Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl Variants

Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan
Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan

The Rules section explains all the variations you might come across in hnefatafl. If you want a ready-made rule set, then you need to pick a variant and play it. The pages below each describe a particular variant, with history, rules and if the game has been much played, strategy too.

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 ... (read more...)



Played in Lapland till the eighteenth century, tablut is the version of hnefatafl for which we have the most complete rules. A king attempts to reach the edge of the board, which has nine rows of nine squares. Eight defenders aid him in his quest, while sixteen attackers attempt to capture him. History of Tablut History of Tablut An account of tablut was recorded by the young Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1732. Unbeknown to Linnaeus, this was a ... (read more...)



Brandub (also spelt brandubh, brannumh) is the Irish variant of hnefatafl. It is the smallest, using a board of seven rows of seven squares, with just thirteen pieces. As with most versions of hnefatafl, the rules have not been recorded. It is mentioned occasionally in legends and poetry, and there are archaeological finds of boards and pieces to help us piece it together. History of Brandub History of Brandub The Vikings began raiding Ireland at the end ... (read more...)



The Welsh called their version of hnefatafl "tawlbwrdd". It was played on at least two different boards: one of nine rows of nine squares, and another of eleven. In the smaller game, a "brenin" (king) and eight defenders fought to escape from sixteen attackers; in the larger game a king and twelve defenders faced 24 attackers. History of Tawlbwrdd Tawlbwrdd diagram, 1587 In early Welsh tales, like those in the Mabinogion, a game called gwyddbwyll is frequently ... (read more...)

Alea Evangelii


The largest hnefatafl game of them all was played in Anglo-Saxon England. It featured a board of nineteen rows of nineteen playing spaces, on which 73 pieces sat: a king, 24 defenders and 48 attackers. This extravagant game looks both impressive and daunting. Indeed, it seems not to have been played thoroughly since mediaeval times, as many modern reconstructions are very one-sided. History of Alea Evangelii History of Alea Evangelii In about 1140, a manuscript was written which contains ... (read more...)

York Hnefatafl


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 ... (read more...)

Ealdfaeder Taefl Rules


These are the rules regularly played by the Ealdfaeder Re-enactment Group for their own games. 1. The game is played on a board of nine squares by nine, set up with 25 pieces as in the accompanying diagram. 2. Two players take part, one being the defenders with their king at the centre of the board, the other being the attackers who start at the edges. 3. The objective for the king is to reach one of the four ... (read more...)

Sea Battle Tafl


Sometimes called Longship tafl, sea battle tafl is a modern variant of hnefatafl. It's similar to the Tablut game played on the Brain King web site, with some tweaks applied by Aage Nielsen. Played on a 9x9 board, it gives a very balanced game. Aage reports that on the 11x11 board it gives too much advantage to the attackers, but I think that if the diamond formation of the defenders is swapped for a cross, the game might be ... (read more...)

Copenhagen Hnefatafl Rules


The Copenhagen rules were formulated at to address some of the shortcomings of the Fetlar rules, and other games where the king must reach a corner. Its peculiarities are the shieldwall capture (where pieces along the edge can be captured by depriving them of breathing space, like go stones), and a rule declaring the king's cause lost when all of his forces are surrounded. 1. The game is played by two players on a board of 11x11 squares, ... (read more...)

Single-step Hnefatafl Games


Occasionally you'll see hnefatafl games on 9x9-square boards, with rules that allow pieces to move only to adjacent squares. They also share the same starting layout, with the defenders arranged in a square instead of in a cross shape as in tablut. These rules are quite common. So far I've seen them in the 1970s game Papillon's Escape, Jeff & Jennie Loader's book "Making Board, Peg & Dice Games", John Astrop's book "The Pocket Book of Board Games", and ... (read more...)

Imperial Contest


Produced by Jaques in 1855, Imperial Contest was the first commercial hnefatafl set to be sold. One side consisted of the Russian emperor and an army of eight defenders. The sixteen attackers, though forming one side controlled by one player, were divided among four allies: England (sic), France, Turkey and Sardinia. The Russian emperor had to escape from the field with the help of his defenders. The attackers had to capture the emperor. History of Imperial Contest Jaques is ... (read more...)


In the novel Frostborn, by Lou Anders, there is frequent mention of a game that the author calls Thrones and Bones.  In an appendix describng the game and its rules, there is a footnote hinting that it was born as a variant of 16-versus-9 Hnefatafl, the chief difference being that one of the attackers has special powers and vulnerabilities.  The set-up is that of Sea Battle Tafl, the pieces have rook moves, and the original squares of the attackers and the king have special characteristics.  It is probably not thoroughly play-tested.

Sofy Pellegrina - 12:22, 22/12/2016

Hello Sofy, I've been contacted by Lou previously about the game. I believe it gets played regularly but I haven't yet managed to get hold of a copy of the novel so I'm not sure about the details. When I learn more about it, it will get a mention on here.

Damian Walker - 11:50, 02/01/2017

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