Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations

Cover of Board and Table Games
Cover of Board and Table Games

Sunday, 8th September 2013

It's time for another of my Sunday reads, books which have helped to promote and inform about hnefatafl. This week I want to look at Board and Table Games, by R. C. Bell. Originally published as two hardback volumes under the title "Board and Table Games" in 1960 and 1969, it was republished as a single volume in 1979 by Dover Books of New York, and is still in print.

Bell was a medical doctor by profession, but board games were a hobby he indulged in very deeply, writing a handful of books on the subject. His research, as with most who take board games as a single subject of study, was more wide than deep. There are three complete descriptions of hnefatafl games in Board and Table Games, and an attempt is made at a fourth.

The three variants that Bell describes are tablut, alea evangelii (which he calls Saxon hnefatafl) and tawlbwrdd, three of the best documented versions. In describing tablut and alea evangelii, Bell follows the work of H. J. R. Murray very closely and gives similar rules for two different layouts. Bell does present something that Murray does not, however: a photograph of the original mediaeval diagram from which Murray had reconstructed the layout. Apart from this, his coverage of the game's history is not as extensive as Murray's, partly because in the description of each variant he sticks to a small number sources that pertain to that variant alone. Like Murray, Bell does not attempt to cover strategy in play.

Murray takes his rules from J. E. Smith, who made a translation with "corrections" of Linnaeus' diary entry in which he describes tablut as he observed it being played. This creates a diluted version of the game which introduces some imbalance, but the rules have been influential on later works and still influences modern attempts to put the game together.

Tawlbwrdd is covered in a more original manner. Bell translates the word "tawlbwrdd" as "throw-board", a translation which had been discredited a couple of decades before his book first came out. He supposes that a die was thrown effectively to dictate who made the next move. The game is somewhat spoiled by this innovation and I think it fortunate that few people have adopted this idea. Dice have been found with hnefatafl pieces, but Jesse Robinson gives a more credible purpose in the game. Remove the dice from Bell's rules and he has created a very pure and playable version of hnefatafl.

The fourth game Bell deals with is fithcheall, which he associates with the Ballinderry board. Bell gives no rules for his fithcheall, but states lack of evidence and leaves it as an exercise to the reader. It is a shame that Bell apparently had no access to two influential 1940s articles which would have shone much light on Irish and Welsh hnefatafl variants, and would have suggested brandub as a likely game for the Ballinderry board. His readers would have been able to solve the exercise with much less effort and invention.

Board and Tables games has the advantage over many other books I have looked at, in that it is still in print. It has even been published professionally as an e-book. Before Corpus Christi College put the alea evangelii manuscript on-line, I would have recommended this book for the image of the manuscript alone. It is still a very good book for those interested in old board games in general. But for hnefatafl alone, whether you are interested in the history or the rules, there are better books available.


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