found it to be very different from other versions of hnefatafl, as I shall soon describe. Here, then, is my review of this variant of the game.

Hnefatafl, for those who have not seen it before, is a game created somewhere in Scandinavia, some time in the first millennium. Being of that era, it is without a strong theme, though its mechanics are not so contrived as to prevent a theme being easily pasted on to it. The most common theme, not unexpectedly, is a Viking theme.

In hnefatafl a king sits at the centre of a square board, with a number of his men around him. Distributed around the edges of the board are twice their number of enemies. The king must escape from the field of battle, while his enemies try to capture him. Generally, pieces move in straight, orthogonal lines, like a rook in chess, and a piece is captured by surrounding it with two enemies. As those players over the last thousand years left us with incomplete information, the variations within this framework are many, much like the national variations in chess and draughts.

This version of hnefatafl is played with twenty-five pieces on a board of nine squares by nine, much like the better known tablut. In this game, however, the king's men (henceforth known as defenders) are arranged around him in a square formation, rather than the more usual cross formation known from tablut. In other respects, the layout from tablut is copied.

The most striking difference between this and other variants of hnefatafl is that the pieces may move only to adjacent squares. The reason for this restriction is not apparent, and it applies to all pieces on the board. This creates a much slower moving game, in which it is more difficult for the king and defenders to break out of a partially formed blockade. However, it also affects the speed at which that blockade can be formed.

Jumping Frog Toys have adopted the rule whereby the king wins by reaching the corner squares, which is very common with modern variants. This favours the king less than games in which he simply has to reach the edge, though in some variants the advantage is skewed too far towards the attackers. With the benefit of a few games I am not yet sure if that applies to this variant.

The other major rule choice is that the king is captured by enclosure, that is, by being surrounded on all four orthogonal sides by enemy men. It is left to the players' assumption that the king himself may take part in capturing attackers.

Minor points of difference with some other variants include capturing against special squares. In this variant, the central square is not special in any way, and cannot be used as a hostile square against which to capture the king. The edge of the board is also not available for this purpose. Furthermore, the corner squares, while inaccessible to all pieces but the king, are not regarded as hostile, and pieces cannot be captured against them.

All in all I am inclined to think that the attackers are favoured in this game. The shortness of the move forces both sides to think in the longer term, and so the short term tactical thinking that benefits the king's side in other variants is of less use in this game. For instance, it is not possible for the king to make a feint at one side of the board before quickly taking advantage of a weakness in the attackers' position at the other side.

The perception of quality is naturally heightened by the game's being made of wood, rather than the cardboard and plastic inflicted upon many of today's game players. However, material is not everything, as we shall see from this case.

The game arrived well-packaged in a jiffy-bag, shrink-wrapped with the peg pieces already in place. There is no outer box, nor is there anything for carrying the pegged pieces. As the pegs sit neatly in their holes, it is probably envisaged that this is sufficient for storage. However, I envisage problems when travelling or for households where storage space is organised in a more anarchic fashion. This is a shame, as the format of this game would be ideal for travelling. With a small drawstring or zip-lock bag, the owner of this game can rectify this insignificant deficiency.

First, to the pieces. They are pegs made of wooden dowelling, about a quarter of an inch (6mm) in diameter, approximately three quarters of an inch (19mm) long. The king is yellow, the defenders are dark blue, and the attackers are red. As I have already mentioned, they sit well in their holes, and there is little more that can be said about them.

Secondly, to the board. It is a piece of light-coloured wood, probably pine, measuring approximately six inches (150mm) square. Upon the board is printed a grid of nine squares by nine in black. The starting squares of the defenders are coloured red, and of the attackers, green. The corner squares are coloured orange. In the centre of each square is a hole for the insertion of the pieces. The board has that rough feel of an unvarnished piece. It should not be difficult, however, to apply a coat of some kind of varnish or sealant, and perhaps apply a coat of beeswax, to give the board a more professional finish.

It is unfortunate that on my board, there is a small but noticeable aberration on one of the grid lines near the centre of the board. More importantly, the black grid is misaligned, so that it does not line up properly with the coloured squares. This leaves ugly gaps between the grid lines and the printed colour in some places, and in one corner the orange bleeds over the edge of the printed grid. While this is not an expensive set, I would like to have seen some more attention to details like these.

Finally, we come to the rules. These are supplied on a single sheet of paper slightly smaller than the board. The rules are colourfully printed on one side, including a sentence of historical introduction. The rules are concise and clear, and lack only the detail of whether the king is allowed to make captures or not. This piece of paper is a little small and flimsy, and I am tempted to glue it to the underside of the board to prevent it getting creased or lost. It would not be very convenient, however, if one wanted to refer to rules during a game, despite the pegged pieces and the stability with which they sit in their holes.

Despite some concerns about the quality of the game, I am on the whole quite pleased with it. The unusual rules add interest for those wanting to explore different variants of hnefatafl. The pegged format is ideal for travelling, particularly if one adds a bag for the pieces. If the price of £7.34 sounds a little high, then the company also auctions their games on eBay, usually attracting a somewhat lower price.

Reviewed in 2006 on


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