Hnefatafl - the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings - An overview of rules and variations of the game by Sten Helmfrid.pdf

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Hnefatafl—the Strategic Board Game of the Vikings
An overview of rules and variations of the game by Sten Helmfrid
On Itha Plain met the mighty gods;
Shrines and temples they timbered high,
They founded forges to fashion gold,
Tongs they did shape and tools they made;
Played tafl in the court, and cheerful they were.
– Völuspá
the book Chess in Iceland in 1905, but he finally
abandoned the problem as insoluble 1 . The only
conclusion he could make was that it was played
between two groups of "maids" with a "hnefi" on
one side. Hnefi is an Icelandic word and literally
means fist, but since the hnefi had a role corre-
sponding to the king in chess it is often translated
as king. The word hnefatafl itself is a compilation
of hnefa, genitive of hnefi, and tafl, which is the
Old Norse word for board (originally borrowed
from the Latin word tabula with the same mean-
The game remained a mystery until the British
chess historian Harold J. R. Murray connected the
description of a Saami 2 game, tablut, in the diary of
Swedish botanist Carl von Linné from his trip to
A century ago, many experts on ancient Scandina-
via were fascinated by a mysterious board game,
called hnefatafl or tafl, which was often mentioned
in the Sagas. Its reputation as intellectual pursuit
was equal to that of chess today, and Norse no-
blemen were often boasting about their skills in
tafl-play. In the early Middle Ages, when chess was
introduced in Scandinavia, the noble game of the
Vikings gradually became extinct and no explana-
tion of the rules survived for the scientists in the
19th century. One of the first persons who became
devoted to solving the puzzle of hnefatafl was
Willard Fiske, an American expert on languages.
He collected a lot of material that was published in
Lapland in 1732 with the descriptions of hnefatafl
in the Sagas. Murray’s hypothesis, that the Saami
game of tablut was identical with hnefatafl, was
put forward in his book History of Chess in 1913 3 .
Thirty-nine years later Murray published another
book called History of Board Games other than
Chess 4 . By that time, much more material that
supported his theory had been discovered, notably
a Welsh manuscript from 1587 by Robert ap Ifan
describing a game called tawl-bwrdd.
From the material that Murray presented in his
second book, we learn that tafl was known not
only in Scandinavia, but also in other regions that
were under influence by the Vikings: Ireland,
Wales, England and Lapland. Although rules and
size of the gaming board changed a little bit with
time, the basic idea remained intact for more than
a millennium. The game is played on a chequered
board, the number of squares in vertical direction
being odd and equal to the number of squares in
horizontal direction, so that there is a distinct
central square. It simulates a battle between two
unequal forces, a weaker force in the centre of the
board, surrounded and outnumbered by an attack-
ing force.
The surrounded side consists of a king ( hnefi )
and a number of mutually identical pieces called
defenders. All pieces on the attacker’s side are
identical, and they outnumber the defenders by
2:1. The king, who is larger than the other pieces
on the board, is initially placed on the central
square, the defenders are standing on the squares
next to him, and the attackers are placed on
squares in the outer parts of the board. The objec-
tive for the surrounded side is to break out and
escape with the king, whereas the attackers win if
they manage to capture the king. All pieces move
any number of vacant squares in vertical or hori-
zontal direction, like a rook in chess. A piece is
captured and removed from the board if it is
sandwiched between two enemy pieces, one on
each side in vertical or horizontal direction.
The basic rules presented here are fairly simple,
but the details are bound by nature to be more
complicated. Hnefatafl is a so-called asymmetrical
game, i.e. both sides have a different objective and
different forces at their disposal. According to
game theory, such games are always unbalanced
unless the correct outcome of the game is a draw 5 .
When two skilled opponents meet, one side will at
the end turn out to be easier to play and always
win the game.
The degree of imbalance can be adjusted by
changing the rules, for instance the inital arrange-
ment of pieces and the escape route for the king.
The most simple escape rule is for the king to
reach any square on the periphery of the board. It
turns out that for any reasonable initial arrange-
ment of the pieces, this gives a huge advantage for
the king’s side. Unfortunately, due to misinterpre-
tations of the original texts, it is a widespread mis-
conception that most tafl games used this simple
escape rule. If the escape area is shrinked to just
the four corner squares of the board, without any
further change of the rules, the attackers will al-
ways win as they can block the corners in only
four moves by putting pieces there.
It is obvious that the rules of any tafl game
have to be worked out with great care. A good
balance can be achieved by using the entire periph-
ery as escape area, but adding some further restric-
tions for the king’s escape, or by using the corner
squares as escape area, but adding some rules that
make it more difficult to block them. Further ad-
justments can be made by changing the initial ar-
rangement of pieces, by letting or not letting the
king take part in captures, by making it more or
less difficult to capture the king, or by adding
squares on the board that are restricted, i.e. squares
that can only be passed or occupied under certain
conditions. The latter arrangement reduces the
mobility of the pieces and in general favours the
attacking side. If restricted squares are used, they
must probably be made hostile to other pieces in
the sense that they can replace one of the attacking
pieces in a capture. Otherwise it will be too easy to
protect pieces by placing them next to restricted
Tablut—the best documented tafl game
The most extensive description of a descendant of
hnefatafl is the account of tablut in Linné’s diary 6 .
The word tablut in Saami, sometimes also written
as tablot or dablot , is a verb that literally means, "to
play dablo ". The noun, dablo , is used both for the
game and for the playing pieces, but curiously
enough the verbal form seems much more com-
mon when reference is made to the game.
Tablut does not only refer to this particular
version of hnefatafl, but is a generic name for
board games. Dablot prejjesne is another example
of a Saami board game. The Swedish ethnologist
Nils Keyland recorded the game in Frostviken,
Sweden, in 1921. It is related to checkers and
alquerque, and it has quite different principles for
capturing and moving pieces than hnefatafl 7 . The
word dablo is ancient, and was probably borrowed
from the Old Norse plural form of tafl, tablo ,
already during the Iron Age.
Linné’s account begins with a description of
the gaming board and pieces, along with some
drawings of these items. The squares where the
king and the attackers initially are placed are or-
namented and the squares where the defenders are
placed are shaded in the sketch of the gaming
board. All squares are designated by either a num-
ber or a letter. The defenders, called Swedes, are
white, whereas the attackers, Muscovites, are dark.
After the introductory presentation of the game
equipment, there is a section called laws with some
notes on observations made by Linné during play.
The observations are written down in fourteen
entries, often presented as examples of possible
moves. Apparently, Linné did not understand the
aboriginal Saami language.
In his reconstruction of the game, Murray as-
sumed that the king escaped if he reached any
square on the periphery. The escape rule was actu-
ally never formulated by Linné himself, but Mur-
ray derived it implicitly from one of the examples:
if the king goes from square b to square m (with
reference to the figure in the manuscript), the war
is over and the king’s side has won the battle.
Square m is located at the periphery.
Other examples in the text suggest that the
king could not escape to any of the ornamented
squares where the attackers are standing before
play begins 8 . Unfortunately, Murray did not con-
sider these subtle details in Linné’s notes. His
assumption that the king can escape anywhere
along the edge of the board and that tablut inher-
ently is unbalanced has been recycled as an undis-
putable fact in almost all later accounts of tablut 9 .
When Riksutställningar , the Swedish Travelling
Exhibitions, made an exhibition on Games and
Gambling in 1972, they reconstructed the game in,
what I believe, a much more accurate and a much
more balanced way 10 . Let us sum up the recon-
structed rules:
cording to Linné, the castle was called konokis
in Saami, but this word most likely refers to
the king himself. There is no special name re-
ported for the base camps.) The castle and the
base camps are all restricted areas, in which
special rules apply.
4. The objective for the Swedish side is to move
the king to any square on the periphery of the
board, which is not restricted. In that case, the
Swedish king has escaped and the Swedish side
wins. The Muscovite side wins if the attackers
can capture the king before he escapes.
5. The Swedish side moves first, and the game
then proceeds by alternate moves. All pieces
move any number of vacant squares along a
row or a column, like a rook in chess. How-
ever, it is forbidden to pass or enter a re-
stricted area. The Muscovites, who initially are
placed in the restricted base camps, may move
to other squares in the same camp and may
also pass squares in the camp on their way out,
but once a Muscovite has left its base camp it
may not return, nor enter or pass another re-
stricted area. When the king has left the castle,
no piece may pass or occupy the central squ-
6. All pieces except the king are captured if they
are sandwiched between two enemy pieces
along a column or a row, either with the two
enemy pieces on the square above and below
or with the two enemy pieces on the square to
the left and to the right of the attacked piece,
respectively. A piece is only captured if the
trap is closed by a move of the opponent, and
it is, therefore, allowed to move in between
two enemy pieces. A captured piece is re-
moved from the board and is no longer active
in the play.
1. Two players may participate. One player plays
the white Swedish pieces, a king and eight dra-
bants, while the other player plays the sixteen
dark Muscovite pieces.
7. The king himself is captured if he is sur-
rounded with enemy pieces or restricted
squares in all four cardinal points, so that he
cannot move in any direction.
2. The game is played on a board with 9×9
squares (Fig. 1). Initially, the Swedish king is
placed on the central square with his eight dra-
bants on the two closest squares in each point
of the compass. The sixteen Muscovites are
placed in four T-shaped patterns along the
8. A drabant who is standing beside his king may
be captured by surrounding both pieces in a
combined trap. The Muscovite side must be
able to close a trap where the king is blocked
in the other three points of the compass, either
by Muscovites or by restricted squares, and
where a Muscovite occupies the square closest
to the drabant in the opposite direction as the
king. In that case, the drabant next to the king
3. The central square is called the castle and the
T-shaped regions where the Muscovites ini-
tially are placed are called the base camps. (Ac-
Fig. 1. Initial arrangement of the pieces in Tablut.
is captured and removed. (The king is not cap-
tured by this attack.)
gue that a riddle in Hervarar Saga indicates that the
king is weaponless and that a weaponless king
makes the game more balanced. Therefore, they
have added a rule that the king may not take part
in captures. To emphasise that the original text is
not clear on this point, the rule is described as
optional. I have omitted this rule, since I find the
riddle in Hervarar Saga too ambiguous to be useful
in this context. A few test games have also con-
vinced me that a weaponless king makes the game
unbalanced in favour of the attacking forces. Riks-
utställningar also present two of the rules concern-
ing the throne and the base camps as optional in
their reconstruction. The first one is the rule that
the Muscovites may move within the base camps
before they exit and the second one is a rule that I
also have omitted in the summary above. It says
that the castle is hostile to all pieces, not only to
the king, and it is based on an entry in Linné’s
account that is unclearly formulated and very hard
to translate.
Rule number 10 above is not in Linné’s diary,
but has been added to deal with situations where
eternal threats arise. Such threats may occur, for
instance, if the king can escape from a square
called A, and the escape can only be blocked by
moving a Muscovite from B to C. If the Swedish
king then can move to D and threaten to escape
over B, and if the escape can only be blocked by
the Muscovite at C, then we have an eternal threat
with the cycle Swede moves D to A, Muscovite B
9. When the king has one free way to the edge of
the board, the player on the Swedish side must
warn his opponent by saying raicki . When the
king has two free ways, he must say tuicku ,
which is the equivalent of checkmate 11 .
10. A threat that will lead to a sure victory may
not be repeated more than twice. After that,
the offensive side must make another move.
There are some gaps in Linné’s description that
have been filled in the reconstruction above. Linné
never says which side that makes the first move.
This can be resolved rather arbitrarily, as it doesn’t
affect the balance of the game that much. Accord-
ing to entry number nine in the original text, a
man is captured when he gets between two squares
occupied by his enemies. It is not clearly stated
whether it is allowed to move in between two en-
emy pieces without being captured. In ap Ifans
description it is allowed, and, since this is a fun-
damental feature of the game, the same rule proba-
bly applies for both versions.
"Enemy" in the capture rule above should apply
to any piece of the king’s forces when attackers are
being captured, but Linné never explicitly says that
the king himself may take part in captures. In the
game description from Riksutställningar, they ar-
to C, Swede A to D, Muscovite C to B, and so on.
I believe that experienced players will find it neces-
sary to add more sophisticated rules to deal with
eternal threats, and also to work out rules that deal
with situations where one side is blocked by the
other, and either cannot make a legal move or is
confined to a region from which it can never break
It is generally assumed that the account from
1732 is the latest description of a surviving hnefa-
tafl game. In 1884, more than 150 years after
Linné’s journey, there was a book published in
Stockholm about Saami legends, folklore and tra-
ditions. In a chapter called Shrove Tuesday, we get
the following depiction about what happens when
the men get back from skiing 12 : "Now an old and
dirty card deck is taken out, and the men sit
around the table to play svälta räv , hund och kola ,
or some other game for their entertainment; they
rarely play about money, at the very most about a
few cups of coffee or drinks. If there are not cards
enough for everyone, it may happen that a few
men sit down and play a sort of chess, where the
pieces are called Russians and Swedes, and try to
defeat each other. Here intense battles are fought,
which easily can be observed on the players, who
sometimes are so absorbed that they cannot see or
hear anything else." We cannot be sure that the
chess-like game really is hnefatafl, as the Saami
played a lot of other board games with two armies
fighting each other, for instance the above men-
tioned game from Frostviken. However, it cer-
tainly is intriguing to imagine that hnefatafl may
have survived until just a bit more than a century
It is interesting to note that the defenders were
called Swedes and the attackers called Muscovites
by the Saami. The name Moscow first appeared in
1147, and Moscow became a significant centre of
power in the beginning of the 14th century. The
Viking Age in Sweden ended around 1060, with
the death of the king Emund, the last member of
the old Uppsala family on the throne. At that
time, the Viking raids deep into Russia gradually
were replaced by attempts to control the river
entrances along the Baltic coast by building forti-
fied castles. Often, these castles were under siege
by troops from Russian principalities. Therefore,
tablut may very well be a medieval Swedish varia-
tion of hnefatafl, inspired by the new strategic
situation for the Swedes on the Baltic coast. The
fact that the Saami have retained the original
names of the playing pieces suggests that they have
made little or no changes to the game since they
learned it from the Swedes.
Tawl-bwrdd, hnefatafl in Wales
The Celtic peoples seem to have been just as
adicted to board games as the Scandinavians. The
absence of music and tables is a sign of mourning,
Fir gun tàilisg gun cheòl; Gur bochd fulang mo sgeoil
éisdeachd , said Mary Macleod in her Gaelic
Songs 13 . Gaming boards were used as symbols of
wealth and prestige, and could be magnificent and
valuable pieces of workmanship. When admitted to
his office, a chancellor in Wales received a gold
ring, a harp and a gaming board from the king,
which he was expected to preserve for the rest of
his life. A judge of court received a gaming board
with playing pieces made of bone from sea-animals
from the king and a gold ring from the queen,
which he likewise was expected never to sell or
give away.
It is not surprising to find the only other
document that gives an fairly clear description of
the rules for a tafl game in the Welsh National
Library. On page 4 in the Peniarth Manuscript 158
from 1587, Robert ap Ifan gives an account of a
game called tawl-bwrdd . The English game expert
Robert C. Bell used it for a reconstruction, pre-
sented in his book Board and Table Games from
Many Civilisations 2 (1969) 14 . Unfortunately, it
seems that Bell has misinterpreted ap Ifan on some
points. In his book, Bell argues that since tawl
means throw in Welsh, dice were probably used. In
the reconstruction, the players throw the die alter-
nately and are allowed to make a move only if they
get an odd number. Many people, including my-
self, have questioned this conclusion. The use of a
die to decide the turn seems highly artifical, and
there are no other indications in the Celtic or An-
glo-Saxon material on tafl that dice ever were used.
The similarity between the Welsh word and the
Norse word for tafl is too big to be a coincidense.
Tawl-bwrdd must either have been taken from the
Medieval Latin tabula and the Saxon bord , which
means board and table, respectively, or more di-
rectly from the Old Norse word for gaming board,
taflborð 15,16 .
The escape rules of the game are worth some
attention. In Bell’s reconstruction, the king es-
capes if he reaches any square on the periphery.
According to our previous discussion, this would
make the game strongly biased in favour of the
king. It is hard to believe that such a prestigious
game would have been as unsophisticated as that.
The original manuscript explains the escape of the
king in the following way: "If the king can go
along the ---line that side wins the game". The "---"
denotes an indecipherable part of the text. The
missing part of the text may have explained which
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