Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Four Schools of Hnefatafl

These games cover four different styles of hnefatafl rule set.
These games cover four different styles of hnefatafl rule set.

Saturday, 8th August 2015

I've been gathering information about hnefatafl over the past twelve years or so. But it's only recently that I've seen, among countless variations, that four main types have dominated, both in commercial production and in scholarly thought.

The Viking Game
 The first and most popular is typified by The Viking Game. Released in 1981, this is the earliest version I know of that follows the pattern. Usually using an 11x11 board, but sometimes using 9x9 or 13x13, these games feature a strong king who can capture enemies and needs to be surrounded on four sides to be captured. His great strength is tempered by the fact that he needs to reach a corner to win the game, rather than an edge.

The Viking Game has probably contributed most to the widespread popularity of this school of hnefatafl. The Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel used this form of hnefatafl for its own version of the game, and that has since been adapted into Copenhagen Hnefatafl. Many web pages present this as the de facto standard game, sometimes with minor variations.

 Another school of thought is more recent, and is based upon the 1732 Latin rules of Tablut, as recorded by the botanist Linnaeus. The original document has only been made widely available in the last five years, and represents the closest form of hnefatafl to that which the Vikings played. Because it has only recently come to light, it has not yet become commercially popular.

This form of hnefatafl features a king who can capture enemies, but who himself is usually captured in the same manner as other pieces. The exceptions occur when he is on or beside the central square, when he succumbs only when surrounded by four attackers, or three and the central square. The game works very well on boards of 11 rows or more, and on 7x7 boards if the corner becomes the objective.

The third form of hnefatafl is the oldest as far as commercial production is concerned. First seen in the 1855 game Imperial Contest, it features a king who is captured by four attackers, but cannot himself take part in capturing enemies. He wins by reaching the edge of the board.

York Hnefatafl
 Imperial Contest uses a 9x9 board, but the game has been commercially produced on 11x11 boards too: York Archaeological Trust published a game of this type in 1980, which I generally refer to as "York Hnefatafl" on this site. On the world wide web, a 9x9 version has been given a naval theme under the name "Sea Battle Tafl", and serves as the archetypal version of the school nowadays. David Pritchard's "The Family Book of Games", reprinted in 2007, includes an 11x11 game of this type.

Finally there's a school of thought which was popular for a while in the 1970s and 1980s but which has recently declined: it's typified by the game Papillon's Escape. Pieces are limited in movement to adjacent squares only, which creates a slower game. Some versions allow the king to win on reaching the edge of the board, while others require him to reach a corner. I don't believe there has been much in-depth play-testing of these kinds of hnefatafl, certainly not enough to know whether the edge or corner victory is the fairest.

I have a book by John Astrop, "The Pocket Book of Board Games", that includes a 9x9 game of this type, and Jumping Frog Toys made a set with these rules until recently. Some have tried to make the faux-historical game "Ard Ri", with its 25 pieces on a 7x7 board, work with similar rules.

Hnefatafl game with altered ratio of 1.5:1
 There are plenty of exceptions to these four schools of hnefatafl, of course. The lack of availability of a full historic set of rules until recent years, along with tantalising mistranslations giving almost complete or one-sided games, have encouraged people to experiment. Examples are the games with altered ratios of attackers vs. defenders, like the games of four or eight defenders against twelve attackers. But these tend to be one-offs that do not inspire others to copy them.

Of the four main schools, though, is there any possibility that one will prevail? It appears that the Papillon's Escape type games are fading away, leaving the field to the other three. The Viking Game school is the most popular at the moment, but the historical authenticity of the Tablut school is challenging its supremacy, particularly on 9x9 boards. The simplicity and elegance of the Sea Battle school is helping to give it a modest amount of popularity that keeps it alive, too.


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