Hnefatafl Out in the Open: a Game without Castles, Thrones or Burghs
Saturday, 29th August 2015
I was pleased recently to be asked about hnefatafl games of a simple sort. Would a simple game of hnefatafl play well without having special rules for the central square and the corners? A game in which the central square is like any other, and in which the king wins on reaching the edge?
If you look at web sites and social media, and to a lesser extent in books, you will find that corner exit games predominate. Or to be more exact, a single class of games on an 11x11 board in which a strong king wins on reaching the corners. Fetlar Hnefatafl and Copenhagen Hnefatafl are examples, but both are probably outdone in sheer number of players by The Viking Game on which they were based, because many players will happily follow the rules that they find in the box without further investigation.
Games in which the king reaches the edge are gaining in popularity, but until one reaches the commercial success of The Viking Game, they will probably still be in a minority as far as players are concerned. This is a shame, as they tend to be more elegant. But most of these still have special rules about the central square, including the most authentic of them, tablut.
A more elegant game would be one in which the whole board is open, like the field of battle in chess or draughts, and that no special rules are required for any particular square. And two good examples of these games do exist. Regular readers of this site will know of sea battle tafl and tawlbwrdd, but newcomers may not.
Sea battle tafl, sometimes called longship tafl, is a modern version that has become very popular among regular players. This game is set on the open sea, so it has no place for castles, thrones or cities. A treasure ship is attacked by a large force of pirates, while its small squadron of defending ships must help it flee to safety.
Tawlbwrdd is an historic variant, although the reconstruction is modern. The original sources mention nothing about the central square, so it is usually ignored today. It is even more elegant than sea battle tafl: the king behaves exactly as other pieces do in movement and capture, and has no special castle to defend it.
Both sea battle tafl and tawlbwrdd seem to be well balanced, providing that an appropriate board layout is chosen at the start of the game. They do not seem to suffer from a dominant strategy as The Viking Game seems to do, nor a spoiling strategy which could plague Fetlar Hnefatafl. Neither do they suffer the complicated intricacies of Copenhagen Hnefatafl's rules. So they are an excellent introduction to the game for new players of all levels of skill: easy to pick up and yet without obvious flaws for players to discover as their skill increases.