Hnefatafl: The Viking Game

Although Hnefatafl is a recent acquisition for me, this is a very old game indeed. The game goes back to medieval Scandinavia and became popular across Northern Europe during the Viking era.

When newer upstarts, like chess, started to become popular during the Middle Ages, Hnefatafl lost out and the rules of the game were slowly forgotten. All was not lost, though, and in the 1900s various attempts were made to reconstruct the rules based on the Sámi game, Tablut. These had been written down at some point in the 1700s and translated (quite badly) from Latin into English somewhere in the 1800s.

This brings us to the game that I now have, from Masters Traditional Games, which both looks and feels solidly retro. The resin pieces have a suitably medieval look to them and feel nicely solid to handle. Even the linen board felt appropriate and has the additional advantage of allowing for a relatively compact box.

In terms of the actual game, Hnefatafl — and the class of games to which it belongs — is not balanced by design. This is a two-player game in which the white king starts in the centre of the board surrounded by his 12 pawns. The dark pawns (who have no king) are arrayed around the edges of the board.

For white to win, his king needs to escape to one of the corner squares. Black wins by trapping the white king, which is q lot more difficult than it sounds.

Because of this, it’s generally best to play the game as two rounds so that each player plays as both attacker and defender.

This is the sort of game that is right up my street. Although the rules are very straightforward, the design of the game is such that it has a huge amount of depth and there are a wide range of strategies that can be tried and discarded. It can be a quick game, but when the attacker starts building a blockade to slowly close in on the king it becomes a truly challenging strategy game and one that will keep you (or me, at any rate) playing again and again and again.

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