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Hnefatafl an Anglo-Norse Boardgame

(or, if you can pronounce this, you probably don’t need to read this article!)

by Bohemond (FitzRolf)de Clare

Having spent far more events over the last year as a non-combatant than I ever have in the preceding ten years I’ve been in the Society, I suddenly developed a new appreciation for my Lady’s (and I’ve come to gather, many ladies’) complaints, that, if you are not a fighter, fencer, or archer, there is often little to do at an event than to sit, gossip, and stitch.

Rather than rant for a few pages on what’s wrong with the average SCA “McEvent” (although I could do that at length), I thought I’d write up the history and description of a few easily made, easily played games developed in early period, which survived well into the Renaissance, and in some areas, into the present day. Hopefully, these suggestions will help while away some of the long hours at an event.

Nota Bene:

Before beginning on the description of our first game — Hnefatafl (or “High Table”), I’d like to make a few general comments about the slant of these articles. Firstly, they are primarily of a Anglo-Norse slant. This is from no other reason than the ease of available research material, and that I was looking for something I could play while camping with the Norse-persona Ulfhednar household. Most of the games I will detail herein where nearly as popular with the Norse descended Normans as they were the Saxons and Danes, and thus could have appeared under various names throughout the Norman realms of England, Northern France, Sicily, or the Levant. Hnefatafl itself, under the name tawlbwrdd survived in Wales as the dominant form of boardgame until the late Renaissance, and is still reasonably popular in the northern Welsh province of Gwynedd today.

Secondly, there’s little need to discuss either chess or draughts, which are well known, and easily available in essentially their Medieval form, today. However, the reader should be aware that, common belief to the contrary, chess was known, but was not a popular game, in Northern Europe until after the First Crusade (1096 – 1100), in which returning Crusaders began to favor the game, having played it throughout the Aquitaine, Italy, the Byzantine Empire, and the Syrian Muslim territories.

Hnefatafl

This popular board game was played widely through the Frankish, Norse, and Teutonic kingdoms from the end of Antiquity into the Late Middle Ages. Hnefatafal is a basic tactical game, believed to have been developed from the Roman game latrunculi (soldiers). The game’s antiquity and popularity can be attested to by the Norse mythological Havamal, in which it is said that along with the Runes, “dice were given to mankind by the All-Father, Odinn, and the world has his tafl-board.”

HnefataflThe simple premise of hnefatafl is that there are two forces, one a small group of bodyguards, protecting their lord, and the second, a larger, invading force. The board on which the game itself is played, is comprised of an equal number of squares, either 7×7, 9×9, 11×11, 13×13, 15×15, or 19×19 squares in dimension. The lord or “king” begins in the exact center, and on some carved boards, this center square was raised and decorated with special markings. (See Figure 1)

The pieces are usually simple carved hemispheres or polished stones, and follow the same convention as chess, in that they are divided between light or dark. However unlike chess or draughts, the pieces are uneven in number. A simple 9×9 board would have 16 light pieces, and eight dark pieces, with an additional dark “king.” Larger boards would increase this number to 24 light pieces, and 12 dark, plus the king.

The Rules

Figure 1 details the starting piece arrangement for an 11×11 board. The king’s player (the dark pieces) moves first. He only has half the pieces of the “invader,” but in order to win, he mere has to manage to escape by reaching one of the four corners of the board. His opponent wins by trapping the king on four sides.

Hnefatafl2All pieces move like a rook in chess (unlimited spaces, in straight horizontal or vertical lines). Pieces may not jump other pieces, nor may anyone besides the king land on the four corner “bolt-hole” squares, or the center square, which is the lord’s “throne.” However, the center square may be moved through as part of the piece’s overall move.

Captures are made by surrounding them with enemy pieces on two opposite sides (as shown in Fig. 2). Captured pieces are taken off of the board. Multiple pieces may be captured in one move, but remember, each piece must be surrounded on two opposite sides.

Hnefatafl3The king is somewhat more difficult to take. The king must be capture on all four sides (as in Figure 3). However, if the king is surrounded on three sides, with the “throne” square being the fourth, this also counts as a capture, and the attacking player wins.

There are a few additional permutations to these simple rules. Firstly, not only are the center and corner squares “off limits” to anyone but the king, but whenever a piece is beside one of these squares, that square is considered to be an “opposing” piece. Therefore, if a piece has a corner square on one side, and another opposing piece moves to its opposite side, it is considered captured. (Figure 4) This rule prevents either side from “guarding” the bolt holes.

Hnefatafl4A piece also may perform a “resting move.” This means that a piece may move between two enemy pieces, and not be considered captured. In order to capture the “resting” piece, one of the opposing pieces would have to be moved away and then brought back into opposition again. This takes two moves, and allows the resting piece time to retreat.

Variations

The most common variation is to allow the king to escape by reaching any of the squares along the outer perimeter of the board. This rule is usually used with boards of 11×11 or larger size, as larger boards tend to lead to longer games, and to favor the attacker. If this rule is used, however, the four corner squares are no longer considered “special,” and those rules detailed above only apply to the “throne.”

Another variation includes the use of dice. Precisely how this was used (or if it was used in the early period at all) is debated, but the common methods I have seen require two dice to be rolled before each player’s turn. In some variations, the player may only take a move if odd numbers are rolled. In another variation, a player only looses a turn if snake-eyes are two sixes are rolled. In a third variation, snake-eyes causes the loss of a turn, but a roll of nine (the number most favored by Odinn) allows an additional turn.

Again, all of these dice rolling variants may or may not be period. On the other hand, it is also quite likely that there were a large number of tafl variants played, but only a handful survived the march of time.

Survivals and Board Decoration

As with today’s chessboards, a “table” could be a quickly made temporary affair, or an elaborate artwork. Many boards were nothing more than a piece of board, square of leather, or polished surface of rock, with the individual squares being drawn on with charcoal, or scratched onto the surface with a knife.

In the other extreme, quite a few beautifully carved, polished, and inlaid boards have been found throughout northwestern Europe, and Scandinavia. As part of a ship burial, an elaborate 13×13 carved board was found at Gokstad, in Norway. This particular board is particularly interesting, because it is reversible, the second side serving as a Nine-Men’s-Morris board.

Hnefatafl began to wane in popularity in the 12th and 13th centuries, being replaced primarily by chess as the game of choice. As mentioned earlier, it survived in Wales at least until the late 16th century, and somewhat longer in both the Hebrides, Iceland, and Norway. A Swede named Linnaeus traveled through Lapland in the early 1730s. In his memoirs, he describes a local Lapp game played on a 9×9 board, called “Swedes and Muscovites.” The rules were identical to the basic tafl rules I’ve described above. (Interestingly, Linnaeus apparently did not realize that this was a game native to his own homeland, until he returned from Lapland. Hnefatafl was apparently extinct, or nearly so, amongst the Swedes by that time.)

Bohemond (FitzRolf)de Clare is the second son of Rolf de Clare and Myfanwy merch Llwellyn. Rolf was the last scion of a cadet branch of the powerful de Clare family, whose fortunes as a Norman-Welsh marcher lord collapsed shortly after the birth of his second son, Bohemond in 1170. Rolf attached himself to the household of his cousin, Earl Richard “Strongbow” de Clare during the invasion of Ireland the following year, and made a new place for his family in eastern Ireland.  Youg Bohemond was fostered in Wales, along the Welsh-Norman border, until 1191, when the Third Crusade set out to recapture Jerusalem. Like thousands of others, he set out under the banner of Richard Plantagenet, hoping to make a name for himself in Outremer.

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