Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Fetlar Hnefatafl

Compact 37-piece Hnefatafl Game set out for Fetlar hnefatafl
Compact 37-piece Hnefatafl Game set out for Fetlar hnefatafl

For some years, Fetlar Hnefatafl was the most popular version of the game for national and international tournaments. It is played on an 11x11 board. A king must escape to the corner of the board with the aid of his twelve defenders, while twenty-four attackers lie in wait to capture him. Fetlar features a strong king who is difficult to capture and may take part in capturing enemies.

History of Fetlar Hnefatafl

With the growing popularity of hnefatafl in the early 21st century, a panel was set up by the late Peter Kelly with the objective of "playing the game, testing rules and deciding a set of practical rules to publicise world-wide in order that all players were able to contend when they met with a standard set of rules." This was the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel, set up in 2007 on the island of Fetlar in the Shetland Islands.

With a population in double figures, Fetlar may seem to be an unusual place on which to centre a worldwide movement, even in such a niche as this. But due to the enthusiasm of the panel in promoting their game, and an annual competition held using the rules, their venture became a great success. Other competitions around the world adopted the rules, and some commercial hnefatafl sets adopted the rules too.

Today Fetlar Hnefatafl has been eclipsed in tournaments by Copenhagen Hnefatafl, a more complex variant that builds on Fetlar's rules. But it still retains popularity today and serves as a good introduction to the game.

Rules for Fetlar Hnefatafl

Rules for Fetlar Hnefatafl
1. The game is played with a king and twelve defenders against 24 attackers. They start the game laid out as shown in the diagram.

2. The attackers move first.

3. All pieces move along a row or column any number of spaces.

4. A moving piece cannot land on another, nor may pieces jump.

5. No piece but the king can occupy the corner squares or the central square.

6. A piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides along a row or column with two pieces of your own. The enemy is immediately removed from the board.

7. It is sometimes possible to capture two or three enemies separately (i.e. not two or three enemies in a row) against other pieces of your own in a single move; in this case all captured pieces are removed at once.

8. It is also possible to capture a piece against the corner squares, or the central square if it is empty, as if one of your pieces were sitting on it.

9. The king can only be captured by surrounding him on all four sides.

10. To win, the defenders must get the king to one of the four marked corner squares.

11. The attackers win if they capture the king before he escapes.

Strategy in Fetlar Hnefatafl

Strategy in Fetlar Hnefatafl
Fetlar shares the usual strategies for hnefatafl games: the attackers must try to form a blockade around the defenders, while the defenders must prevent this and clear a path for the king. The edge of the board may be used as part of the blockade in Fetlar Hnefatafl; twelve attackers are enough to seal off the corner squares safely, leaving the other twelve to contend with the king and his forces.

A skillful attacking player may quickly seal off the exits before an unvigilant defending player has chance to react. So draws in Fetlar can be common: when the king's side loses hope of escape, they can arrange their pieces in a safe configuration such that the king can move around indefinitely within. Called a "draw fort", this can in fact become a spoiling strategy for the king's side, the defenders forming a such barrier without making any attempt to escape. This is one of the main reasons that Copenhagen Hnefatafl rules were developed.

Nevertheless Fetlar Hnefatafl remains a very playable game. There are a great many strategic tips for the game given at grandmaster Tim Millar's web site (see link elsewhere on this page).


Great article! And thanks for the mention, I must get on with expanding and finishing that strategy guide, with a Copenhagen supplement of course.

It did strike me that your diagram shows a fort that can in fact be broken up. Once the king is off the throne square, f5, e6 and g6 can be captured, and once g6 has gone, then g7 will go too. The whole fort will crumble. Now, if white occupied g8 as well, it would be stable.

Tim Millar - 15:49, 30/08/2015

You're right about the draw fort: it was borrowed from my strategy guide where it's assumed that the central square isn't hostile. I'll find a better example to use at some point, or maybe just replace it with the corner barricades for illustration instead.

Damian Walker - 18:19, 30/08/2015

I do not understand how this set of rules could possibly have been tested and thought to be a reasonable reconstruction of the game at all, let alone worthy of official status. The Fetlar rules as they stand for Hneftafle make it an unplayable game where the defenders always win in only a few moves and the king is practically impossible to capture unless the player who is playing the defender is brain dead. Maybe I'm missing something but I doubt it! Such an unbalanced game could not have amused two people for an hour, let alone an entire people for centuries. This interpretation has to be wildly wrong at best.

Abstract Strategy - 03:36, 27/01/2018

Hello Abstract Strategy!

The Copenhagen Hnefatafl rules were developed to address some of the shortcomings of Fetlar. Personally I'm not a fan of corner-victory games on this size of board. I think the Tawlbwrdd and Tablut variants are more likely interpretations.

I tend to promote them all, though, just to get people playing the game. I think hnefatafl's revival isn't at a stage where we should be trying to put forward a uniform standard (there wasn't one back in its heyday). I'm quite happy to see each tournament organiser adopt their own rules for their events.

Damian Walker - 07:48, 27/01/2018

I play one on line at hnefatafl -lutz that is great. I love this game. 

Billy Johnson - 19:33, 10/02/2020

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