Hnefatafl – A viking board game

Hnefatafl, which means “fist table” or possibly “king’s table”, is played on a square board similar to that of Go. Invented in the 4th century it seems to have gone out of fashion by the 12th century. Probably displaced by Chess.

Unusually for a game of this type the gameplay is highly asymmetrical both in terms of game assets available to the players and in terms of the win conditions.

Gameplay

At game deployment one player, the defender, sets up in the centre of the board with a king piece centremost surrounded by around twelve minions.

The opposing player as the attacker has a force of twice as many minions but with no king. He deploys his forces divided equally on each of the four board edges.

To win the defender must safely escort his king piece off the board at any one the board’s corner squares. And in contrast the attacker must capture the defender’s king.

The scenario is very likely a simulation of an assassination versus a bodyguard action. Alternatively it could simulate an insurrection.

Players take turns, moving one piece at a time. The pieces are constrained to only horizontal or vertical rather than diagonal moves. A move may be of any number of increments. Akin to how a castle or rook moves in chess.

Also like chess it is a game of attrition where players capture and remove pieces rather than add or return them, which results in an ever diminishing number of active pieces as the game progresses.

Players capture enemy pieces by surrounding them on two opposite sides by adjacent pieces. Clearly a simulation of a pincer movement.

Beyond that the exact rules of play are lost as the surviving sagas which mention the game do not detail in depth the exact game play. It is very likely that the rules varied considerably from one place to another.

From the 19th century to the present day new reconstructed rulesets have been developed to fill in the gaps enabling the game to be played again.

The game also makes a brief appearance in the The Vikings TV series.

Further resources for Hnefatafl

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