This game has many names, some of them old, like tawl-bwrdd and Cyning Tæfl, and some more obviously modern and commercial, like Viking Chess, and the literal meaning of "hnefatafl": King's Table. Do a search for "Hnefatafl" in Google and you'll find a few sites describing the history of the game. Suffice here to say that it predates chess, and versions of it have been found all round Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles. Though it is best known as a Viking game, it was far from confined to the Viking areas of the world. It was known to be played in Wales as late as 1587, and in Lapland in 1723, though it was at its height of popularity around 400 A.D.
My home-made hnefatafl board, with glass pieces.
One advantage of its being a traditional game is that no one owns the idea, or the rules, so I am free here to say what I like about them, and to describe the full game. One drawback is that there are many many different versions of the game, and no utterly complete set of rules survives from its heyday, and so it can be difficult to settle on a set of rules that one likes.
There are many known different boards from the past, and different numbers of pieces. To make your own set, you need to create a grid of squares for a board, and have two sets of pieces, one for the attackers and one for the defenders, plus one special piece to represent the king. I used flower-arranging glass blobs for the pieces, and drew a board with a pen, coloured it in with pencils, and stuck it with sprayed glue to the back of a board that came with a commercial board game, then covered it with book-covering film. I have drawn on five "king's squares": one in the centre, sometimes known as the "throne", and four in the corners. Other squares are drawn on showing the starting positions of the pieces. I have made mine 11 x 11, which is a common size, though other boards are much bigger, and some are 7 x 7 or 9 x 9. The board is always square and always has an odd number of spaces to a side, so that the king can start in the centre.
Most two-player games are symmetrical, in that both players have the same resources and the same objective. Hnefatafl is different. One player starts in the centre of the board and tries to get his king to escape, and the other starts around the edges with about twice as many pieces, and has to capture the enemy's king. All pieces move like rooks in chess - orthogonally along rows and columns, but not diagonally, any number of empty squares - and are blocked by other pieces. So far, I have told you the rules common to all versions. After this, things get a bit variable.
Since the game is not symmetrical, there is a difficult issue of game balance. With one set of rules, it may seem that the attacker captures the king almost every time, and with another set, the defender whips his king to freedom with ease. However, it often turns out that the tactics used by a player when testing a set of rules were poor, and that with the same set of rules, a good player can reverse the bias and win every time when before it seemed that he should lose.
However, for the serious gamer, who loves experimenting with rules and strategies, this can make the game a satisfying intellectual exercise. The ideal would be to find a game that is balanced such that the attacker wins about half the time. Hnefatafl offers players the opportunity to balance the game according to the relative skills of the players. An expert playing against a novice can balance the game by adopting a few rules that favour his opponent.
Instead of trying to describe a hundred variants of the overall game, which would take a hundred thousand words, I will describe the variations on each single rule. You will have to put them together in your own way to make a complete game that is reasonably balanced. Each variant will favour one player or the other, and some will favour one player massively when they are used in combination with some other rule. I shall call the ordinary pieces that make up all of the attackers and all but one of the defenders "soldiers". The last piece is the king. The squares where pieces start are "camps", except the central one, which is the "throne".
- A. Objective for the king: 1. The king has to move to any square on the edge of the board to escape. 2. The king has to escape to one of the four corner squares to escape. 3. The king has to escape to any edge square that is not an enemy camp.
- B. Capturing pieces: 1. A soldier is captured (killed - removed from the board) when he is sandwiched between two pieces of the opposing side. 2. A soldier is captured when he becomes sandwiched between opposing pieces, thanks to the movement of one of those opposing pieces. He is not captured if he moves of his own volition to a space between enemy pieces. 3. A soldier can also be killed when he is sandwiched between an enemy piece and one of the "king's squares" (these are usually the central square where the king starts, and the corner squares in games where the king has to escape to the corners). 4. The throne and the corner squares can be treated differently for capture purposes, with only (a) the throne or (b) the corners having the killing effect. 5. The king's squares can be part of a capture only against (a) attacking, or (b) defending pieces. 6. The throne can be part of a capture against defenders only when it (a) is, or (b) is not occupied. 7. The throne is hostile to defenders when the throne is occupied, but never to attackers. 8. When the king is surrounded on three sides by enemy soldiers, and on the fourth by a defending soldier, his defending soldier can be killed when an attacking soldier moves to sandwich the defender against his king.
- C. Capturing the King: 1. The king is captured just like a soldier. 2. The king has to be surrounded on all four sides by enemy pieces to be captured. 3. The king can be captured by three enemy pieces on three sides, and a king's square on the fourth. 4. The king can be captured by a combination of board edges, king's squares, and enemy soldiers, and so will lose if he is next to a corner piece, with his other three exits blocked by two enemy soldiers and the board edge. 5. The king can be captured by three attackers on three sides, and the edge of the board on the fourth. 6. The king can be captured by being blocked in, unable to move, in any position other than on his throne. 7. The king can be captured by being blocked in, unable to move, as long as at least (a) one, (b) two, (c) three, or (d) most of the pieces next to him are enemy pieces. 8. The king can be captured like a soldier when he is not on his throne, otherwise it takes four attackers to surround his throne to kill him. 9. In games where the king escapes at any edge square, and where he can be killed like a soldier, the king still wins even if he becomes sandwiched if he is in a position to move to the edge with his next move.
- D. The king's movement: 1. The king can move like a soldier. 2. The king can only move up to a maximum of a certain number of squares, perhaps three or four.
- E. Base camps: 1. Base camps show the players where to set up, and nothing more. 2. The attacking soldiers may move within their four base camps as normal, but once having left a camp an attacker cannot return to it, nor can a defender enter a camp.
- F. Fighting with the king: 1. The king can take part in captures like a soldier. 2. The king cannot play any part in captures. Attacking soldiers sandwiched between the king and a defending soldier do not die. 3. The king can act as the anvil of a capture, but not the hammer. The king cannot kill soldiers by moving to sandwich them, but can kill when a soldier defender moves to sandwich the opposing soldier up against the king. 4. The king can act as the hammer of a capture, but not the anvil.
- G. The throne: 1. The throne is an ordinary square. 2. Only the king may ever move to occupy the throne. 3. Only the king may move through the throne. 4. No piece may move onto or through the throne once the king has left it. 5. Pieces may move onto, but not through the throne in one move.
- H. First go: 1. The attacker moves first. 2. The defender moves first.
- I. End warning: 1. No warnings need be given of impending victory. 2. The attacker must warn the defender if his king can be captured next move if the king stays still. Failure to warn means that the capture cannot be made, and the attacker must make some other move. 3. The defender must warn his attacker that the king is in a position to move to a winning square. 4. Both players must warn each other that victory is potentially imminent.
- J. Stalemates: Stalemates are a problem in Hnefatafl, and I have read many suggestions for avoiding them, many of which are far too complicated. I rule that players must make a move, and can never opt to stay still with all their pieces. I also rule that if both players find them selves making the same moves back and forth over and over again, then the defender must make a new move. If a player cannot make a move, then the game is a stalemate. This would only ever happen when one player was doing very well, and so is a rule to force a player with a big numerical advantage to leave his opponent some room to move or else lose the opportunity to get a victory.
- K. Board configuration:: The smallest boards I have seen are 7 x 7, and these work nicely. Personally, I don't like the look of the boards bigger than 13 x 13 as they appear to make the game longer than it needs to be. The size of the board can affect which rules you might want to use. If the throne cannot be traversed by any but the king, this makes a bigger difference with a smaller board. The attacker almost always has twice the number of soldiers, and never far from this amount. On a 7 x 7 board, the defender might have a king with four soldiers, forming a plus (+) sign in the middle of the board, and the attacker might start with eight pieces arranged in four pairs, each adding the size of the plus-sign formation. The formation you see in the picture of my board is one of the commonest. Sometimes the attacking pieces are in four rectangular camps each 3 x 2. Almost any symmetrical arrangement can work, with the defending side in a circle or plus-sign formation, and the attackers in four camps, usually in a rectangular or T-formation. One fairly common version has a 9 x 9 board, with eight defenders and king in a plus-sign formation, and sixteen attackers in T-formations, making all the pieces form a sort of Maltese cross.
Rules I like to use are: A1 or A2; B2 and B3; C7(a) I use a lot, although I find C1 does work; D1 is my usual, but D2 is good for game balance; E1 is my usual; F1 or F2 are good for balancing a game; G 2 and 3; H 1 or 2 - makes little difference usually; I1. You might think that certain rules, such as having a king killed like a soldier, would skew the game far too much towards one player, but there is usually a tactic that makes each game variant winnable for both sides.
The game often starts with a frantic rush to block the exits by the attacker, but as the attacker does this, the defender can develop his position unmolested. The defender can usually get a soldier or two near to the exits, where they can keep the exit open. If the attacker can surround the defender's pieces entirely, then with careful play he can slowly tighten the net and win, although there often comes tricky part when the row of advancing attackers has to negotiate the throne, which often has special rules affecting it. If the attacker does block the exits, the game is not over, because he hasn't yet captured the king, and it takes a lot of his men to block the exits.
A game for experimentalist gamers.
You may now be dying to have a go at this game. Why not try it online at one of these three websites?
Aage Nielsen's site irt.org/game (go to the games page once you're there and select web games) Caltech site
The last of these, I've just noticed, repeats most of what I have just written. Heigh ho.
For lots on the history of the game, try
Games Cabinet or Sten Helmfrid's page or treheima.