Hnefatafl - Viking Chess
Hnefatafl (hnefa tafl) literally translates into English as ‘king’s table’ and is a chess-like game played by Vikings from around 400 AD. However, despite some similarities, this game is held to be unrelated to the ancestors of modern chess.
This page details the basic rules of the game - though many variations of it do exist with even the size for the board varying. A printable version of the board is also available as well as a link to an online version of the game.
The Game Board:
The Hnefatafl boards shown above demonstrate some of the possible board sizes and arrangements. Boards ranging in size from 7x7 to 19x19 squares have been found. 11x11 and 13x13 square boards seem to have been reasonably common. It should be noted that if this game is played on a small 7x7 board the style of play will be quite different to that for larger boards and some of the normal rules will need to be changed.
Normally the four corner squares and the King’s central ‘throne’ square would be decorated to show their special significance in the game but the other squares would be unadorned.
Boards would typically be made from wood or could even be scratched onto any flat surface such as a rock or tabletop. Some boards have been found with Nine Men’s Morris boards carved on their reverse sides. A printable version of an 11x11 Hnefatafl board is available here.
The pieces for Hnefatafl would normally be placed within the squares, though some variants placed them on the intersections of the lines on the board. Pieces may have been made from a range of materials including ivory or glass for fine boards, or wood, stones, or the knuckle bones of sheep (which gives the game another translation of its name - ‘fist chess’) also being common. The piece for the king would normally be larger than the others and the king and his defending warriors would traditionally be black in colour.
Set-up and Rules:
For Hnefatafl, the rules of play vary. This is primarily because our modern understanding of this game has been pieced together from the remains of surviving boards and fragments from various historic accounts. No complete records of the rules of any variant of this game are known to exist. Variations can also be explained by the fact that it seems that the rules for this game did vary depending on where it was played and by whom.
The basic set-up of a Hnefatafl board has one player, the defender, controlling the king. He is placed on the centre ‘throne’ square of the board and is surrounded by his warriors. The other player’s pieces, the ‘attackers’, line the four edges of the board. These outnumber those of the king, normally by around 2 to 1, giving the attacking player the advantage.
Players take alternate turns and there does not seem to be a rule deciding who has first move.
Pieces move in straight lines, typically for an unlimited number of squares, much as rooks do in modern chess. The king usually can only move one square at a time. There is no diagonal play in the game or jumping. Pieces may not share squares.
Commonly only the king may rest on the centre square, though other pieces may move through it when it is unoccupied. The king is the only piece who may be placed on the four corner squares – at which point the defending player wins the game. Alternately, some boards do not have the corner squares marked and the king may win the game simply by making it to any edge of the board. In this situation the king’s player has the advantage over the attacker.
A warrior piece is taken when two enemy pieces move to opposite sides of it and is removed from the board. However, a warrior may ‘sneak’ into a square between two opposing pieces. That warrior may continue to ‘rest’ between the two others unless one of them moves away and back again (taking two turns) at which point it is removed from play as normal. It is possible to take more than one piece with a single move. Some variations prevent the king from participating in capturing enemy pieces.
Normally the throne and corner squares count as an opposing piece to any warrior piece standing adjacent to them so beware. The king is not affected by this rule. If this game is played on a small 7x7 board this rule will need to be suspended to prevent the defending player from loosing pieces in the first turn.
The king is defeated if he is surrounded on all four sides by opposing pieces. If the king is surrounded on three sides but the edge of the board is on the other he may not be taken. However, if the king is surrounded on three sides and the ‘throne’ square is on the fourth than he is taken.
Single games could be played, or a series of games. A tally of the total number of pieces captures may be kept to decide the winner in the advent of a tied series.
Below is a link to an excellent site where an online version of Hnefatafl may be played, along with a selection of other similar board games including Alea Evangelii, Tablut, Tawl-Bwrdd, Fitchneal and Ard-Ri.
The games can be played 'single seat' with one person playing another on a single computer or, for some including Hnefatafl, against a computer attacker or defender (though their skill varies). You may need the Java plug-in for your browser for these applets to work.
If you would like to learn more about this game and its variations these links might be of interest. In most cases they provide a great deal more detail about Hnefatafl, its history, and the variations of this game than we could here:
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