Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Breakthru: a Game Inspired by Hnefatafl

Breakthru, by 3M.
Breakthru, by 3M.

Saturday, 7th February 2015

One can think of certain board games in terms of generations, each one descended from a number of ancestors, and spawning a number of descendants. In the case of hnefatafl, it appears to be descended from the ancient Greek and Roman games of petteia and ludus latrunculorum. And the games which it inspired are the subject of this new series of blog posts.

There has been some speculation on the relationship between hnefatafl and fox & geese, another game popular with the Vikings. But fox & geese has a number of other influences which make its relationship with hnefatafl far from certain. So I'll leave that game for another blog post, and concentrate instead on more recent games that have a connection to hnefatafl.

The oldest of these is Breakthru, a game published by 3M in 1965 as part of their "Bookshelf" series. 3M today isn't usually associated with board games, but in the 1960s they published a number of games. This series included traditional games, like chess, backgammon and go, and also newly invented games like Acquire, Twixt and Feudal. Breakthru straddles the list, being a new game that was heavily based on hnefatafl.

All of the Bookshelf series of games put an emphasis on modern-looking high quality components. While the board is unremarkable moulded plastic, the pieces are metal cylinders: thirteen of a gold colour and twenty silver. One of the thirteen gold pieces is larger than the rest, and represents a flagship. The board has special markings on the central square, and the 5x5 area surrounding it.

At the start of the game, the board is empty, and there is a placement phase where players lay out the pieces. Players decide at random or by agreement who is gold and who is silver. The gold player places the flagship on the central square, and the twelve gold destroyers anywhere else within the central 5x5 area. The silver player then places the silver destroyers anywhere outside this area. The gold player decides who moves first.

Pieces move as in most hnefatafl variants, as far along a row or column as their owner pleases, not jumping over or onto other pieces. In Breakthru a player can move two pieces per turn, unless one of these is the flagship, in which case only the flagship may move.

Alternatively a player may move a single piece one step diagonally onto an adjacent enemy, in which case the enemy is captured. This is the only way pieces are captured in Breakthru, not by surrounding them as in hnefatafl. Note that if a capturing move is made, it must be the only move made by that player that turn.

The silver player wins the game by capturing the golden flagship. The gold player wins by moving the flagship to the edge of the board, escaping the silver blockade.

The two most striking differences between Breakthru and Hnefatafl are the method of capturing pieces and the double move. The initial set-up and the 5:3 ratio of attacking and defending pieces are also notable differences. But the key similarity is the method of winning: the capture or escape of the flagship. The choice of an 11x11 board is probably more coincidence than influence; most hnefatafl variants of the time used the 9x9 board, and the popularity of the 11x11 board in hnefatafl postdates Breakthru by a couple of decades.

3M did not make the influence of Breakthru explicit. The set that I have describes it as "a unique, new double-strategy game" and makes no mention of hnefatafl. But the similarity of move and aim stretches the likely bounds of coincidence to breaking point, making it all but certain that Breakthru is a direct descendant of the game invented by the Vikings.


New Comment

Yes No