Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hnefatafl, an ancient Viking board game, revived.

Hnefatafl Wessex

Ancient Viking board game revived

BBC Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Saturday, 16 August 2008 11:08 UK
The competition is being held in the tiny island of Fetlar

Enthusiasts in the Shetland Islands are staging the first world championship of an ancient Viking board game.

Hnefatafl was popular in northern Europe for hundreds of years until it was eclipsed by the rise of chess.

The game simulates a Viking raid, with the king and his defenders trying to escape a larger force.

The contest between a dozen players, on the island of Fetlar, will be played on wooden boards with 121 squares and the king starting in the middle.
Hnefatafl 11x11 board

Hnefatafl is a game with a pedigree stretching back 1,000 years.

It was taken to Shetland by the Vikings and there were references to Welsh and Irish versions in the Norse adventure stories known as sagas.

The game was popular because - like chess - it was a warlike contest.

There will be no medals in the competition on Fetlar but the winner will receive a board, a set and the title Hnefatafl Grand Master.

The games will be followed from as far afield as Texas and New York, where new players have been learning online.


BBC Created: 22nd November 2002

Viking Chess or Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl is a simple yet very addictive Norse board game that was very popular in northern Europe until the advent of chess. The game is sometimes called 'King's Table' or 'High Table' although a literal translation from Icelandic gives 'Fist Chess'. Interestingly, the word 'fist' refers to how this game used to be played, with the knuckle bones of sheep

Hnefatafl, or 'Viking Chess' as it is sometimes known nowadays, and its many variants were usually played on wooden boards, some of which have survived to this day in varying states of repair1. However, any flat surface would do and simple playing areas could no doubt be scratched out on table tops or flat rocks with a knife. The game board consists of a square area divided into rows and columns - variants from 7x7 to 19x19 have been excavated. The central square and the four corner squares, which are special places in the game, are usually decorated, while the remainder of the squares are unadorned.

The game is for two players. One takes charge of a large force of pieces - or soldiers - known as the 'attackers', who start at the edges of the board. The other player controls a much smaller force of bodyguards called the 'defenders', who start in the centre of the board and are led by a special large piece representing their king.
Punched Marks Bullion Weight. Copper alloy - Circa 9th - 11th Century A.D. A weight or more probably a gaming piece used in the game of Hnefatafl - punched with ten marks

The object of the game is for the king
Viking Hnefatafl King

to try to escape from his central 'throne', which is the middle square, to any of the four corner squares. If he succeeds, the game is over and he wins. If the player in charge of the attackers manages to surround the king and make him unable to move, he is declared the winner instead.
The unevenness of sides is quite an unusual feature to find in a board game, as is the fact that the two players have different objectives. Both features add greatly to its charm.

A Set of Rules That Work Quite Well
The rules have been worked out and guessed at from historical sources and there is no real consensus on a definitive set. There were probably very many local variations and 'house rules'.
Players take alternate turns and it doesn't seem to matter much who goes first. All pieces use the Rook's move from chess - ie, they can move horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally, any number of spaces. No jumping of other pieces or sharing of spaces on the board is allowed. The king is the only piece who is allowed to rest on the central throne square, although other players can pass through it when it is unoccupied. The king is the only piece allowed onto the four corner squares, at which point the game ends.
The technique for taking pieces is unlike that found in any other contemporary board game. In all 'tafl' games, a piece is captured and removed from the board if the opponent manages to get two of his soldiers on opposite sides of it, from side to side or from top to bottom. Note, however, that a soldier is safe if he deliberately sneaks into an existing gap between two of his opponents. The king is much harder to overpower and must be surrounded on all four sides. The throne square and the four corner squares count as an opposing piece during an attack so it is not wise to stand right beside them.

The player in charge of the defenders will find that his own soldiers tend to get in the way early on in the game and hinder the king's movements. He may wish to sacrifice a few soldiers to give the king a bit of mobility.

The attacker may wish to build a wall of soldiers across each of the four corners to block the exit routes for the king. Quick action is needed to achieve this.
After a game, the two players would probably swap sides, perhaps keeping a tally of how many pieces of their opponents they had managed to capture during the battle, to settle any tied series of games.

History and Variants
Perhaps derived from an earlier Roman game known as Ludus Latrunculorum, which used a similar method for capturing pieces, Hnefatafl was played as early as 400 AD in Scandinavian countries and was taken to the lands in which the Scandinavians settled in later periods. It is mentioned many times in the Sagas and poems of old Norse literature.

The Scots knew it as 'Ard-Ri' and the Irish preferred the names 'Brandubh' and 'Fitchneall'. Both peoples tended to use 7x7 boards. The Welsh called it 'Tawlbyund' and generally preferred 11x11 playing areas, while the Anglo Saxons were keen on a 19x19 board and called the game 'Alea Evangelii'. The Norse Hnefetafl was played on 11x11 or 13x13 boards.

The Finns used a 9x9 board and called their game 'Tablut'. Carl von Linne, the Swedish botanist, documented the Saami people of Lapland as playing a version of Tablut as late as 1732. These people called the defenders 'Swedes' and the attackers 'Muscovites'. Perhaps this recalls episodes when Norsemen, who had set up fortifications along the Baltic coast and inland areas, were besieged by forces from Russian principalities who were keen to get rid of the newcomers.
Gaming pieces made of glass, antler, walrus bone, ivory, amber, horse teeth and clay have been found at archaeological sites from Ireland to Ukraine, although wood must certainly have also been used.

Sometime around the 11th century, when the more complex game of chess began to be be played in these regions, Hnefatafl declined in popularity.

Here is an 11x11 arrangement found in a popular modern version of the game.
Hnefatafl Found in the Norwegian town of Trondheim, this 'Hnefatafl' board with 11 x 11 squares is displayed at the Medieval Museum at the University of Trondheim (NTNU).

Online Version
An online version of Tablut is available for Netscape only, although it uses slightly different rules to those given above.

1 On the reverse of some Hnefatafl boards there are Nine Men's Morris boards.

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