Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Modern Innovations: Berserkers and Elite Guards

Pieces from Storhaug
Pieces from Storhaug
Copyright Marit Synnøve Vea. Used with permission.

Saturday, 31st January 2015

I like historic hnefatafl games. Where these have to be reconstructed, I prefer rules of the "plain vanilla" variety, that are in keeping with what we know about the historic games, usually exploiting slight ambiguities in historical documents or borrowing rules from one game to complete the rules of another.

There's another school of thought, though, which says that any addition or correction to historic rules constitute "making stuff up", and that if we're going to make stuff up, we might as well do a proper job of it. This is perfectly in the spirit of the people who played hnefatafl and other games in historic times, who were happy to tweak the rules if they thought it would make a better game.

I've previously examined such inventions in critical blog posts that try to show why they're modern and not authentic. Now I'm going to look at them again, but from a point of view of game play. They're not historic, but what, if anything, do these tweaks add to the game?

One kind of tweak involves the creation of special pieces. Chess is the obvious inspiration for special pieces, with six different types having six different moves. Hnefatafl has its king, of course, but other than him, all the pieces are considered equals by historic rule sets. But for some people, creation of new piece types adds interest to the game.

Alea evangelii is very enigmatic. It is described and illustrated in a single mediaeval manuscript, which uses the game as a religious allegory and tells us next to nothing about how it was played. In its drawing, all the pieces are the same colour apart from the king, and four "variegated men". These variegated men, along with a mention of "dukes and counts" in the text, have inspired the creation of a quartet of special pieces, who modern game inventors commonly call "elite guards".

Facsimile of the diagram from the Alea Evangelii manuscript.

It was some time between the invention of elite guards and the availability of the Alea Evangelii manuscript on the web. So inventors made one assumption that was incorrect: that these special pieces started in a place of honour beside their king. A glance at the manuscript shows that this is false; the "variegated men" are on the perimeter of what is considered the defenders' position.

Their special qualities are a matter of pure invention. In one case, the elite guards cannot be taken. But neither can they take other pieces. This sounds like they might be useful for blocking, making them good defensive pieces to help the king to his escape. But in practice, these pieces are not useful enough to justify their replacing four good standard warrior pieces. The king's elite guards are effectively his undoing.

A much better idea was inspired by examination of pieces from Storhaug, shown in the photograph. Examination of another photograph of the same finds inspired the game of Berserk hnefatafl. The king's side consists of the king and the twelve blue pieces, one of which has a mark not apparent in this photograph. The attackers are the four yellow pieces and the twenty amber ones, not all shown in the photograph here.

Berserk hnefatafl gives the marked blue piece and the four yellow ones special powers. These can make a short leap (and the marked blue piece, termed the "knight", may capture by this method). All pieces have the power of multiple capture, the "berserk" rule: if a capturing move is made, then the piece may move again, and again, as long as each of these moves constitutes a further capture. The game is aptly named!

These powers are of course pure modern inventions. No mention of hnefatafl in historic literature even hints at jumping or multiple capture. And archaeologists consider the glass and amber pieces as constituting two separate unrelated sets. But unlike alea evangelii and its elite guards, berserkers create a dynamic and playable variant; historical purists can rightly regard it as a good modern game heavily inspired by hnefatafl.

Next month I'll look again at modern innovations, this time at hostile base camps, which make the attackers' starting positions hostile no-go areas for the king, sometimes his defenders, and sometimes the attackers too.

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