History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)


Hnefatafl (meaning King’s Table, aka “Viking Chess”) is a board game that originated in Northern Europe; the oldest board found to date was located in Denmark, dated to ~ 400 BC. Because no written history of that period for northern Europe exists, apart from runic inscriptions on stone, wood, and bone, the rules of this game had to be recreated, so there are no hard and fast rules agreed upon by those who play it.  It is far older than chess, which originated in northern India in the 6th century AD and spread to the rest of the world through Persia.

In Hnefatafl, the game is played on a square board (as pictured). There are five spaces on the board that are considered special: The space in the centre of the board is the ‘Throne’ space, and the four corner spaces are the escape points for the King.

Unlike most modern board games, Hnefatafl does not start with even-strength sides (as in chess). The two sides are divided into attackers and defenders; in the illustration, the pieces along the edges of the board are the attackers, and those in the centre are the defenders. The objective of the attacker is to capture the king (centre). The objective of the defenders is to protect the king long enough for him to escape.

The board shown above is a modern version; but online, I’ve seen a wide variety of boards, from draw-bags of leather with stone pieces to wooden blocks on a large outdoor board.  I’m certain that the travelling Norse, who loved board games, word games and competitions of any sort, would have made do with whatever was at hand and would have also had travel versions of their favourite games, just like we do today.

For further information, check out the Wikipedia article, or see the rules and how to play the game here.

Originally posted on History Undusted,


Filed under History, History Undusted, Links to External Articles, Military History, Research

15 responses to “History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess)

  1. Thanks! If you lived closer, I’d challenge you to a game. 😉

  2. I’d love to play it sometime…

  3. I’d love for my grandsons to try it. I’m allergic to games of strategy, but they might like it.

  4. Wow. I’ve never heard of this!

  5. I shot a message to daughter Lise in Denmark and asked if she had seen the game. She replied that she bought a set at a museum when the grandsons (her nephews) visited her several years ago. She said they were good at it. She added that, like me, she isn’t good at games of strategy.

  6. Wow! Next time we go to Norway, I’ll see if I can find a set; we usually hit the Oslo museums if we plan enough time in the city.

  7. It would also be interesting to know if your grandsons play by the same rules described in the last link of the article… maybe you could point Lise to my article, and ask her about that…

  8. I sent Lise the link to your post, but I don’t think she made it work. I wonder if she still has the game.

  9. love this! will have to incorporate Viking Chess into one of my LARP events 🙂

  10. That would be cool to watch! Have fun with it! 🙂

  11. Pingback: History Undusted: Hnefatafl (Viking Chess) — Stephanie Huesler – Coffee Break Archaeology

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