Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Reconstructing the Scottish Game

Diagram of the Dun Chonallaich board, with circles showing the pit markings.
Diagram of the Dun Chonallaich board, with circles showing the pit markings.

Tuesday, 8th October 2013

I've been thinking about the Scottish boards on and off for a few years. They inspired the very one-sided modern game of ard ri. Despite the popularity of that variant on the web and in game sales, most who look closely at the game realise that it's unplayable. But that leaves a question: what game was played on those boards found in Scotland?

The boards I refer to are those found in Buckquoy and Dun Chonallaich. All are grids of seven rows of seven points, with the central point circled or otherwise marked. The Dun Chonallaich board has the four points beside the central one marked also. In contrast to Irish boards like the ones from Downpatrick Cathedral and Ballinderry, the Scottish boards don't have the corners marked.

In 2005 I came up with a successful set of rules for Brandub, to be played on the Irish boards. The king has to reach one of the corner squares, and he can capture or be captured in the same way as other pieces - by surrounding on two opposite sides. The two sides in this variant appear to be reasonably matched, and a slight variation on these rules is played at Dragonheel's Lair.

Two pieces of evidence suggest that the pieces were laid out as in brandub, rather than as in the fictional game of ard ri. The first is one of the boards from Buckquoy. On top of the grid are some other markings, which have a passing resemblance to a badly-drawn version of the cross-shaped layout for brandub. The second is the markings on the Dun Chonallaich board, which appear to show the starting positions for the king and four defenders.

Given that the corner squares aren't marked on the Scottish boards, the Brandub rules aren't particularly suited to them. Brandub has a rule about capturing pieces against the corners, which feels remarkably odd and unnatural when the corner points have no markings to distinguish them from their neighbours. Denying access to these points for pieces other than the king also feels rather odd without any way of marking them out.

The simplest way to deal with this, other than ignoring it, is to remove any special properties from these squares. In that case, using the corners as exit points for the king becomes unsatisfactory; four pieces only are enough to permanently seal off the area and prevent the king from ever escaping. This brings up another suggestion: perhaps the king had to escape to the edge, as in some larger versions of hnefatafl. This gives us a set of rules like brandub, but with the king having a much easier exit condition.

Given that brandub is balanced, though, this is clearly not satisfactory. The king needs to be weakened in some way to rebalance the game. The king is already vulnerable, being captured on two sides like other pieces. But there are two other rules commonly used to make things more difficult for the king: i. to remove his ability to capture attackers, and ii. to restrict the length of his move.

Both of these suggestions might work. The first rule has little evidence in history, and the second has none. So as an experiment, I'd suggest that the king's power of capture be removed, giving the following set of rules to reconstruct the Scottish game, whatever it might have been called.

1. The game is played on a board of seven rows of seven squares, by two players. One has a king and four defenders, the opponent has eight attackers. These are laid out in the form of a cross, the king in the centre, his defenders around him and attackers furthest from the board centre.

2. The attackers make the first move. Pieces move as far as desired along a row or column, not jumping over nor landing on other pieces. Only the king may come to rest on the central square.

3. A piece is captured by surrounding it on two opposite sides on a row or column. The king is captured in the same way as other pieces, but may not himself take part in making captures.

4. The king's side win the game if the king reaches the edge of the board. The attackers win if they capture the king.

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Damien, do you happen to have any images of the Buckquoy boards? I was able to find Dun Chonallaich online but not the others.

Fairland - 22:34, 27/06/2015

I don't have copies on-line, but all three boards are pictured at

Damian Walker - 04:42, 28/06/2015

Wow! Thanks. So, do you think that the Scots were more likely to make boards out of stone, or are these simply boards that survived?

Fairland - 15:22, 01/07/2015

Wood wasn't abundant in Scotland as far as I know, so a lot of stuff was built out of stone that would have been wooden elsewhere. Most of the surviving hnefatafl boards were stone. There are some of bone, but I don't know any of wood. Since the board that went with the Scar pieces was missing, that may have been of wood, but the pieces look like they're of Scandinavian origin anyway.

Damian Walker - 15:57, 01/07/2015

Thanks for the insight!

fairland - 18:29, 01/07/2015

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