Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Defending the King and Aiding His Escape

While the attackers need to concentrate on long-term strategy, the king's quest places more emphasis on short-term tactics and on seizing opportunities. This gives the impression that it is easier to play the king's side: that is almost certainly true for beginners. But there is a more strategic element, which becomes more important at higher levels of play.

Taking Control

Taking Control
From the very beginning the attackers will try to restrict the defenders' access to various parts of the board. The defenders must do their best to prevent this by taking control of areas near the periphery, or better still, areas that connect the king's current position to the periphery. The attackers will have a harder time blocking out access to those parts of the board if the defenders already have a presence there.

Holding the Gaps

Holding the Gaps
Despite the defenders' efforts, a good attacking player will continue to form a blockade, concentrating on the parts the defender neglects, and switching attention from one area to another to take advantage of pauses in the defending works. But while there are gaps, there is still hope.

The ideal aim for the defenders is to break out through the gaps that still remain, getting pieces past the blockade into the enemy's rear. A secondary aim is to keep the gaps open: with care it can be possible to hold open the gaps with defenders who threaten at any moment to turn on the attackers nearby.

Pieces outside the blockade can attack it from behind: the attackers cannot safely advance to meet the entrapped defender if that would leave them vulnerable to capture from behind. The presence of even one or two defenders behind enemy lines gives the other defenders greater freedom.

Forcing a Draw

Forcing a Draw
Where a blockade is fully formed and the king cannot hope to escape, there are ways that a draw can be forced. This is not a satisfactory ending for either side, but a draw is better than a loss for a player who seems doomed. How to form a draw is more of a tactical discussion, but the method is usually the same: to form a protective shell within which one piece may move safely back and forth indefinitely.

Next: Short-term Tactics for Both Sides



Holding the gaps, wouldn't C3-C8 be advisable?  White can win in a few moves from there.

Forcing a draw, I don't believe you can force a draw when the attacker is surrounded (unless it is at the edge of the board?)  White is sealed and thus loses.

*I see you are using 9x9, I thought the standard is 11x11, I guess for examples it doesn't matter?

Boulderman - 12:56, 29/03/2017

Thanks for your comments, Boulderman. The C5-C8 move probably would be the best. I think I missed that when I constructed the example some years ago; I keep meaning to alter the diagram slightly to eliminate the obvious best move.

There are some rule sets where white has lost in the "Forcing a Draw" diagram, though not all rule sets have it.

11x11 is the most popular board size today, but there isn't really a standard in hnefatafl like there is in chess. I used 9x9 as the smallest board that gives me room to illustrate these examples, though it's also the size of my preferred hnefatafl game, tablut.

Damian Walker - 17:13, 29/03/2017

Interesting article.

I wondered about one thing: doesn't the draw example presuppose that the king or some other defender piece can move into the Castle? I thought in tablut the Castle was "locked" once the king hs left it?

Mihkkal - 09:36, 19/08/2018

Is the castle"locked+in the Copenhagen rules? Just beginner.

deano - 03:21, 18/11/2021

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