Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The Family Book of Games

Cover, the Family Book of Games
Cover, the Family Book of Games

Sunday, 18th August 2013

Last Sunday I reviewed the only book exclusively about hnefatafl that is currently available. There are many books about board games in general that discuss hnefatafl in depth, which are also interesting to hnefatafl players. So I'd like to make Sunday lunchtime a regular "slot" for reviews of these books from a hnefatafl player's perspective.

This week I have in my hands "The Family Book of Games" by David Pritchard. The book covers different kinds of sedentary games: board games, dice games and card games. Hnefatafl is given exactly one percent of this 200 page book, but it is a large format book and there is plenty of information packed into those two pages.

The coverage begins with the history of the game, but this is a single paragraph outline. It mentions the probable origins from Ludus Latrunculorum, but does not cover the changes in the game over its centuries of popularity, nor its end with the invasion of chess.

The outline of the game quickly gives way to the rules of play. A single version is described: this is similar to the version marketed by the York Archaeological Trust in 1980: an 11x11 board, with a king who needs to be surrounded on four sides, but cannot make captures and must reach the edge to win.

A strength of the book is that it provides a section of strategic hints for many of the games, including hnefatafl. So many board game books lack this. The strategy section here includes a complete game which one can play through on a set of one's own. The game contains brief annotations that point out things like mistakes and threats to the king.

A brief final section on variations includes some historical information missing from the introductory paragraph, and gives the layouts for alea evangelii and tablut. Unfortunately the tablut board is incorrectly drawn, showing 24 attackers instead of sixteen; this is the only thing that spoils the hnefatafl chapter of the book.

As with the other general board-game books that I hope to review, it is not worth buying this one book just for its coverage of hnefatafl, unless in researching the game you want to cast your net as wide as possible. It does not mention any sources for further reading, and it covers only one rule set, albeit a rather nice one. As a general book on sedentary entertainment it is very good though; it would make an ideal gift for a friend, especially if you tell them to pay special attention to pages 16 and 17.

The Family Book of Games is out of print but is widely and cheaply available second-hand. I got my copy for a penny, plus postage.


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