Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Historic Board Markings, Part 1

Diagram of one of the gaming boards from Bergen
Diagram of one of the gaming boards from Bergen

Sunday, 3rd November 2013

When looking for inspiration on how to mark a new hnefatafl board, I've often looked at historic artefacts. I thought it might be interesting to look at some of these in detail, to see if there are any standards or themes that emerge, and to see if any significance can be placed on them as regards game-play.

In the last few weeks I found pictures of two boards: one at Dun Chonallaich in Scotland, and the other at Bergen in Norway. Taken with two other board fragments from Jarlshof in Shetland, and Trondheim in Norway, I noticed a pattern that hadn't been apparent before.

Three of the four boards have the pieces sitting in the squares; only the Dun Chonallaich board uses the intersections. The boards have a range of sizes, from 7x7 at Dun Chonallaich to 13x13 at Bergen. What all four appear to have is an indication of a cross-shaped layout for the pieces.

Dun Chonallaich has the central intersection and the four adjacent intersections marked with pits, suggesting a central king and four defenders. Attacking positions are left unmarked. Jarlshof has the (presumably) central square cross-cut, and similar markings on the squares two steps away in each of the four cardinal directions. These would be the outermost defenders in a tablut-like layouts. The Bergen board has similar markings, with the third square in each direction marked, suggesting twelve defenders in the form of a cross.

The Trondheim board is slightly different; the third and fourth squares in each direction are marked. These again suggest a cross-shaped layout, but the two markings on each arm would indicate the outermost defender and the innermost attacker - assuming that there were twelve defenders. A diamond-shaped layout of twelve defenders would not sit comfortably on these markings.

It could of course be that the markings are purely decorative and that I'm reading too much into them by saying they indicate layout. But anyone who has tried to set out alternative layouts on, for example, The Viking Game's comprehensively marked board, will have noticed that the visual effect is jarring when such markings are completely ignored.

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