Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Tafl, by Jesse Robinson

Cover of Tafl, by Jesse Robinson
Cover of Tafl, by Jesse Robinson

Sunday, 11th August 2013

2013 has seen the first book published that is all about hnefatafl. In June Jesse Robinson published "TAFL: Ancient Board Games of the Norse and Celtic Peoples of Scandinavia and the British Isles", an e-book for the Amazon Kindle. I decided to take a look at it and jot down my thoughts.

At about 52 pages of large text, the book won't take very long to read. But within its virtual covers it contains a lot of information. After a brief introduction, the hnefatafl coverage begins with a discussion about variants, their differences and similarities. Following this is a history of the game, The main section of the book is taken up with the rules: eleven variants are illustrated and presented, preceded by a key to the diagrams and a discussion of capture rules. At the end of the book is a further discussion of variants.

The introductory section starts off by hitting out at video games and promoting board games as a better form of entertainment, due to their connections with the past. This could be seen as a bit of a rant, but it makes entertaining reading. It ends by talking about the revival of hnefatafl itself.

The following section discusses the same material as the "Rules" section of this web site, but groups the points together by an interesting distinctions: the similarities and then the differences. There is an interesting and well-written proposal about the (limited) use of dice in some variants of the game.

The history section takes the reader from an almost legendary beginning to the rediscovery of tablut by Linnaeus. It is an uncritical history; in itself this is not a bad thing, but my problem with the history is that not only does it take games like gwydbwyll and fidchell uncritically as tafl games, it also assigns to them details that have no historical basis.

The rules section is the most useful part of the book. The eleven variants seem to have been chosen to illustrate variety. Like the history, the selection is uncritical. Attempts to reconstruct historical variants jostle with purely modern inventions that regularly pose as historic games. One is an example of both: alea evangelii with its "elite guards" - see a previous blog post for more of my thoughts on those.

The final chapter justifies the uncritical nature of some of the rest of the book, giving an opinion that I actually share: that the modern variants should be just as valid as the ancient ones. All of them are serving to bring the game to a wider audience, and some of the newer variants are good games in their own right. The only way in which my opinion differs from that of the book's author is that I'd like to see the distinction made between the old and the new.

This book is an excellent introduction to hnefatafl for those who know little more than the name or a single variant. Its collection of variants allows the reader to start enjoying the game in a variety of forms very quickly. If you want a basis for a tournament, a commercially marketed game or some written work of your own, then I would recommend further reading, as the research for this book appears broad but shallow, and lacks useful references.

Tafl is available from Amazon, costing just under £2. The Amazon UK entry is at - for buyers elsewhere there should be a link on the page for your own local Kindle store.


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