Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The History of Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl's spread across Europe and beyond
Hnefatafl's spread across Europe and beyond

Hnefatafl began its life in Scandinavia. It probably developed from a Roman war game called Ludus Latrunculorum, which in turn developed from petteia, a game of the Greeks. In its Scandinavian form, hnefatafl was taken through trade and invasion to the British Isles, to Iceland, France, Germany, Ukraine and to Greenland. In addition to many finds in its ancestral home, boards, pieces and literature for many variants have been found in diverse parts of northern Europe. The game flourished until the arrival of chess.

Just as hnefatafl had replaced the earlier Roman game, so chess replaced hnefatafl as the fashionable game for all classes. Also joining this onslaught was the relatively new game of draughts: against this two-pronged invasion, hnefatafl stood little chance. Hnefatafl continued to linger in remote districts after its fall from grace, and it is from this late period that our best information comes. Detailed information comes down to us about a game in Wales in the sixteenth century, and in Lapland in the eighteenth century

After this, however, the light went out for a hundred years, until in the nineteenth century the game was revived with a Crimean War theme. Throughout the twentieth century, more and more has been rediscovered about the game. Archaeologists have uncovered many boards and fragments, historians have thrown light upon old passages once thought to refer to chess, and reconstructionists have used all this information to construct rules for the variants played on many different sizes of board. Factories and modern cottage industries have manufactured sets for the game, and some game designers have even created new games with hnefatafl as an obvious inspiration.

If you want to see more detail of the game's history, including some archaeological finds and historical documents, then the best place to start is with the game's mysterious origins.

Next: Hnefatafl's Mysterious Origins

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