Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Viking Game Reviewed

The Viking Game
The Viking Game

While I will not presume to attempt objective criticism of a game over a thousand years older than I am, it would still be useful to review some versions of the game that are on the market now, and some versions that, being recently printed, are still available to those who know where to look for them. I intend, then, to post occasional reviews of the sets available, as and when I can obtain them.

The first is a set that I have owned for a number of years, and from the pictures shown on this site, a lot of other people seem to have it also. I am talking about The Viking Game, made by History Craft Ltd. of Cirencester, England. History Craft are not primarily a maker of games, but are more involved in moulded plastics. I am unaware what series of happy coincidences might have induced them to become one of the foremost manufacturers of this particular 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, hence the name of the particular set I am looking at now.

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.

The Viking Game adopts a board of eleven squares by eleven, like the 12th century board found at Trondheim, in Norway. It provides 37 pieces: a king, twelve defenders and twenty-four attackers. The defenders are positioned close around the king, in a diamond formation, while the attackers hug the four edges of the board, in four "T" shaped formations.

In this game the king escapes the field of battle through the marked corner squares, and to prevent the exits being easily blocked, his enemies may not land on these squares (nor may his friends, for that matter). They are also vulnerable when sat next to these squares, as we shall shortly see.

Movement of the pieces is as above described, like a chess rook. This includes the king, who can stride across the board as quickly as any other piece. The corner and central squares, however, may be occupied only by the king.

Capture is also as described above, with a few variations. The king himself must be surrounded on four sides by enemies. If he sits beside the central square, he would be invulnerable, so the rules allow him to be captured by surrounding him on three sides, if the fourth side is the central square. Attackers and defenders may be captured by surrounding them between an enemy and a marked corner square, so the corners cannot be easily blocked by eight attackers sitting beside them.

So much for the detail. How does it play? At first, it plays remarkably well. Beginners might say that the king has too easy a time, but this is not necessarily so. The king's side relies on short-term tactics, taking advantage of opportunities for escape, or for weakening the attackers' blockade. The attackers, however, need to look at long term strategy, carefully positioning themselves to gradually form the blockade and close in upon the king. When both players are aware of the longer term strategies, the game becomes more even.

There may be a flaw with these rules, however. Even though it takes twelve attackers to completely block the king's corner exits safely, these formations can easily be created, and the defenders have little opportunity to prevent them. The compact formation of the defenders at the start of the game exacerbates this problem, and I have yet to find a strategy for the king's men to prevent at least three corners being sealed off completely.

And now on to quality. Let us start at the outside, and work our way inwards. The game I have was bought at the Jorvik museum in York, England, and fairly represents the set available in this country. I have seen from photographs that the box varies in different places. The box is compact, about 14" by 6", and has a fake leather covering, bearing the name of the game in gold-effect print. Inside the box, one will find the rules, the thirty-seven pieces, and a linen "board" rolled up and neatly stored.

The rules are printed on a folded card, in four languages. They start with several paragraphs of history which is interesting, and largely accurate in the important points. After an explanation of the inspiration behind this particular set, the rules proper begin. They are reasonably clear and concise, being explained in eight numbered points. Illustrations show the various methods of capture, though they fail to mention whether multiple pieces may be captured at once. The usual assumption is that they can, if all become individually surrounded at the same instant.

The board is printed in black on cream-coloured linen. Interesting Viking-inspired designs have been used to mark the important centre and corner squares, as well as every other square on which a piece starts the game. I have heard people complain that it is difficult to make the board lie flat. I have no such difficulty, probably because I roll the board up with the pattern on the outside. I am not a fan of fabric boards, but this one has their common advantage of compact storage when not in use.

The pieces are made from a substantial moulded plastic. This is not cheap plastic, as one might expect from a children's game, but reasonably weighty, well-made resin. The king and his defenders are in an ivory colour, whereas the attackers are in a wood-like dark brown. While the defenders and attackers are all supposedly equal, interest has been added by varying the designs - at least two different designs have been used, in addition to the king. The good quality feel of the pieces makes them a pleasure to play with.

The Viking Game is a good quality product which is still, I believe, in production, and is widely available. Many museums sell it, and in the United Kingdom the Past Times chain of shops usually have it in stock at Christmas time. It is not particularly expensive, being about £15 in the shops here. My reservations about the rules can be evaded simply by experimenting with variations, of which many have been published, and I can therefore recommend The Viking Game wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to try something a bit different.

Reviewed in 2006 on

Update, May 2015: this game is now on sale here in The Hnefatafl Shop. Prices have increased in the past nine years, but the game is still cheaper here than anywhere else I have seen. See the link elsewhere on this page.

Related Product: The Viking Game


This set brings you an extremely attractive and decorative hnefatafl game at an affordable price. Its appearance makes this a very popular choice for those who want a set of their own. It's very nice to handle, and with its moulded pieces it makes a great ornament too. The board is made of canvas with traditional Viking patterns decorating the border and the starting squares of the pieces. Delivered and stored rolled up, it easily stays flat when laid ... (read more...)

Price: £19.95+P&P Out of stock. Order:

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