Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Standardising Hnefatafl?

Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan
Hnefatafl games by Cyningstan

Sunday, 28th July 2013

There have been occasions over the past decade when I've read comments about standardising hnefatafl. Isn't it a shame, the logic goes, that hnefatafl doesn't have a standard rule set like chess; wouldn't it be good, the logic asks, if the world chose one standard hnefatafl game and concentrated on that? Ten years ago I may have been neutral on the subject, but as time goes on I'm leaning more and more in the direction of "no" to standardisation. I thought I'd jot down why.

Standardisation has advantages, clear and logical ones. If, as with chess, attention is focussed on one standard variant, then there is more opportunity to play, more opportunity to study strategy, and more opportunity to progress and play better quality hnefatafl.

Chess is the obvious example of how standardisation has given the game great vitality. Not only is it easy to find an opponent and a board and pieces, but the number of people playing it has made viable a library of chess literature, with deep coverage of the game's strategy. Backgammon is another good example of this.

Hnefatafl cannot really emulate this, even with its increasing popularity. Books are starting to appear about the game, but discussion of strategy is very shallow: for deep analysis with examples of play, a set of rules must be chosen, and on doing so an author will cater to only a minority of players who know, or want to know, that particular variant. Or an author might choose different variants to discuss, but then in what depth could each be treated?

Draughts or checkers provides a counter-example. There are three main variants of draughts which are popular in various parts of the world: the Anglo-American version on an 8x8 chequerboard, the continental European version on a 10x10 board, and the Turkish version with orthogonal movement. There are numerous minor variants such as Spanish, Frisian and German draughts each with their own following and sets of rules. The more popular variants have their own tournaments and literature.

But hnefatafl is less standardised than this. Being an older game which has been almost forgotten before its revival, rules have had to be reconstructed in modern times. Surely this would make standardisation easier? It would, except that as in other areas of history and archaeology, continued analysis and growing evidence makes our conclusions change. 19th century interpretations have been refined in the 20th and 21st centuries as more information about the game has become available. But those older interpretations have still been sold, played and much written about, so the are not going to go away, even when historical evidence shows that their conclusions were mistaken. This is especially the case when they are actually good games, better than our understanding of a truly historical variant.

There is another impediment to standardisation: the wide variation of board sizes, none of which dominates. Sizes from 7x7 to 13x13 were common across northern Europe, with isolated cases known of 15x15 and 19x19 boards. Standardising on one size to the exclusion of others would suppress a lot of gaming experience. Who would want to give up the alea evangelii and the brandub games for tablut alone? I don't think I would.

One way of standardisation appears to be working for Hnefatafl: tournament by tournament. The prime example of recent years is the rules of the Hnefatafl World Quick-play Championship on Fetlar, which have been in use since 2008. They were formulated by the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel specifically for the tournament, and have proven popular enough to be adopted for Hnefatafl tournaments elsewhere. It may one day be viable for someone to publish a book about Fetlar Hnefatafl, with just the depth of analysis we are used to in chess literature.

But I would propose that this would not be the only standard. I like Brandub very much, and would be happy to see tournaments with standardised brandub rules. Tablut is popular too, and may be within easy reach of an agreed standard set of rules. And an alea evangelii tournament would be an epic event indeed.

So while I wouldn't like to see the hnefatafl family of games to coalesce into one monolithic variant, I'd be happy to see multiple standards arise for play at particular tournaments - and perhaps to see larger tournaments where more than one variant is played.


Thank you for this great site and interesting article on standardization. I've had a lot of fun over the past couple of weeks playing my copy of King's Table with students at Community High School where I work. Today I got curious and started snooping around the internet for a clearer explanation of the rules.

The version I have was purchased about 19 years ago when I was 14 years old at a museum's gift shop. I do not know the manufacturer because I have since lost the box. The rules are titled "King's Table (Tablut) A Viking Game." There are obvious gaps in these rules, and no real account of how they derived them, although there is fun information about Viking culture and history. Based on the limited research I've done, I think this version is based on the Carl Linnaeus version.

The rules published with the game have a few gaps. They do not explain who goes first. Also, it is not clear that the king's square also counts toward 'sandwiching' attackers and/or defenders, as it does for the king. The students and I decided that the attackers (dark pieces) should move first and that the king's square could contribute to the capture of any piece. We made these modifications to help balance the game.

In these rules, for the king to win, he must escape to a corner. Even with this balancing rule It took us about ten games before any of us could win the game as the attackers.

In playing with Chess enthusiasts at the school I've found that the differences and weirdness of the rules makes for interesting learning opportunities. Since the game is already "unbalanced" in the number of pieces, with each player trying to achieve different goals, kids are psyched to try it out. They have become invested in modifying the rules to help balance the game. In effect, Tablut is fun because its rules are weird, and they're learning about game design.

I think I agree with you on standardization if I understand what you're saying here. I think a standardized version of Tablut would be great for us, but actually learning about the game through sort of finding our own standard is fun and engaging. The games sort "lost to history" quality helps to make it interesting, and attaches it to history in a way that Chess has lost. Thanks for this interesting article, and any advise you could give about Tablut rules would be great.

Thanks, Warren

Warren Fry - 22:07, 20/11/2013

Thanks for your feedback, Warren!

If your "King's Table" is the same as that photographed in my article "Not a Game of Thrones" ( then they seem to have a modern-style rule set: king wins on reaching a corner, with some slightly confused rules about capturing pieces in or against corners.

So far, the closest to Linnaeus' rules that I've found are now available at There's a brief discussion there about what rules have been added or tweaked and why, along with a link to Linnaeus' original Latin text.

Damian Walker - 08:43, 21/11/2013

Great article indeed. Thanks for it, Damian !

Thibaut - 09:19, 15/04/2015

I like your approach to tafl games as a variety that should be maintained and appreciated. Tafl is so rich and every variant has its very own feeling and pace to it.

However, the Copenhagen rules for example - as established on a well known gaming site - seem to fill a gap. They add a bit more complexity and possibilities to both the attacker and the defender in comparison to Fetlar (which, in my opinion, is still the best way to learn tafl mechanics). But more importantly they seem to evolve into something like a "tafl lingua franca" that many players can agree on. Copenhagen does not force players to give up their preferences and yet serves as an common access for new players and professionals alike.

Many greetings, Kratzer/Christoph

Kratzer - 19:56, 28/11/2016

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