What is Hnefatafl?
Besides it’s somewhat unfortunate name, hnefatafl (pronounced “neffa-taffle”) is a wonderful ancient game the Vikings played. Commonly thought to be a predecessor of chess, it is much simpler but just as addicting. Originally from Scandanavia, as the Vikings migrated (a.k.a. raided other regions) they brought hnefatafl with them, introducing it to the local people. Different regions played slightly different variations of the game but the core fundamental strategy stayed the same. The size of the board also varied depending on the local taste. It’s kind of like how Chinese food is different but familiar no matter what country you’re in.
The defenders and their king always sit in the middle of the board, outnumbered by twice as many attackers. The board is always an odd number of squares (i.e. 7x7, 9x9, 11x11, etc.). The defender’s objective is to get the king to the safety of a corner square (or edge depending on the hnefatafl version). The attacker’s objective is to capture the king.
The size of the board and the name of the game also varied depending on the region. The Irish variant is called
“brandub” and is played on a 7x7 board. The Norse version seemed to be commonly played on 11x11 or 13x13 board.
Tablut from Lapland is played on 9x9 board. Today, most commercially available hnefatafl sets are on a 11x11 board. Each version contain it’s own characteristics but all belong to the tafl family of games.
One of the most obvious attributes of hnefatafl is it’s asymmetrical nature. The fact that one player gets just about twice as many pieces as the other feels very strange and unfair. But that is one the many enduring qualities of this game. Playing different sides requires different ways of thinking. The rules are simple and easy to learn, but the gameplay is complex and interesting.
Hnefatafl, like other ancient games isn’t owned by any one person or company. It’s the open source of the physical gaming world. This gives people the freedom to explore without the legal issues of proprietary games. Take a look online and you’ll find a plethora of hand-made do-it-yourself as well as mobile and online versions. Hnefatafl is not a game most people know about. But it’s certainly a game that is experiencing a bit of revival.