Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Hnefatafl Goes Large

Both sides of the gaming board from Gokstad
Both sides of the gaming board from Gokstad

Thursday, 24th October 2013

The most popular forms of hnefatafl today are played on a board of eleven rows of eleven squares. But this may not have been the most popular form of hnefatafl back in the Viking Age. Piece finds suggest a smaller game of 25 pieces, probably on the 9x9 board as in tablut. But intact boards suggest that larger games on thirteen rows of thirteen squares also had great popularity.

I can think of four historic boards of this size: the fragment from Gokstad farm in Norway, with a grid 13 squares wide on one side; the famous serving platter from Toftanes in the Faroe Islands, with half of a 13x13 game board on it, and two boards from Bergen in Norway, each being 13x13 squares in size. That's more extant boards than any other size besides 7x7.

Many individuals have reconstructed boards of this size, as shown by a large number of projects posted on the world wide web (the main image for Wikipedia's hnefatafl article is a 13x13 game). But in commercial manufacture the 13x13 board seems to lag behind most of the others. I'd like to look further into the game's viability.

Two main schools of thought exist as to how a game should be played on a board of 13x13 squares. One is that the increase in board size should come with an increase in the number of pieces, 49 being a fit number. The other school of thought has the same 37 pieces being adopted from the 11x11 board. Both ideas have their pros and cons.

A 37-piece game may be more historically correct. There are few finds that suggest a game of 37 pieces, but even fewer for a 49-piece game. Only the 47-piece find at Nes supports the greater number, and it has been suggested that these are more than one set. The disadvantage reveals itself in game-play, though. Increasing the board size without increasing the number of pieces gives the king an advantage; there is more space for the attackers to have to cover with the same number of pieces. Rules will have to be adjusted to make the game a fair one.

So a 49-piece game is easier to construct, as only minor tweaking to the rules of smaller games should be necessary, if any is necessary at all. The historical objection can be countered by noting that the greater number of pieces reduces the probability of finding a set intact; some smaller partial sets could conceivably come from a 49-piece game.

Personally I favour the 49-piece game for this size of board. The question is left, though, as to how the pieces should be laid out. At these large sizes the serif-cross layout becomes more cumbersome; the attackers have constructed an almost complete blockade forcing attention to go to the corners, even though the king's objective might be the edge. There are several imaginative alternatives, though, which should provide inspiration for any reconstruction. These are shown in the gallery below.

Related Product: Hnefatafl from RomBol

close-up-of-the-rombol-hnefatafl-set-in-play

This super hnefatafl game from Germany is an impressive sight.  Built in the style of modern board games, this hnefatafl set features some decorative artwork. The board, printed double-sided on thick card, unfolds to 22 inches square (560mm).  Both sides have a printed wood-effect pattern taken from a real historic board.  It has thirteen rows of thirteen squares, a size popular with the Vikings. The circular pieces, also printed on thick card, feature fearsome Viking faces.  A ... (read more...)

Price: £11.95+P&P In stock. Order:
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