Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl by York Archaeological Trust

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

Saturday, 22nd April 2017

My recent acquisition of Dardell Games Hnefatafl, and my coverage of it in this blog, has prompted me to look at the other games I've been collecting over the years.  The idea of a "collection" series of blog posts isn't just to show off, but to let people know what out-of-production hnefatafl games are generally available, and what they would add to the collection.

The game I refer to as York Hnefatafl comes from a set of rules developed by Oxbow Games in Oxford, which was published as a game in 1980 by the York Archaeological Trust.  The catalyst for its release was probably the discovery in 1976 of a gaming board fragment on the Coppergate site.

I obtained the game from eBay some time ago, after a long search. I'd recommend anyone wanting to collect hnefatafl games sets up an email search on eBay and similar services. On eBay in particular the majority of results for a search for "hnefatafl" tend to be copies of The Viking Game, but if you are patient and check the results carefully then you will see some very interesting items come up.  You'll probably see the York Archaeological Trust game appear several times a year, with prices ranging from £30-£50.

The board is of plywood with a raised border. The pattern is printed onto the surface, with the starting positions of the pieces marked out. The markings on the squares are copied from the A.D. 900 board fragment from Gokstad in Norwa, and are very intricate.

The pieces are very close to an authentic mediaeval hnefatafl shape: they are spherical with a flattened base. The king is pawn-like in form. All of the pieces are wood, and in this set the king and defenders are stained in a darker colour. This colouring echoes the Icelandic riddle: "Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their lord, the brown ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him?"

The game has a board of eleven rows of eleven squares, with the familiar diamond layout of defenders in the middle. The corners are not marked, as the rules have the king winning at the edge. If you want to play a modern game like Copenhagen Hnefatafl then I recommend depositing four coins in the corner squares during play.

The rules are reminiscent of Sea Battle Tafl, and are not too different to the game from Dardell covered previously. All pieces have a normal orthogonal move of unlimited distance, including the king. The king wins on reaching the edge, and is captured by surrounding him by four attackers (or three attackers and the central castle). To balance the game, the king is not allowed to take part in capturing attackers. This rule set has been play-tested and comes out reasonably well balanced, offering an approximate ratio of 23:20 wins for the king and defenders.

One interesting innovation of the York Hnefatafl rules is an extra victory condition for the attackers. If all the attacking pieces have surrounded all of the defending pieces, forming a complete blockade, then the attackers have won the game. In other games, attackers in this position cannot lose, as the king has no means of reaching an edge. These other games tend to finish either in the king's resignation or in a long and tedious end game where the attackers gradually close in, the king's side having only stalling moves to make if the attackers make no mistakes. The all-surrounding victory prevents such problems in York Hnefatafl, and has been adopted in Copenhagen Hnefatafl for this reason.

I should point out that if you do get a copy of the York game, then it is in fact two games in one. In emulation of the Gokstad board, the reverse of the hnefatafl board here is a nine men's morris board, the hnefatafl pieces being numerous enough to play this game too.


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