Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Hammer and the Anvil

The king could be used as an anvil in this position.
The king could be used as an anvil in this position.

Saturday, 6th December 2014

I was in conversation with a hnefatafl fan last week when the question of the hammer and the anvil came up. This is a rule that pops up occasionally with regard to captures in hnefatafl. I haven't covered it on the site yet, and don't really intend to, but I thought it worth mentioning in a blog post at least.

The analogy is drawn between capturing in hnefatafl, and beating metal at a blacksmith's. Just like the captured piece in hnefatafl, the metal is caught between two stronger objects that affect its destiny. Like the capturing pieces in hnefatafl, one object (the anvil) is static while the other (the hammer) moves. The rule, then, draws a distinction between one capturing piece, the hammer that is moving, and the other, the anvil that is static.

In normal play there is no reason to distinguish between the two pieces. But one mechanism by which some players tinker with balance in the game is to apply the hammer and anvil distinction to the king: some say, for instance, that the king may only capture in the anvil role, but cannot capture by moving.

I don't know if the analogy was ever mentioned in historic times, but assume that it's one of the many modern constructions employed to curtail the king's power in the one-sided version of the game that dominated thought for some decades. It's a less extreme solution than forbidding the king from capturing at all (the so-called "weaponless king").

Personally I've never had need of it. Nowadays the authentic Latin rules for tablut are readily available (you can find them on this site), and with minimal interpretation they create a balanced and playable game of almost any size without the need for modern inventions like the hammer and anvil distinction.

But the hammer and anvil may find a use among beginners who, in their first few games, will usually think that the king's side is too strong and want solutions to remedy that. A weaponless king would be a good way to start, degrading to a hammer- or anvil-capturing king when players start to get to grips with attacking strategy, eventually disappearing to give the king his rightful powers when the players have a full understanding of the game.


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