Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Thud! a Game Inspired by Hnefatafl

The starting positions for a game of Thud.
The starting positions for a game of Thud.

Saturday, 4th April 2015

The sad death of author Terry Pratchett last month was a reminder to me that my to-do list contained a blog post about Thud, a board game inspired by his Discworld novels and by hnefatafl.

Thud! was invented by board game enthusiast Trevor Truran. It's a battle that pits a small number of powerful trolls against a large number of dwarfs, the trolls starting at the middle of the board and the dwarfs distributed around the edge. So far it sounds very familiar to hnefatafl fans, and the scenario would make a good hnefatafl game for Pratchett fans.

But Thud! isn't hnefatafl, though. Almost all the rules are different from hnefatafl: the rules of movement, capture and the objectives of the two sides. The inspiration seems to be clear, though. When Terry Pratchett wrote a fictional history of the game he gave its original name as "Hnaflbaflwhiflsnifltafl", which also sounds curiously familiar.

In Thud! a group of eight trolls start at the centre of the board surrounding a central "troll stone", which never moves or interacts with the pieces apart from blocking their movement; it is more a part of the board than a piece. Thus the trolls have no king. There are not sixteen but 32 dwarfs around the edge of the board, which is octagonal.

The trolls move like chess kings, one space in any direction. They capture by the "shove": a line of trolls shoves the endmost troll in the direction of the line, for up to as many spaces as there are trolls in the line. The troll must land on an empty space, but on doing so captures all adjacent dwarfs.

The dwarfs move like chess queens, any number of spaces orthogonally or diagonally. They capture by the "hurl": it is similar to the trolls' shove except that the dwarf must land on a troll, and it captures only that troll.

The aim is to score the most points by capturing the most pieces. When one player cannot move or both players agree the game is over, the game ends; the dwarf player scores a point for each remaining dwarf, and the troll player scores four per remaining troll. The players swap sides and play a second game; the combined score for both games is the result of the match.

Strategy in the game is very different from hnefatafl. There is no corner play, as there are no corners. Openness of rows and columns has no importance in the game. It resembles hnefatafl only in that each side has its own strategy, even though the aim of each side is the same. Dwarfs try to mass in order to create a "hurl" formation, while trolls with their powerful capture are able to keep a looser formation and advance directly on the dwarfs.

The method in which the games are played and scored in pairs makes balance perfect; it matters little how balanced the individual game is. In hnefatafl, in contrast, a very unbalanced version of the rules when played in pairs is likely to give a series of draws. It is the scoring in Thud! which improves matters.

For players getting deep into hnefatafl strategy, Thud! might be an irrelevance; its rules are too different to contribute to improving hnefatafl skill. But for people interested in the history of hnefatafl, Thud! is a very interesting demonstration of the legacy of our favourite game.

After a hiatus, Thud! is now back on sale, and can be found at The Discworld Emporium:


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