Games the Vikings Played – Hneftafl

Clint Staples

If you have never heard of the Viking period game called Hneftafl, you are in for a treat. If you have heard of it, or even played it, you're in for one anyway, because this might get you back around the board, saving or dooming the king, drinking mead by the fire as the dogs worry a bone in the rushes at your feet. Because new information — or more accurately, old information rediscovered and reinterpreted — rejuvenates a game that lived for centuries in Northern Europe, only losing ground with the advent of chess in the same region. 

First, a little historical context. Hneftafl dates back at least until the period in which the sagas were written down (c.1200 A.D.). Technically that is after the end of the Viking era, usually dated to something like A.D. 793 to 1066, but the sagas record the game often. That combined with archeological finds from the viking era and earlier that included gaming pieces suggest pretty strongly that the game was around in some fashion for hundreds of years before the sagas were written down. In short, it is almost a certainty that actual vikings, in the actual viking period, played Hneftafl.

The Game In Brief​
The word Hneftafl translates as something like "king’s table" and is for two players, on a board marked off into squares. One "king," along with his chosen warriors, defends against four bands of enemies. Generally these are referred to as defenders and attackers respectively, but the situation of an outnumbered noble and his thegns trying to escape roving bands of marauders is at least as evocative as the ritual warfare of Chess. The center square is the King’s Castle, with the eight surrounding squares belonging to his warband. Four areas are marked out in the centre of each edge for the attacker’s forces.

Without giving you the full rule set [see the links below], play happens in turns. Each player moves a piece, horizontally or vertically from its current position to the target square, unless the piece meets an obstruction, at which point it must stop [like a Rook in modern chess]. The goal is for the king to escape to a corner of the board without being captured.

Capture occurs when a piece is bracketed by two enemy, horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally. It is possible to capture multiple pieces if the geometry of the pieces allows for it.

And capturing is the problem that the game always had for me — specifically capturing the King. In the most widely accepted system of play, the King must be bracketed on all four sides — i.e:, both horizontally AND vertically. In practice, this results in a rather one-sided game. It is just too hard to corral the king before he scampers out one of the corners.

Enter Carl Linneaus — yes, the guy who came up with taxonomy centuries ago [hey, this post is about playing a board game; if you want to know about taxonomy, look it up]. Among Linnaeus’s accomplishments was a trip to Lappland AND the journal he made of his time there. During his stay, Linnaeus became interested in the local Lapp game, Tablut, and recorded what he could glean of its rules of play. For our current edification, Mr. John C. Ashton's article [see the links section] has rescued those rules from obscurity and connected then to Hneftafl.

Certainly the two games are derivative, or at least related. Given the proximity of Sweden to Lappland, as well as the amount of time assorted Swedes spent there over the centuries, this is hardly a surprise. Ask me about Helsinki’s Suomalinna fortress sometime for one example, which coincidentally, aligns with the venerable Mr. Linnaeus lifetime.

Anyway, getting back to the capture of the king. According to Linneaus’s version of Tablut, the number of enemy required was two, not four, in bracketing positions. This single change recharges the game, making the king’s life much less secure. Perhaps it also says something about the concept of kingship among the Northmen. Kingship is special to be sure and the game is over on the death of the King. The kingdom and his retainers fall if he dies, but he is no more heroic than the rest of his chosen warband. He can be killed in exactly the same way that any of them can be.

Games within the Game​
Now, I never promised that every post I did would have an RPG angle. But there are some easy, and fiendishly fun ways you can bring this into yours.

Obviously, if you have a suitably barbaric culture in your game, you can drop Hneftafl wholesale into it. Your barbaric kings and chiefs can sit around the meadhall, playing the game as background colour. From the number of viking burials in which gaming pieces and dice were found, it is a fair bet that gaming was a very popular way to pass the those icy winters. Heroes [Player Characters] from this culture might [as was often the case according to burials] even have their own sets, and could play the game themselves. If you want to determine who wins a particular game or does well in an evening of gaming, because prestige, and possibly bets, might hang in the balance, you can ask the player to make a Will Save, Roll on the Gaming skill [if your system has one] or roll vs. a mental stat like Intelligence or Wisdom. The better the roll, the better the PC does. If two players face each other over the board, the higher roll takes it. 

Which brings us to another way to bring Hneftafl into your game. A fine board, stained, enameled, possibly silver or gold chased, with the king in ivory, surrounded by his thegns in amber, and the attackers in ranks of polished jet, would be  a gift worthy of a jarl. Let your characters find one in a treasure trove, or in mid-game on a side table in a wizard's lair. Perhaps the pieces have been chosen and carved to reflect a mythic scene. In the  example above, the king piece might have the well known features of a king of old in your world, the carved shields of his thegns could be embossed with animals associated with them in legend. The jet pieces could be simpler, like pawns in chess, but sinister somehow. Perhaps they are all carved with the heads of wolves to signify the lycanthropes that brought the king down in the end.

Other thematic sets are possible — a special set of pieces that reflect the Ragnarok, one-eyed Odin as the King fighting for survival would go well in a powerful evil noble's sitting room. Or perhaps all the pieces are of coral carved to represent ships in honour of the sea-king for whom they were a gift. A child’s set might be carved in more fanciful style — the ‘king’ might be a Pegasus, or a hero on one, fleeing from gryphons or dragons determined to bring him low. Any of these might be found as treasure, or given as gifts or in appreciation of service. And, of course, they could also be magical. A set that conferred a bonus to gaming would be a fine cheat. Or perhaps someone who wins a game on the board is the subject of a minor blessing for the next day. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, here is a way to get your players blood pressure up. Including portions of a chess game ‘live’ in an RPG is old hat. How about making the game Hneftafl instead, with a real king as the prize. This works especially well if the PCs are close friends or supporters of a king or noble. On finding a trapped Hneftafl set, one of the characters touches it. Suddenly they find themselves in the middle of a massive field marked with safe zones and pursued by four enemy forces. All they have to do is get the king to a safe zone alive. This can be a manipulation on the part of a vengeful or trickster diety, or just a high powered plot by the evil duke that covets his cousin’s throne. Perhaps there is an ancient tradition in which a king who is unsteady on the throne can shore up his tenuous rule by living through such a ‘game.’

Hopefully, you will find some of the above interesting enough to try. I urge you to try playing Hneftafl, as it is fun and easy to learn, but difficult to master, especially as re-created by Linnaeus and Mr. Ashton. Mr. Ashton kindly reprints the entirety of Carl Linnaeus’s rules for Tablut, and the re-worked Hneftafl in the body of his article, so you have all the rules you need to play. 

I am indebted to Mr. Ashton’s research for the kernel of this post, which for the first time in decades, makes me want to dig out my own board and pieces, and corral someone to play.

 ‘The Heroic Age’, J.C. Ashton, Linnaeus’s game of Tablut and its Relationship to the Ancient Viking Game Hneftafl:  The list of links provided at the end of Mr. Ashton’s article is well worth a look as well.

The rules for Hneftafl [traditional form]:

Play Hneftafl online:  This site has both the 4 man king capture and the 2 man version as options. Try them both and see how the game plays diferently. If you are new, or haven't played for a while [me], you might take some time to notice because of the carnage. 

An article on a recent find - M. Rundquist, Viking Period Amber Gaming Pieces: