Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

In Praise of Sea Battle Tafl

Sea Battle Tafl assembled (mockup).
Sea Battle Tafl assembled (mockup).

Saturday, 21st March 2015

I have pages of different variants of hnefatafl buried in the web site. But I thought I'd bring out a few of my favourites in an occasional series, introduce them and tell you why I like them. My interest is mainly in reconstructions of historical variants, but there are some modern versions I especially like. For this post I'll start with sea battle tafl.

Sea battle tafl is usually played on a board of nine rows of nine squares, with 25 pieces set out exactly as in tablut. As I learned it, the king's side moves first, though some people implemented it differently. Every piece moves like the rook in chess. An attacker is captured by surrounding it by two defenders (not a defender and the king). A defender is captured by surrounding it by two attackers. The king is captured by surrounding him by four attackers. The king wins by reaching the edge of the board. None of the squares of the board are special, not even the central one. There is a link to the full rules and other resources elsewhere on this page.

Many modern hnefatafl variants add things to what we know about the rules of hnefatafl: new types of piece, new rules of movement, new ways to capture. Sea battle tafl takes another approach, and strips back even some of the complexity of historic variants where they are found unnecessary. The lack of special squares is a particular difference from common forms of hnefatafl; even if marked, they have no special properties of capture or of blocking movement.

This elegance makes it very easy to learn. The movement of the pieces is uniform and has no exceptions. Only two types of capture need be known: the that of king and that of everyone else. Even victory is simple; the rule about winning if there are two paths to the edge is an emergent one; the game would play the same if it were not written but merely taught as a strategy.

The balance of this game has been thoroughly tested and found to be within acceptable limits: there is enough scope for a player of either side to have a chance at victory. I regularly lose both as king and as his attackers!

I'm no expert player, but there are some strategic differences I have noticed as compared to other versions of hnefatafl. As the king is weaponless, it is important not to leave him unattended. If the attackers form an unbreakable blockade against a lone king, then he cannot be rescued. But as he wins by reaching the edge, it is possible for him to make more pointed threats than in games where he reaches the corner. If ever he has a path to the edge, the attackers must stop him immediately. If ever he has a path to two edges, there is no stopping him.

The game has been tested on other sizes of board, up to 19x19. It is very playable on an 11x11 board, which is the most common size available now, but care must be taken to set the defenders up in the form of a cross; the popular diamond formation marked out on most boards gives the attackers too great an advantage. The images below show proposed layouts for larger boards.

If you're used to games like The Viking Game and its variations, where a strong king with the ability to capture must reach the corner of the board to win, then sea battle tafl at any size will be a complete change to what you are used to. Many of the same strategies remain: forming or avoiding blockades is largely similar, and tactics like the fork and pin are unchanged. But there are differences in emphasis on what parts of the board are important to defender; attention recedes from the corner and focusses on ranks and files around the whole board. I would recommend players give sea battle tafl a try early, especially those who have bought a 9x9 hnefatafl board.

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Great article!! Just an extra detail: it was called "sea-battle" because the lack of special squares suggested open water. Also, the unarmed "king" (which is twice as strong in defence as the other pieces) suggested a treasure ship which must be captured rather than sunk, and can only be safely captured by four ordinary longships, whereas the ordinary ships are sunk when surrounded by two enemies. That's the thinking behind it, anyway!

Tim Millar - 12:58, 21/03/2015

This is an awesome site. I have to admit, I found out about this game - and its variants - after watching the new show "Vikings". I love history and, as such, researched the show and found it to be very historically accurate - with creative license of course. But seeing in the show the Vikings playing a game I first thought was chess, I began my research and finally found out about this game - Tafl.

I have now read quite a few different references about this game - both its history (what we can know) and its variations and rules. I found your site today and am very, very pleased - thanks for providing the best resource yet for this awesome game!

Kenneth Douglass - 16:04, 24/03/2015

Thanks Kenneth! I'm glad you enjoy the site. I haven't managed to catch Vikings yet; I think it's only on satellite and cable and I don't watch enough television to justify a subscription. Did the programme tell you much about the game?

Damian Walker - 17:40, 24/03/2015

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