Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

In Praise of Tablut

A tablut set made in about 2007
A tablut set made in about 2007

Saturday, 6th June 2015

Back in March, I wrote a post in praise of sea battle tafl. I promised that this would be an occasional series, up until now it's been a series of one. So it's time for another one, so I've chosen my favourite hnefatafl game, tablut.

Lots of hnefatafl games have been published and played over the years under the name of "tablut". Many were the result of misinformation being transmitted through books and web pages. But in the past few years a contemporary account of the rules has been widely available in its original language (Latin), and a better picture of the game has emerged. It is these rules, increasingly adopted by players, that I'm referring to in this post.

For those who see hnefatafl as a link with history as well as a game, tablut has a great advantage over just about all modern variants: it's authentically historical. It was played in Lapland in the early eighteenth century. Hnefatafl died out in the more urbanised societies in Scandinavia by the fourteenth century, so the Saami people of Lapland must have adopted the game before then. It is uncertain what changes they made to the game in that time, but its similarities to what we know of other hnefatafl games suggest that they didn't change it very much. So tablut is our closest link to the game of the Vikings.

Unlike many modern variants, which have developed from flawed translations of the same Latin rules, the Latin tablut is a very pure and simple game. There is only one special square: the central castle, which when empty can be used to capture enemy pieces. The king has a more complex rule than many modern games: he's captured by surrounding him on four sides in the castle, on three sides when beside the castle, and on two sides elsewhere, but this rule isn't too difficult to remember. He wins by getting to the board edge. There's no shield-wall, no special corner squares, no hostile base camps nor elite guards here.

These rules have been played quite a lot by players of many skill levels. Like all balanced hnefatafl games, it appears to favour the king when played by beginners, but becomes more even as the players gain more experience. The average ratio of attacker and defender wins is comparable to the ratio of black and white wins in chess.

And the great thing about the game is that it scales up very well. With 37 pieces on a board eleven squares wide it is just as good a game. The same goes for a game of 49 pieces on a board thirteen squares wide. A little tweaking allows it to work on the smallest board of seven squares, with thirteen pieces: the corners become the king's objective and have the same capturing properties as the central castle, though without its ability to make the king more secure.

Were it not for the increasing popularity of the modern Copenhagen variant among the best hnefatafl players, I'd be calling for tablut to be a standardised game for tournaments on many sizes of board. As it is, I'm happy to see that it has become a standard at least for the 9x9 board, and the version adapted for the 7x7 board is becoming popular too. So if you've only played with the rules your hnefatafl game with so far, I'd urge you to download the tablut leaflet and give the game a try.


Great that you highlight Tablut - it is definatly my favourite Tafl game, in part because it plays quite fast; it has an allmost backgammon like feel. I am not sure about how the rules work with a larger (11x11) board though - if I remember the test tournament there was a feeling that attackers have too much of an advantage for strong players. This didn't reflect in the game statistics though, so more tests would be interesting.

By the way, the Tafl Wikipedia article is very outdated now, and doesn't reflect the development during the last 5 years. It would be great if someone made some changes there... I have no experiance with Wikipedia though, so I hessitate to just jump in and start editing.

Jonas (conanlibrarian) - 10:19, 14/07/2015

Tablut is my favourite, too, though I have a soft spot for sea battle tafl. I have a feeling that the 11x11 game will be more balanced if the pieces are laid out in a cross rather than a diamond. That is a closer match for the 9x9 layout and gives defenders some access to the edge of the board from the beginning.

I contributed to the Wikipedia page many years ago, but when I saw some nonsense added as fact (e.g. Ard Ri and 400 B.C.) I decided to leave them to it. I may write a critique of it as a blog post some time, though.

Damian Walker - 16:20, 15/07/2015

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