Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

York Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust
Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust

The name "York Hnefatafl" is a handy shorthand for a version of hnefatafl published in 1980 by the York Archaeological Trust. It features a king who must escape to the edge of the board with the aid of twelve defenders. There are 24 attackers lying in wait to capture him. The king may not take part in captures in this game, but to be captured himself he needs to be surrounded on all four sides - or three and the central square.

History of York Hnefatafl

In 1976 the York Archaeological Trust began a major excavation in Coppergate, a street near the city centre, taking advantage of redevelopment. When substantial Viking Age remains were discovered the dig was expanded, and continued till 1981. It was on this site that the Jorvik centre was built to house and display the Coppergate finds.

One of the finds was a hnefatafl board, which may have sparked the trust's interest in the game. In 1980 they worked with David Brown of Oxbow Games to create a beautiful and playable game which they entitled simply "Hnefatafl". Having nine men's morris on the back, this find was inspired not only by the board found in York but also a double-sided board from Gokstad, Norway.

Later in the 1980s a Cirencester company History Craft begun making a hnefatafl set with a different set of rules (coincidentally, David Brown had been director of a Cirencester archaeological dig in the 1970s). History Craft's form of hnefatafl seems to have eclipsed York Hnefatafl, even in the Jorvik centre's own shop!

But more recent studies of hnefatafl have created a hunger for information not just from previous millennia and previous centuries but previous decades too, and enthusiasts have revived York Hnefatafl. In balance and playability, York Hnefatafl may actually be superior to the versions that replaced it.

Though the fine set that introduced the York Hnefatafl set of rules has long since ceased production, the rules themselves have now taken on a new lease of life, being available on-line and being used in an occasional tournament.

Rules for York Hnefatafl

Rules for York Hnefatafl
This is a paraphrase of the rules that were supplied with the version of Hnefatafl published by the York Archaeological Trust in 1980. The game was developed by David Brown of Oxbow Games, Oxford, in association with the Trust.

1. The game is played by two, one taking the part of the king and his twelve dark defenders, the other taking the part of the 24 fair attackers.

2. The game begins with the pieces set out on the marked squares as shown in the picture.

3. To win, the attackers must prevent the king from escaping the board by boxing him in on all four sides, so that it cannot move.

4. The defenders win by moving the king to the edge of the board.

5. The attackers move first.

6. All pieces move along a rank or file as far as their players desire, as long as they do not land on or jump over squares occupied by other pieces.

7. No piece other than the king may land in the central square.

8. Pieces other than the king are captured by surrounding them on two opposite sides along a rank or file. The king is captured by surrounding him on four sides, as described above.

9. If the attackers surround the king and ALL remaining defenders, then they win, as they have prevented the king from escaping.

10. If the king is surrounded by three attackers and a defender occupies his fourth side, the defender can be captured by sandwiching it between the king and an attacker.

11. If the king is surrounded by three attackers and the central square is on his fourth side, then he is considered fully surrounded and loses the game.

The leaflet also contains rules for changing the balance of the game if the players desire it.

a. The king can be allowed to take part in captures, or possibly to capture only when making the attacking move.

b. The king can be awarded victory only on reaching a corner. If this is the case, the corner should be inaccessible to pieces other than the king, and an attacker (only) beside a corner square can be captured against it by a single defender on the opposite side.

c. A 5-point match can be played; the attacker places four cards A, 2, 3, 4 face down one by each edge of the board. The defender wins the number of points on the card by the side on which the king exits. This introduces a form of bluffing to the game.

d. Play two games, swapping sides. On a tie break, judge the winner of the contest by the number of moves or by the number of pieces captured.

Strategy in York Hnefatafl

York Hnefatafl has what is termed a "weaponless king", who cannot take part in captures. But he is still strong in his own defence, needing four attackers to capture him. So he can move somewhat confidently around the board, though not causing such havoc as he can in other versions of hnefatafl.

There is an interesting rule that declares the game over and the king's cause lost if the king and all of his remaining defenders are caught within a completed blockade. This is a good rule which has since been copied by other forms of hnefatafl. A competent player so surrounded would do one of two things: resign, or try to force a draw by surrounding the king with an impregnable fortress inside which he can move to and fro till the game is abandoned.

The victory-by-blockade rule acknowledges the fact that the king has not escaped and will never do so, and therefore effectively has lost. If a novice (or a computer) plays the king and does not notice that the cause is lost when forces are completely surrounded, another game would drag on for many more turns while the blockade gradually advances and picks off defenders; in York Hnefatafl the players are spared this tedious end-game.


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