Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess

Cover of A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess
Cover of A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess

Sunday, 25th August 2013

This week I want to discuss one of my favourite books on board games, A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess, by H. J. R. Murray.

To those who haven't heard of H. J. R. Murray, the title of this book gives the impression that he had something against chess. That's not the case, though, as this is a companion volume to his earlier work, A History of Chess. A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess was published in 1952, a volume of 281 pages containing descriptions and rules for hundreds of games.

Hnefatafl is given about nine pages, packing in a lot of detail. The make-up of the hnefatafl coverage is very different from most other board game books, which skip through the history quickly to get to the game-play. Murray starts with a brief description of the rules, and moves on quickly to about eight pages of history, etymology, literature and archaeology. The result is a fascinating account of the variety of the game.

The rules that Murray came up with have now been largely discredited. They are an uncritical adoption of J. E. Smith's 1811 translation of Linnaeus' account of tablut, which give an unbalanced game favouring the king's side. So on the one hand Murray can partly be blamed for the proliferation of modern variants in which every critic tinkers in their own way to try to acheive balance. But on the other hand, we have Murray to thank for the fact that the game has achieved modest popularity after being almost forgotten: it is from this book that many later writers learned of the game and kept it in the public eye.

It is on the history of the game that Murray is strongest. In this section at least, Murray's book is less a compendium and more a history as promised by the book's title. A brief summary of the history begins the section, taking us through the game's invention, growth, decline and revival.

Then follows an extended discussion of the etymology of the name tafl, and the various terms encountered in old glossaries; interesting facts include an English glossary which explains the apparently alien game of tables (backgammon) in terms of the apparently familiar taefl.

We move from there onto archaeology, where a catalogue of interesting finds is divided between the text and the line drawings of varying quality. These provide interesting sources for those trying to make authentic hnefatafl sets, though nowadays much of this is made redundant by good on-line photographs from museum web sites.

The information about literary sources is extensive though, like the archaeological survey, not comprehensive. It is divided into sections according to the countries of origin. This section takes us to the end of the coverage of hnefatafl.

The book is especially useful for researchers as it gives a comprehensive list of sources, pointing scholars to the precise pages, lines or passages of interest wherever this is possible. It is therefore a very good book for those who want to get back to the earliest source material in order to form their own opinions on the disputed points of the game. There is so much here that it's easy to skip over interesting things; in the course of writing this review I noticed a source that I had never yet followed up in the nine or ten years I have owned this book.

This book comes with a very big disadvantage: the price tag. I was lucky enough to buy the book when it was just going out of print: I paid £15 for a new copy of the reprint from around 2000. Today I see that a new copy costs more than ten times the price, and a second-hand copy is £70. If the price comes down to something more reasonable then I would recommend this book for the enthusiast of hnefatafl and of board games in general. In the mean time, unless you can access a copy at your local library, I'd recommend looking for other sources of information instead.

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