Comments on Hnefatafl.

Comments on Hnefatafl by 23.3.2007.

About testing of rules.

There is in Lejre in Denmark a "Centre for Historical-Archaeological Research and Communication". Here archaeologists do live experiments like fx. building iron age houses as authentically as possible, families live iron age lives in the houses, and some day a house is burned down and left in ruins for many years, to be excavated after even many more years and compared to real iron age house excavations. The same thing is done at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, building as authentic as possible Viking ships and crossing the North Sea with a hundred men.

I think we are doing a bit of the same here with the historical Hnefatafl game. A group of experienced players try out in live games various variations and combinations of game rules known from historical sources, sometimes clearly, sometimes not completely clearly described. If a rule set turns out to work really well in such skilled games, we are on the right track. Whereas rule sets which do not work really well, are probably not valid.

Imagine when a Viking had some spare time in the evening, he was not to turn on the TV like modern man does - he would go visit some neighbours, keep up the good relations so that they'd not kill him but give their friendly support in serious situations, he'd have a good talk, tell and enjoy listening to good stories, and they'd have a good game or two of Hnefatafl or other board games for pastime.

These people, using this board game for a thousand years, would not come out with a rules set that does not work!

Test games and the internet.
On this site ( we have till now tried 104 combinations of rules and setups, with emphasis on variants described in historical sources, described in important books and scientific papers, used in commercial releases or used in reenactment milieus. (Hat tip Damian Walker, Sten Helmfrid and others).

Through test games via the internet, the game balances of many variants have been measured . Till now about 900 players around the world, many players very strong, did about 14,000 games of various tafl variants. The most accurate of the balance measurements is now based on 4000 games.

I believe that a testing and study to the extent we're doing here, has been possible only thanks to the internet.

For comparison, a Canadian study from 2001 of variants was based on 48 games done by a few fellow students. And the archaeologist behind the Skalk variant writes that he tested his ideas in games against a few colleagues.

About variants.

Imagine living in the Iron or Viking Age - a long winter with short days, a thin population with not that many neighbours within walking or horseback distance, and fewer yet as skilled in Hnefatafl as yourself.

Wouldn't it be natural if passionate players shifted among several small variations in the game rules? Even if one set of rules were known to be the best balanced game between two skilled players (as players on this site have found with fx. the "Fetlar rules"), still you would not necessarily enjoy to have the same game with your good neighbour Finboge all winter year after year.

For variation you would sometimes change the board size, the initial ordering and the winning conditions.

Thus small variations in the game rules could be a natural component of the game.

To get more variety in the game you can switch between the various board sizes and setups, and between the variants of the rules.

Skalk Hnefatafl 11x11.

Apr 27 2013 "Rynoknight" wrote:
Hello. I am a Scandinavian historian and a have extensive knowledge of the sociology of games. About 4 years ago my colleagues and I did some research and "roll-out analysis's" (you backgammon players know what I mean) on this variation.
But the jest of it was this...

1) Due to the beliefs of the Norse people, throughout the time this game was played and found in their literature, the king would have been killed with being attacked on 2 sides not 4.

It was the belief, at the time, that the king (or tribal leader) was just the best man for the job and not a deity of some sort (like most kings are supposed to receive divine guidance or something). And the religious structure at the time would have defended this as well. Kings were mere mortals, but had the possibility of something greater AFTER death (to paraphrase).
I hope this information is helpful for everyone. But you can see the philosophy of the game here. It is about who is better overall and who is more decisive in "battle". This were virtues of the Norse people of that time, and it makes sense for the game.

May 2 2013 Adam Bartley wrote:
In response to your suggestion about having two side king capture in accordance with Norse belief systems, I'd like to put forward an idea I came upon while working with archeologists and viking historians in Vestfold Norway.

As you say, "Kings were mere mortals, but had the possibility of something greater AFTER death", this is perhaps the viking concept of 'ettermæle', ones 'legacy' in the form of stories told about your actions down through the ages. In short, how one is remembered. And death in battle was it seems something of a goal in life.

According to the viking experts I work with, a viking king or chieftain would rather die than turn tail and flee from a battle field. They say the idea of running away, of ditching your fellow warriors and beating a hasty retreat, was simply not an option for a viking. Vikings expected songs to be sung about their deeds through the ages, and I doubt they would have enjoyed the Monty Python song 'brave sir robin' being dedicated to them: 'when danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled'. So it occurrs to me; that chap in the middle of the hnefatafl board, he is not a viking king. He is some other king or figurehead being attacked by vikings. Or if he does represent a viking king, he represents a coward, a turncoat, not worthy of the viking name.

His singular goal in the game, by any understanding of hnefatafl, is to bravely run away. Now, this conclusion is taken directly from an understanding of viking culture. And if one can agree to it being logically consistent, then one can quite reasonably arm that king to the teeth without being in conflict with our understanding of viking culture. And after all, if its equality you want, then the attackers, with no designated king, are your equal vikings, not the defender with a designated king.

About general rules.

Through experience from thousands of tafl games some general rules for all tafl variants have emerged.

Always quadratic, the width an uneven number of squares. Used are 7x7, 9x9, 11x11, 13x13, 15x15 and perhaps 19x19.

Always one king, and number of attackers = 2 * number of defenders.
The usual number of tafl game pieces is the Walker number p = 6w - 29, where p is the number of pieces and w is the width of the board in squares (hat tip: Damian Walker).

Initial ordering.
The king is on the centre square, surrounded by his defenders.
The attackers occupy the central edge squares.
The ordering is rotationally symmetrical.

Three types of king:
Armed king, captured from 4 sides (strong king).
Armed king, captured from 2 sides (weak king).
Unarmed king, captured from 4 sides (sea battle cargo ship).

Forbidden squares.
A sea battle board has no forbidden squares.
Only the king can stop on a forbidden square, but all pieces can pass through it.
If the king wins in corner, then the board has four forbidden corner squares. If the king wins on edge, there are no forbidden corner squares.
A forbidden square is hostile against all pieces, but if it's occupied by the king, it's hostile only against attackers.
If the board has a throne (forbidden centre square), then the king must always be captured by 4 attackers when he is on the throne. And by 3 attackers + throne when he is on one of the four neighbouring squares to the throne.

All pieces except the king are captured from 2 sides by custodian capture.
Forbidden squares are hostile and take part in custodian captures.
A weak king is captured from 2 sides like all other pieces, except if he is on or next to a throne.
A strong king is captured from 4 sides everywhere on the board. An unarmed king (sea battle) likewise.

Attackers win.
Attackers win by capturing the king.
The attackers can also win by encircling all defenders.

Defenders win.
Defenders win when the king escapes. In some variants he escapes to a corner, in other variants he escapes to the edge.

Repetition forbidden.
Perpetual repetitions are forbidden. If the overall board position is repeated three times, the player who maintains the situation ("the threatening player") must find another move to break the repetitions, or else he loses the game.
The player who does the side stepping with a piece in order to find an open path to break through, is the threatening player who must find another move. The other player brings his piece in line with the threatening piece in order to block the open path and is the blocking player.

Compulsory move.
If a player can't move, he loses the game.

These general rules actually cover it all for all game variants used here (except for a few specials: Copenhagen, Fetlar, Berserk and Magpie).
Left is only one varying parameter: the precise initial ordering of each game variant. Thus the initial ordering is the parameter, which tunes the balance of the game.

The origin of the Viking board game Hnefatafl and the Berserk rules.

Summaries on

Updated 24.3.2017
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