Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl Today

A tablut set made in about 2007
A tablut set made in about 2007

Hnefatafl is not exactly a household word today. To most people who see it being played, it is a novelty. But at the present time it is probably as popular as it has ever been since the Viking age. It has become well known not only among fans of ancient board games, but also among people interested in Viking history: not only professional archaeologists and historians, but amateur enthusiasts involved in re-enactments. Tournaments are becoming more common, the most well-known being that held every year on Fetlar, one of the Shetland Islands of Scotland.

The Viking Game
 There are a number of sets being commercially made, and due to the variety of board sizes and rules, each set has its own peculiarities beyond mere appearance.  A popular version of hnefatafl has been made since the 1980s, called The Viking Game, using moulded resin pieces on a cloth board. It has been a favourite of museum shops, and was also sold through Past Times, a chain of shops specialising in quirky, nostalgic and old-world goods. This has a king and twelve defenders fighting against twenty-four attackers, and its rules have been used in many similar variants.

Due to the novelty of the game and the number of variations, it is also common for people to make their own boards. If one searches the web for images of hnefatafl, there will be as many home-made sets shown as there are commercial ones. The time taken over crafting these boards adds special value for their owners, making the game even more enjoyable. For those who are making their own sets, the information in the Rules section of this web site will be particularly valuable.

One recent improvement has been the rediscovery and increasing popularity of the historic rules of the game.  Until recently, researchers were reliant on scant material to put together a working set of rules, so some experimentation in play was needed, and inauthentic variations proliferated.  But during the twenty-first century more original sources have been digitised and put on-line, allowing easier access to historical information.  While hnefatafl is far from standardised, re-enactors and some players now have access to a game very close, and probably identical, to that which the Vikings played.

Next: A Rule Book for Hnefatafl


another great article! Well-written, well-informed and succinct - a pleasure to read.

Tim Millar - 16:17, 24/08/2013

I have seen similar games in the past at Renaissance festivals. I think I've even played a variation of the game at the festival will know more when I read the rules. What got me to your site was an episode of vikings TV show, which is probably the first time I saw and heard it's name pronounced. Though on that game it appears to have at least the 24 piece version of the game (I think there were even more pieces) I paused the show to look it up. If you are familiar with the show its the latest episode of current season (in the usa). I sure in a day or two since aired 22hrs ago will be online can just do a search for it sure there will be utube Clio of it...any info on that version of the game it's rules would love to hear your input on it....your explanation of the game is far better the Wikipedia answer to game. Thanks, also do you have aNY sort of page Facebook Twitter or such that I can follow you I sure there is a lot of interesting things that are easy to read and comprehend, you have done an excellent job at explaining it history of the game and sure as good on the rules when I get there thank you for thanking the time to right it. Was an enjoyable read and sure it will be many of days of enjoyment paying the game as soon as I finished its construction

Michael rohrs - 00:53, 12/03/2016

Hello Michael, and thanks for your comment! I haven't managed to see Vikings on TV yet, so I'll have a lot of catching up to do when I get around to it. I'll try to find the episode on YouTube to find out what version of the game they played.

I do have a Facebook and a Twitter account for the site. You should be able to find the icons for them at the bottom of every page (you'll have to scroll down to see them on a mobile device)

Damian Walker - 07:02, 12/03/2016

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