Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Brain Games, by David Pritchard

Cover of Brain Games
Cover of Brain Games

Sunday, 22nd September 2013

Last month I looked at The Family Book of Board Games, by David Pritchard. Pritchard wrote a much earlier book that deals with Hnefatafl, though, Brain Games: The World's Best Games for Two. This is a small paperback that deals with all kinds of sedentary games: pen and paper games, traditional board games, card games, modern board games and even computer games. So that's the book I'll be using for this week's installment of my Sunday Reads.

Five of the two hundred pages of the book deal with tablut. Although Pritchard mentions other forms of hnefatafl in passing, tablut is the only one examined in depth. The game's history is swiftly dispatched in three short paragraphs, and the rules are given in a complete and readable form. But the value of this book is in its lengthy discussion of strategy.

The rules used are the old "orthodox" rules, translated by J. E. Smith in 1811 and adapted by H. J. R. Murray in 1913. In these rules the king must escape to an edge. He can take part in captures, but must be surrounded on all four sides to be captured himself. These are very one-sided and give the king an easy time of things. However, while this makes the rules in this book of little value, it doesn't affect the usefulness of the strategic tips which are relevant to many hnefatafl variants.

The strategic section occupies a page and a half: a page of text, and a half-page diagram. It discusses general strategies for both sides, but also presents an example game. The game does not exhibit the best play, but shows an example of "how not to play the Muscovites". It would have been more useful to see an example of good play, but evidently Pritchard must have had only a small store of played and recorded games to draw on.

For the other information it shows, Brain Games is worth picking up if you can get it cheaply; there are 33 games in the book, all of which follow the same format as tablut, with a brief history, rules, and a discussion of strategy. For hnefatafl alone, the fact that a discredited set of rules is used reduces its value, but the strategic advice might make it worth your while.


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