Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Theming and Scheming for Hnefatafl

Papillon's Escape
Papillon's Escape

Thursday, 3rd October 2013

This is more about theming than scheming, to be honest. The scheming I'll leave to the players for now. But what of theming? I'm referring here to pasting a theme on the game, so that it becomes a story rather than a dry description of the movement of pawns on a piece of decorated wood. Though hnefatafl is an abstract game, its simple mechanics and curious lopsided nature give it a history and potential for being bent to tell a story, in the way that more modern games often do.

The traditional theme for hnefatafl is the one-sided battle, blockade or seige. It's described this way in Viking literature. The Anglo-Saxons endowed the game with "dukes and counts, attackers and defenders, city and citadel". Some historic versions went further, one Irish poet putting the central square at Tara and the four corners at other known places, while the Sami presented the sides as Swedes and Muscovites in the wars recently fought by nations on their doorstep.

This straightforward theme was developed in the early commercialisation of the game. In the 1855 game Imperial Contest, published during the Crimean War, the sides were presented as the Russian Emperor against the allies, Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia being the attackers. A copy of this game in 1863 called Freedom's Contest had a Confederate general escaping from the Union forces that outnumbered him in an American Civil War.

Some in the past have proposed alternative themes. R. C. Bell supposed that alea evangelii might represent a sea battle, an unlikely hypothesis given the dukes, counts, cities and citadels that were said to be a part of that game. Other commentators have scaled down the battle by referring to the setting as a hall, with a king leaving his throne to escape the beseiged building.

There have been a number of delightful ideas in recent times. The sea battle idea was taken up by 3M in their derivative game Breakthru, and retro-fitted to hnefatafl in the form of Sea Battle Tafl or Longship Tafl popularly played on some web sites. Viking longships provide models for some very attractive pieces, and limitations placed on the "king" can explained by making it a cargo ship of fighting capacity inferior to the ships protecting it. There are plenty of more modern themes, and more ancient ones, for the game that could be set on the sea.

Some other themes are even more original. The 1966 game Goldfinger is tablut with a James Bond setting. Papillon's Escape features the thief Papillon trying to escape from the law in a 1970s book and film licence. More recently, the outlaw theme was revived in The Game: Ned Kelly, a shoot-out between the police and the gang of the infamous Australian outlaw of the 1880s.

Moving from crime to legend, the game Magpie has an encumbered leprechaun struggling slowly home with a bag of gold aided by four friends against eight enemies who would steal the prize. Pure fiction has also provided themes. As this blog post goes live, many of us are eagerly awaiting our Cthulhu vs. The Vikings sets.

There are many more things that could provide interesting themes for future hnefatafl games. A few decades into the future, when the Middle Earth setting becomes public domain, who could resist depicting Frodo and the other eight members of the Fellowship of the Ring, trying to escape from Balin's tomb and sixteen orcish attackers? Or the nine Nazgul struggling on the battlefield against sixteen units of Minas Tirith? Perhaps these games may come earlier, if a large game company with a taste for hnefatafl manages to licence them.

In these past, present and future themes there is a great variety in story if not in game-play. Some may look down upon the idea of "slapping a theme" on an old game, especially in the form of the tired marketing ploy of milking film and book licences. But as a fan of the game, I'm all for anything that bring hnefatafl to the attention of a new audience.


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