Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Shannon Games Review

Hnefatafl by Shannon Games
Hnefatafl by Shannon Games

Among the companies printing and marketing hnefatafl at the present time, is a company based in Scotland, Shannon Games. Shannon tends to focus on games playable by children, and it is therefore not surprising that their hnefatafl board game uses the smallest of the boards, if not the simplest of the rules.

Having recently taken delivery of Shannon Games' hnefatafl, I have played it a number of times, enough to consider myself competent enough to give at least a first impression. I will begin with a bit of background, for those who have not the time nor the inclination to research the subject.

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, inspiring the artwork on this particular board.

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.

Shannon's hnefatafl is interesting among hnefatafl variants. Usually, the defenders' and attackers' numbers are divisible by four, in order that a four-way symmetry can be used in the layout of the board. This version, however, pits the king and six defenders against twelve attackers, on a board of seven squares by seven. No historical reference or complete archaeological find confirms that this size of game was ever played. It seems to have come into existence from a perception that twenty-five pieces are too many for this small board (a view that I share), while thirteen pieces are too few (a view that I do not).

The twelve attackers are laid out in a vaguely swastika-like layout, while the defenders are laid out in the form of an elongated cross. In this game, the king must reach one of the marked corner squares to win. Movement is as in other versions, that all pieces move like the chess rook. Capture also follows the common pattern, but in both movement and capture it is the subtleties of the rules that define the game.

As is usual, the marked central and corner squares are out of bounds to all pieces but the king. What is unusual is that the central square blocks the way of other pieces: they cannot even pass over it. This serves to hamper the attackers more than the defenders.

Capture in this game follows more strict rules than in other versions. The king must be captured by surrounding him on four squares. Furthermore, he cannot be captured by three attackers against the central square, as in other games. Nor can he be captured against the edge of the board, or against the corner squares. This gives a number of positions where the king is unassailable. My first impression was therefore that the game was going to be in favour of the king to an unplayable degree.

However, it seems that the corner squares cannot even be used to capture ordinary pieces, as in The Viking Game. So in this particular game, the attacker may block the corner squares with eight pieces. In practice, this seldom happens, but the freedom to place one's pieces against the corner squares without making them vulnerable is to the advantage of the attackers, probably more so than to the defenders.

In practice the game appears to be not so unbalanced as I had at first feared. Several test games resulted in an equal number of victories for the attackers as for the king. But this particular ruleset needs, and appears to deserve, further analysis.

There is a class of traditional abstract games which transcends the expectations of the casual board gamer, in which particular attention is paid to quality and weight of the board and pieces. Boards are often or wood or woven cloth, pieces often in glass, carved wood or elaborately-cast resin, and the sheer craftsmanship itself inspires a wish to play. This is not one of those games. The quality of this game is more suited to the expectations of modern themed games. This is not to its detriment; this is not a bad quality game.

The box is of sturdy card, with a picture of the Lewis chess men on one side, and a Viking long boat on the underside. It would perhaps have been better if one of the many Scottish hnefatafl finds had been represented, instead of chess. Scotland boasts a good number of complete or nearly complete finds of hnefatafl boards, mostly using the same size of board as the game inside the box.

Inside the box is a sturdy board of card. It folds into four quarters, allowing it to be packed into the compact (4 inch square) box. The board's backing is of a hardened, textured cloth. The playing area consists of a grid of seven squares by seven, superimposed on a colourful image of invading vikings in their longboats. This picture is deliberately faded so as to give emphasis to the more important square grid. It may be a reproduction of a medieval illumination; if not, it is certainly in the same style.

It is only the pieces that let down the quality of this game. They are of cheap, light plastic. The king is a large, featureless hollow plastic white pawn. The rest of the pieces are of the same light plastic, in the shape of draughtsmen. They even stack like draughtsmen, having a similar circular groove pattern. When packed away, the pieces have a tendency to stack in the supplied plastic bag, preventing the box from closing properly. The playing experience might be improved by substituting coloured glass beads for these pieces.

All in all this is a fair variant of the game of hnefatafl. It it cheaper than the Viking Game, especially if bought through eBay, where the makers market the game at about half the price they charge on their own web site. The rules seem very playable, and the quality of the game, while not comparable to The Viking Game, is sufficient not to impair enjoyment of the game.

Reviewed in 2006 on


The tafl program I'm working on has, as one of its features, a system for trivially adding new variants. Perhaps I'll add this one and let the AI play itself for a few dozen games—not that the AI is representative of good human play, but still.

Jay Slater - 21:21, 06/01/2016

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