Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Hnefatafl Board

Initial layout of tablut and other 9x9 games.
Initial layout of tablut and other 9x9 games.

The board is always square, and always has an odd number of playing spaces. The pieces are set out on the board with the king on the central square, his defenders around him, and the attackers symmetrically around the edge of the board. So much is common to all hnefatafl games. But the size of the board and the numbers of men vary.

Historically, there were boards from seven rows of seven squares to 19x19, holding anything from 13 pieces to 73. Modern hnefatafl games tend to have nine or eleven squares on a side, with 25 or 37 pieces, but smaller and more specialist manufacturers still make games in the more extreme sizes.

Brandub

Many boards of seven squares by seven have been found, particularly in Ireland, and Scotland. These boards are fittest for thirteen pieces (a king, four defenders and eight attackers), though some try to crowd 25 pieces onto the board. Grafitti on a a flagstone board found in Buckquoy in Scotland suggest that the pieces were laid out in a simple cross formation.

Tablut

Linnaeus recorded the exact layout of the tablut pieces in the eighteenth century, so this layout has become widespread. Other sources and archaeological finds show boards of similar size: various finds of gaming pieces conform closely to this number of pieces, and a Welsh calculation of the value of a tawlbwrdd implies a similar number of pieces.

Tawlbwrdd

A sixteenth century description gives the size of board and the general distribution of pieces, but the exact layout is open to interpretation. One layout that matches the description has been widely adopted on the eleven-by-eleven square board, with 37 pieces, having the defending forces in a compact diamond and the attackers in T-shapes around the edges.

Alea Evangelii

The complex layout for this game was illustrated in a mediaeval manuscript of about 1140, MS. 122 at the Corpus Christi College library in Oxford. It depicts a game played in the time of King Athelstan (924-939), and the description concerns itself not with the game's rules, but with a numerological analogy with the gospels. From this the game gets its name "alea evangelii", "the game of the gospel".

Next: Moving the Pieces

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