Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Ard Ri: Historic or Modern?

Ard-Ri Board Layout
Ard-Ri Board Layout

Thursday, 22nd August 2013

The game of ard ri is an intriguing little beast. Twenty-five pieces, the same as in tablut, are crowded onto the smallest hnefatafl board just seven squares on a side. The king's defenders enclose him in a square formation, with the attackers around the edge much as in tablut. This layout is found in books, and many web articles suggest that pieces in ard ri move only to adjacent squares. But documentary evidence is non-existent. Is this just something made up on the Internet?

I wrote about ard ri back in 2005 but never published my work about it. I mention on this web site that the usual rules don't work on this board. If the pieces were to move like rooks as in other hnefatafl versions, a typical game with the attackers starting would be:

  1. G5-F5; C5-C6;
  2. A5-C5xC6; C3-B3;
  3. C1-C3xB3/C4; E5-E6;
  4. F5-E5xD5/E6; E3-E2;
  5. G3-E3xD3/E2/E4

and so on. The attackers have formed an easy enclosure, and the defenders have no remedy, given that at this point all the defender's available moves are simply rotations and reflections of one another. If the defender makes the first move, the enclosure is no more difficult for the attackers - they simply lose the choice of which corner to seal off first. Although allowing pieces to move only to adjacent cells appears to be a distinct improvement, some have questioned whether this is enough to make the game playable.

The standard layout appeared in David Parlett's book The Oxford History of Board Games, and a number of web pages discuss the game, usually giving the pieces the adjacent-square move. But I've never managed to find any older references to the name of the game, nor anything that proves that this number of pieces were ever crammed on to the small board. The closest archaeology comes to evidence is that a number of 7x7 boards have been found in Scotland, as have some sets of pieces that may originally have numbered around 25 (such as those at Scar). But larger Scottish boards have been found too, such as the one at Jarlshof, Shetland.

So that leaves the distinct possibility that ard ri is wholly modern; the fact that it was played by the Norse or the Scots during the middle ages appears to be a myth. The fact that it doesn't appear to play well, as compared to the 13-piece brandub on the same board, brings about the question: should we bother persevering with it?

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