Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Experimental Scottish Game on Trial

The king has just been captured in Scottish Hnefatafl, his attempt to capture the B2 attacker having been ineffective.
The king has just been captured in Scottish Hnefatafl, his attempt to capture the B2 attacker having been ineffective.

Tuesday, 19th January 2016

A new hnefatafl variant, entitiled Scottish Hnefatafl, has been on trial for a couple of weeks at the popular on-line game site Dragonheels' Lair. A king and four defenders try to escape the eight attackers and get the king to the edge of the board.

While the history of hnefatafl is Scotland appears to be a rich one, going by archaeological finds there, it has proved difficult to reconstruct a game that fits the evidence. Boards of both 7x7 and 9x9 squares have been found, but no complete sets of pieces suitable for the 7x7 board.

A decade or two ago, a game of 'ard ri' was devised, and was taken by some for the game played on the Scottish 7x7 boards. But this game placed 25 pieces on those boards, which has been proven to be unworkable.

Many sets sold from the 1990s onwards experiement with 19 pieces (a king and 6 guards against 12 attackers) or 21 pieces (a king and 8 against 12). With special rule adaptations, these work better than ard ri, but the balance of historical probability rests against them.

The Irish game of brandub provides a workable and historically plausible solution to playing games on a 7x7 grid, having a king and four defenders against eight attackers, with the king reaching a corner. But this can't be applied directly to the Scottish boards, as none of them have any markings in the corners. The Scottish king most likely won on reaching the board's edge.

A while ago I suggested a solution for this. I used the still-debated interpretation that the king is not allowed to capture. If one takes brandub's rules, applies this extra condition, and allows the king to win at the edge of the board, would the game still be balanced and playable?

Thibaut Palmans has kindly implemented this suggestion on his popular on-line play site Dragonheels' Lair ( Hopefully when a large number of games have been accumulated, it will be possible to see if the game is balanced and playable.

So far I have played and won two games of this, playing as the attackers. Obviously two games are too few to measure its success. One the one hand I am, while a poor hnefatafl player, the inventor of this set of rules. On the other hand, the vanquished in both these games suffered by forgetting that the king was weaponless.

Indeed, I'd forgotten this myself in the second game, and logged in on Sunday expecting a crushing defeat in the game illustrated. In fact I'd relied upon it; I try to follow the polite custom of posting games I've lost in my examples, but in this case I have only victories from which to choose a suitable image. Ah, well.

If you'd like to try out a new variant of hnefatafl, and to help out in an historical experiment, then please do log in to and join us for a game of Scottish Hnefatafl.


New Comment

Yes No