Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Modern Innovations: the Shield Wall Capture

The shield wall capture.
The shield wall capture.

Saturday, 11th April 2015

In this series of blog posts I'm looking at new rules that have been added to some hnefatafl games, rules that we can be fairly certain the Vikings and other historic people who played hnefatafl didn't use. I've already looked at berserkers & elite guards, and hostile base camps. Today I want to look at the increasingly popular shield wall rule.

The shield wall is an entirely new kind of capture. It was devised to address a problem that some hnefatafl players found with games like The Viking Game and Fetlar hnefatafl. Two pieces of the same side adjacent to one another at the board edge are invulnerable; there's no way the opponent can sandwich either one to capture it.

In the shield wall capture, if such a line of pieces is face to face with an enemy line, as in the diagram, then they can all be captured by flanking the whole line at both ends. This works very much like capture in go, with the removal of the group's liberties or breathing space causing it to be lost. The important difference between go's capture and the hnefatafl shield wall rule is that, in hnefatafl, the capturing move has to be a flanking move like the one shown.

The earliest mention I can find of this rule is at the site which appeared in 2004. It was taken up by Aage Nielsen who added it to his Copenhagen rule set in about 2011. As Copenhagen Hnefatafl has become popular among some of the best hnefatafl players around, the shield wall capture has become better known.

The formation is based on the shield wall popular with Anglo-Saxons and other ancient cultures. A line of soldiers brings up their shields to form a barrier that is very difficult to penetrate; the most practical way to beat the formation is to flank it, a manoeuvre which the hnefatafl rule captures very well.

It's debatable whether pieces grouped at the edge are such a big problem. In the early game most of the attacking pieces start there, and play concentrates on the corners. If the pieces remain in their starting groups, the corners are left exposed for the king and defenders to take control. This could be a lot of fuss about pieces which are keeping themselves out of harm's way, but also keeping themselves away from any useful part in the fray.

But unlike some other innovations, the shield wall capture doesn't appear to upset the balance of the game at higher levels of play. Copenhagen hnefatafl appears to be reasonably well balanced giving each player a good chance of success. And of all the modern innovations, the shield wall is probably the one that is most likely to stick around, simply because of the sheer number of players of Copenhagen hnefatafl.


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