When people think of Vikings, they usually picture boats, swords, raids, and (occasionally) 70s rock anthems. But perhaps it's time for more people to consider another facet of this legendary culture. Because in between raiding monastaries and establishing settlements in the British Isles, these warriors spent a good amount of time playing tabletop games. One of their favorites was Hnefatafl, a board game in which the defender must get their king piece to safety while facing off against the attacker. The defender has fewer pieces than the attacker, making for an exciting challenge.
I've had a passing interest in historic games since trying my hand at Senet during 2020's virtual Gen Con, but I didn't become aware of Hnefatafl until I read Thud!, the Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett. I was surprised to learn that the in-universe game Hnaflbaflsniflwhifltafl was based on an ancient Viking game. I assumed that the rules of this original game were lost and that Pratchett had devised his own mechanics for it. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this was not the case! While I could have purchased my own version of Hnaflbaflsniflwhifltafl (also known as Thud), I was more interested in learning more about Hnefatafl – what was it about this game that had inspired one of my favorite authors?
I finally got the chance to find out over the holidays when my friends all chipped in and purchased me a Hnefatafl set. (And not just any set – a premium version!) It didn't take long for me to understand why this game was beloved across the Viking world, as well as numerous other regions in northern Europe. The mechanics are simpler than chess, but it still relies deeply on strategy. My husband and I played two rounds so we could each get a feel for the attacker and defender roles, and the gameplay was surprisingly balanced despite the attacker having more pieces to work with. Afterward, he and I discussed whether the game could be made more challenging by introducing dice rolls that limited how far you could move during each turn. We plan on trying this the next time we sit down to play.
If you're interested in trying out Hnefatafl for yourself, there are numerous versions available including digital ones. I highly encourage you to give it a go!
-- Katie Duffy