Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Modern Innovations: the Weaponless King

Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust
Hnefatafl from the York Archaeological Trust

Saturday, 23rd May 2015

I was uncertain whether to include the weaponless king in my series of blog posts about modern innovations in hnefatafl. For one thing, it's not particularly modern: its first confirmed use is in 1855, when Jaques of London introduced it into their Imperial Contest variant of tablut. For another, the historical support for it is disputed, but not disproven.

So what is the weaponless king? Simply put, it's a king who is harmless, and can't take part in captures. He can be captured himself, of course, otherwise there'd be no way for his opponents to win the game. But to capture one of the attackers, two defenders must always be used - never a defender and the king.

The idea seems to have been introduced by Jaques as a way to balance the game of tablut. Later justification comes from a riddle in the Book of Haukr: "Who are the weaponless maids who fight around their lord, the dark ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him?" Two manuscript copies of the text, the earliest and latest, instead apply the word weaponless to the lord, describing "the maids who fight around their weaponless lord". These manuscripts are, however, not regarded as the most reliable copies of the saga.

Nevertheless, Jaques proved the value of the weaponless king in game-play. The botanist Linnaeus, as historically-minded hnefatafl players will know, encountered tablut among the Saami people and noted its rules down in Latin. The first English translation, which Jaques used as a source, introduced some errors which made the game unplayable and the king nearly always victorious. By forbidding the king to capture, Jaques curbed some of his power and made the game a much more equal contest.

Apart from Jaques, some more modern variations of the game have used the rule to achieve the same objective. In all these variants, the king must reach the edge to win, but must be surrounded on all four sides to lose. York Archaeological Trust introduced such a game on an 11x11 board in 1980, simply calling it "hnefatafl". A more recent development is "sea battle tafl", a game resembling Imperial Contest, played usually on a 9x9 board but just as interesting on larger boards.

Most weaponless king variants have the same scheme, though some time ago I also proposed it for a "Scottish game" played with 13 pieces on a 7x7 board. The king is captured on two sides only and wins on reaching the board edge, but as this would create an unbalanced game I made the king "weaponless". This game has yet to undergo a serious trial.

Next month I hope to look at another unusual innovation that may or may not have some historical backing: the use of altered ratios between the two sides, e.g. a king and 4 against 12.


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