Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

King's Table - the Legend of Ragnarok

King's Table - the Legend of Ragnarok
King's Table - the Legend of Ragnarok

Saturday, 28th March 2015

I've been wanting to add a page of computer versions of hnefatafl for a long time. In fact, it's been on my to-do list since shortly after the site was redesigned back in 2013. I still haven't done it: the sheer volume of work involved guarantees other, less intensive tasks get done first.

But I was reminded of my intentions by Andreas Persson on twitter, who sent me a picture of an old hnefatafl computer game from 1993. "King's Table - the Legend of Ragnarok" was written for old DOS PCs. Those of you who have started using PCs in the past twenty years may not remember what a DOS PC is, but I'll explain that later.

"King's Table - the Legend of Ragnarok" is an implementation of hnefatafl that uses the 11x11 board familiar to players today. It can be played in two ways: "King's Table" uses a standard hnefatafl rule set from the time, similar to The Viking Game. "Ragnarok", however, is the developer's own version.

When playing in "King's Table" mode, you get to choose your side--white (defenders) or black (attackers)--or two players can use the game as a virtual board. The king has to get to a corner to win, and moves like all other pieces: as far as desired along a row or column.

He is captured by being surrounded on four sides. He can probably be captured against three sides when beside the central square, but I haven't tested this. Nor have I tested rules about capturing against corners and the edge of the board. Other pieces are captured by surrounding them by two enemies; again I never got to test corner capture, but I assume that the common rules are used. You cannot capture a piece against the central square.

I am not a very good player, but I managed to beat the computer player easily both as attacker and as defender. As attacker it is easy to form an impenetrable blockade, and use this to close in on the computer. As defender I was barely given any resistance by the computer opponent. A beginner may get a few games out of this before tiring of the game; "King's Table" appears to have no difficulty setting.

The game redeems itself with its "Ragnarok" rules. The first way that this version differs from "King's Table" is that instead of a single match, a series of matches is played, alternating between black and white against increasingly difficult opponents.

The rules of play themselves are also different. For instance the king, or Odin as he is now identified, can move no more than two squares at a time. This would at least make it more difficult to play as the king if all the other rules were the same as for "Kings Table".

But there are also other special pieces. Each side gets to choose four from a list of six characters from Norse mythology. White's special pieces all sit beside Odin; Black's special pieces sit at the four cardinal points around the edge of the board. This means that, were the normal rules of movement used, all of the special pieces start the game blocked in.

However, some of the pieces' powers include novel forms of movement. One piece moves diagonally like a chess bishop, another moves like a chess king. A third type of piece moves exactly two spaces horizontally or vertically, jumping over any piece in between.

Though each player gets to choose from a different set of characters, each character on one side has an exact analogy on the other. Thor and Jormungand, for example, have a one-time special power that allows them to swap their life for that of an enemy piece by landing on it, like a chess rook with suicidal tendencies.

Some of the piece's special abilities seem to be deficiencies rather than powers. These pieces are forced to move as far as they possibly can, stopping only when they reach an obstruction or the edge of the board. Each player can choose two characters with this "ability", one of which has the compensation of requiring three enemies to capture it. Unless I'm missing something, you'd never choose the other one, unless you wanted to add to your own difficulties.

Control of the game is relatively straightforward, though in an age before tool-tips there was nothing to tell you what all the icons do. Control of the mouse during the course of the game takes a little getting used to. The graphics are attractive for the time, with a 3-dimensional perspective. And the Ragnarok mode presents some extra entertaining visuals: opponent characters who taunt you, and delightful battle animations when a piece is captured.

DOS was the operating system that IBM PCs and compatibles used to run before Windows became popular. Games and other programs were launched by typing commands at the keyboard. But this suited the primitive computers that PCs were in those days. The DOS era was a brilliant time for computer games of all types, and if typing commands seems clunky, many of the games of the day made it worth the effort, then and now.

There's a piece of software for modern computers, called DosBox, that allows your computer to run these old DOS games. It runs not only on Windows, but also on the Mac, on Linux, and even on Android mobile devices. If you want to try out the Ragnarok game, I recommend you visit the following two links for DosBox and for the game itself. - for DosBox; - for the game.


New Comment

Yes No