Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

New Support for Tablut Concensus

Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus
Diagram of the tablut board by Linnaeus

Friday, 24th January 2014

Modern conclusions about how tablut was played have received support from an experimental tournament now concluding on-line. The tournament, played by some of the world's best hnefatafl players at, shows the game to be very well balanced between the attackers and the defenders. This could bring us closer to the definition of a standard game for the 9x9 board.

Tablut was observed by the botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1732. His notes about the game, in Latin, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and a very free interpretation was published in English in 1811, which has formed the basis of most hnefatafl rules since then. However, 1811 rules were badly imbalanced, causing a number of experiments to be made to re-balance the game, resulting in the variety of hnefatafl rules played today. But the original Latin account has become more widespread in recent years, allowing scholars around the world to re-evaluate the game.

The latest interpretations of the game were independently arrived at by French scholar Nicolas Cartier, English enthusiast Damian Walker and Finnish linguist Olli Salmi. These rules feature a king who is captured by surrounding him on two sides most of the time, increasing to three sides when he is beside the castle, and four sides when he is still in the castle. While minor points vary, all three interpretations agree on rejecting innovations like the weaponless king, and hostile or inaccessible "base camps" where the attackers begin the game. However, only play-testing would verify that this is a viable solution.

The recent tournament on shows a ratio of wins 1:1 between attackers and defenders. Taken as an average with an earlier tournament, the ratio is 1.06:1 in favour of the king's side, which is still very balanced as asymmetrical games go. The difference between the two tournaments can be explained by the long-held view that increased experience between both players leads to a more even game, many of the players in the second tournament having taken part in the first one.

An excited Aage Nielsen asks: "Did we reach a tafl milestone here? From the combined work by professional linguists, amateur (and professional) historians and devoted tafl players still more have been pointing towards this rules set [...] being the very tafl game observed and described by Linné in Lapland 1732, or very close to it possibly except a couple of very small details. And our test games don't contradict such a theory; they support it."

This is good news for those who favour historical versions of hnefatafl over modern ones, as it provides a very playable set of rules that completely agree with our most detailed historical account of the game. It is also good news for those who want to see a standard set of rules for hnefatafl: until now, historical versions have been hampered by the fact that more innovative modern games have been better balanced.

Further discussion of the results of the latest tournament can be seen on Aage Nielsen's site. The rules can be found on this site on the Tablut page.

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