On the origin of the Viking board game Hnefatafl.

The historical period 1-400 A.D. is in northern Europe named the Roman Iron Age because of the vast influence from the great Roman Empire just south of the area. Many northern European warriors served in the Roman army and there became acquainted with the widespread Roman war game Ludus Latrunculorum ("Latrunculi, soldiers"). Returning to their home lands, talented gamers modified the game into tafl, replacing the model of Roman warfare with the homely, iron age way of warfare.

Latrunculi is based on the custodian capture rule which is also the basis of the tafl game.

Robert Charles Bell's book "Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations", published 1960, republished 1969 and 1979, tells about "The Latrunculorum Group" of board games that descendants of this game are found in Somalia and in northern Europe, both areas previously bordering to the Roman Empire.

In Somalia still exist the games Seega and High Jump, both based on custodian capture. The rules of both games having very much in common with Latrunculi and tafl, one notices specifically two interesting rule details: In both games the player may continue to move the same stone as long as he makes captures with it; and High Jump has an alternative way of capturing by jumping over an enemy piece.

R.C. Bell notes that Seega and High Jump may be survivals of the Roman game, each preserving one of its forms of movement and then suggests these rules for Ludus Latrunculorum:
1. Using an 8x7 board each player has 16 pieces. They are placed two at a time by alternate turns of play anywhere on the board. During this first phase no captures are made.
2. When the 32 pieces are in position each player adds a blue piece to the board. This is the DUX. The second phase the begins. The pieces can move one square orthogonally in any direction.
3. A capture is made by trapping an enemy piece between two of one's own pieces on rank or file.
4. When a piece makes a capture it has another turn, and from this it follows that an isolated piece may endanger itself and several of its fellows by starting a sequence of captures.
5. The dux may move in the ordinary way, or it may make a short orthogonal jump over an enemy piece, landing on an empty square beyond. It does not capture by this maneuvre, unless it traps another enemy piece between itself and one of its own men. The power of jumping enables it to penetrate a defensive position which may start a whole series of captures from within a walled stronghold. It is captured in the same way as any other piece.
6. A piece may move between two enemy pieces without being captured.
7. The game continues until one player has lost all his pieces, or a blockade has developed which neither player can break. The player with most pieces left on the board then wins.
8. If no captures have been made in 30 moves a blockade has been established and the game is over.

Latrunculi being the role model for Hnefatafl, one notices that two interesting Latrunculi game rules, 4 and 5, are missing from the Hnefatafl reconstructions.


The Gunnarshaug Hnefatafl set.

Adam Bartley sent me an interesting link to the Nordvegen History Centre, which shows a photo of Hnefatafl glass playing pieces from Bergen Museum. The photo shows one black piece with decorated top. Twelve dark blue pieces. Eighteen larger, yellowish / reddish pieces. And four yellow pieces with decorated tops.

After productive discussions with Adam on Viking war ethics (se insert below), to me these playing pieces tell a story of drama:
Four Viking long boats, each with a commander and his crew of warriors, has landed on the coast of a foreign country, near a castle where a king has barricaded himself with his warriors. The Vikings have surrounded the castle from four sides, each side grouping a commander and his men. The large, yellowish / reddish pieces are the blonde Vikings, represented by a light color, and to that the color of blood and burning fire. The smaller, dark blue pieces are the opponent, represented by a dark color, the color of the cold ocean. Twelve is the number of defenders used on an 11x11 board. Number of attackers required on the same board is twenty-four. The eighteen yellowish / reddish pieces plus the four with decorations make twenty-two, so two attacking pieces are missing from the set. A closer look on the dark defenders reveals that one of them has a distinct nail hole on the top, suggesting that also this game piece originally had a decorated top.
Bergen Museum Hnefatafl set
(Photo Bergen Museum.)

Bergen Museum Hnefatafl set

Bergen Museum Hnefatafl set
(Archeologist's drawing of the Bergen Storhaug pieces.)

The Berserk Hnefatafl version.

With a look at these things, the reconstructed Ludus Latrunculorum with the two extra rules, and the detailed Norwegian set of playing pieces with some of them distinctively decorated, I would like to propose a Hnefatafl version, which could be named the Berserk Hnefatafl version (September 2011).
The rules would be like this.
Explanation of the rules derivation here.
Berserk Hnefatafl board


I received this from Adam Bartley, Tønsberg, Norway:

I have had an idea, which I will be getting some more evidence of as my idea is based on one viking historian's answers to some questions I had about the vikings concept of honour.

The viking war exhibition I'm working on has the concept of honour and ettermæle (how one is remembered) featuring heavily. The book we are basing the exhibition on doesn't clarify it enough, so I asked our historian about it, here is his response:

Hei Adam
Hvorvidt boken forklarer begrepet ære i denne sammenhengen kan jeg ikke akkurat nå si med sikkerhet. Begrepet en "ærerik død" er det som best beskriver forholdet, og er således helt knyttet opp mot ettermælet. Om man tapte kampen, død eller levende, betyr ikke nødvendigvis noe for det ærerike i hvordan kampen ble utkjempet. Å tape et slag ved å kjempe til siste mann er derfor en ærerik sak. Uavgjorte kamper - som på fotballbanen - var neppe en opsjon. Selvfølgelig kunne man bevare æren selv om man kom levende ut av et tap, men absolutt IKKE ved å rømme fra slagmarken! I alle fall ikke hvis man var hærleder.
   Farlig å sammenligne med ærebegreper i vårt vestlige samfunn i dag, og kanskje like farlig å sammenligne med ærebegreper i andre deler av dagens verden. Samfunnet var den gang skrudd sammen på en annen måte. Jeg pleier vanligvis å betegne dette som et før-religiøst samfunn. Dette er selvfølgelig kontroversielt, men henger nøye sammen med definisjonen av begrepet "religion".

Whether the book clarifies the notion of honour in this context (war/death in battle) is something i can't say with certainty at this point. The term 'an honourable death' is that which best describes the relationship [between death and battle], and is thus tied up with legacy [how one is remembered after death]. Whether one lost the battle, dead or alive, didn't necessarily effect the 'glory' in terms of how the battle was fought. To lose a battle fighting to the last man is therefore an honourable case. Undecided battles, as in football, were an unlikely an option. One could of course retain honour even if one lived through a losing battle, but absolutely NOT by running from the battlefield! At least if one was the captain(leader/head of fighting force.
   Its dangerous to compare notions of honour in our western society today, and perhaps equally dangerous to compare it to notions of honour elsewhere in todays world. Viking society was composed in another way. I usually denote this as a pre religious society. This is of course controversial, but hangs closely together with the definition of the notion of 'religion'.

So here is my idea: At first it seems, if this historian is right about the vikings, that draw forts are emphatically not an option. BUT, the very concept of an escaping king is also ruled out by exactly the same argument! Now, we know the kings job is to escape, its the same in the two written sources. So, this suggests to me either: 1. The attackers are vikings, the defenders are NOT vikings, they are indeed considered cowards by the vikings. 2. The attackers are good, odin fearing vikings, the defenders are cowards who don't deserve to be called vikings, maybe they are christian converts or something.

The upshot of all this, is that the kings side is positively encouraged to play dirty, to build draw forts, to force perpetual check, to play as cowardly and dishonourably as possible in order to infuriate the vikings. Then the players swap, and the entertainment continues, one playing the dastardly cowards, the other the noble vikings.

This fits in well for me with the idea that hnefatafl is a 'hunt' game, as opposed to a pure battle game. It also fits well with the moscovites vs swedes culture clash. It doesn't confirm a weaponless king, but it does make a weaponless king acceptable if he is not a proper viking. And if my historian is right, an escaping king is NOT a viking. I can't quite believe nobody has spotted this glaring point before!

I think its worth cross checking. Importantly my inquiry did NOT mention hnefatafl at all. It was purely a question about defining viking honour on the battle field.

If other historians agree, then this would rather put to bed many of the arguments we keep running into.

Adam Bartley, Tønsberg, Norway, Oct. 4th, 2011.


Italian translation of this page. (translated by Sybil and Epoc, Italy).


Updated 30.1.2016
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