Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

The World of Games

Botermans: The World of Games
Botermans: The World of Games

Sunday, 15th September 2013

Today I get around to a review of The World of Games, by Jack Botermans, Tony Burrett, Peter van Delft and Carla van Splunteren. I mentioned in my very first blog post that this is the book that got me interested in board games in general, and hnefatafl in particular, about a decade ago when I borrowed it from the local library.

Of its 240 pages only three cover hnefatafl. The rest cover a combination of board games, card games, dice games and children's activity games, as well as a section on single-player puzzles. But the three pages were enough to get me hooked, and do contain quite a lot of information and interesting pictures.

The hnefatafl coverage is oddly split into two. The first part deals with the game in general, mentioning a number of variants but concentrating on alea evangelii. The second section focuses on tablut. It seems that that in the author's mind, alea evangelii is the dominant form of the game. Maybe this is down to the link between the Vimose board and the alea evangelii, an idea that is beginning to lose ground nowadays.

Each section gives a history of the games it covers. These are interesting if in some places slightly confused accounts. For instance, the book makes the claim that the alea evangelii manuscript itself comes from the reign of Athelstan; academic opinion has always put it at least a century afterwards. This is perhaps because the authors have not actually read their source but have taken details from it second-hand; the book says that its reconstruction of the alea evangelii rules come from a translation of the manuscript in a non-existent book "The Time of St. Dunstan" (an error copied from H. J. R. Murray's book "A History of Board-Games Other Than Chess" which appears to be the real source); the fact that neither the alea evangelii manuscript nor Robinson's translation of it contain almost nothing on how the game was played makes it unlikely that this was the prime source of the reconstruction.

But scholarship aside, the history and the rules are generally good. The rules for alea evangelii and tablut are those from H. J. R. Murray, which need adjustment to become anything like fair, but for a book of the 1980s this is not unreasonable. The pages are nicely illustrated, containing a large photograph of the Ballinderry board, and good photographs of an alea evangelii board and of the hnefatafl set once marketed by the York Archaeological Trust.

There is plenty from other parts of the book to interest the hnefatafl enthusiast. Like "Making Board, Peg & Dice Games" by John & Jennie Loader, The World of Games has plenty of advice about making board games. The games illustrated in Botermans et al are cheerfully amateurish in contrast to the Loaders' professional finish, but they exhibit a greater variety in style and material, and the techniques are probably more suited to amateur crafting skills. There are games made out of ceramic, wood, leather, foam, felt, metal, shells, seeds and stones along with a number of miscellaneous objects used for decoration or finish.

New copies of this out-of-print book fetch silly prices, but second-hand copies are affordable and in reasonably plentiful supply. So while the accuracy of some of the material is open to question, the hnefatafl enthusiast who has access to more dependable material on history and game-play could still get inspiration and instruction from this book, particularly those wanting to make their own set.


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