Introduction: Hnefatafl Board - the Viking Board Game

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A little known fact about the vikings is that they really liked board games, and their favorite game was Hnefatafl.

Hnefatafl is a game of strategy, somewhat similar to chess, though it is not derivative. Hnefatafl predates chess, and was the game to play until chess ousted it during the middle ages.

Hnefatafl was the game of choice for the vikings, and much of its popularity was due to the vikings spreading it around to the places the travelled to. Unlike most other strategy games, Hnefatafl features two unequal teams, which different goals, an attacking team, and a defending team. The attacker's goal is to capture the king, while the defenders goal is to let the king escape. The attacker also gets twice as many pieces, yet it is the defender that really has the advantage.

Though the game was the most popular game in the world during it's time, the rules were never actually written down. We know some rules by marked game boards which have been discovered, some rules from viking poems and song, and some rules written by an observer that couldn't even speak the language. However, by piecing together bits and pieces from different places, we can be fairly certain how the game was played.

I had never played the game before, in fact, I built this board just so that I could play the game. It turns out that it's really a fun game. The rules are simple but the game play is interesting and requires good strategy. I also discovered that my brother is much better at it than I am, which is a little embarrassing.

Step 1: Ingredients

Gather the materials you will need to build everything:

Wooden dowels - 1 inch diameter and 1/8 inch diameter

Plywood - large enough for your game board (15x15 inches)

Wooden beads with 1/8 inch hole

Wood glue


Also gather the tools you will need:

Power Drill (I used a drill press)

1/8 inch bit (same size as the smaller dowel)

Rotary tool

Saw (I used a band saw)


Also the materials you will need to play the game:


Step 2: The Game Pieces

Hnefatafl requires 36 regular pieces and one "king" piece for a total of 37 pieces.

To make the pieces, cut out sections of the 1 inch diameter dowel. I just marked the dowel lengthwise every half inch and then cut it with a band saw until I had 36 pieces.

The king has to be easily distinguishable from the other pieces, so you could just paint that piece differently, but I decided to do a little more, and cut that one piece just a quarter of an inch taller than the others.

I made a few extra pieces just to be safe.

Also, I cut out two inch long semi circles from the other end of the dowel. These are for the two ends of the turn counter.

I really recommend building the turn counter. The most authentic rules we have for the game make it pretty unbalanced, so the easiest way to make the game fair for both players is to play 2 rounds and see who can win in less turns. The turn counter makes this a lot easier.

There are other methods of balancing game play, but it feels wrong to change the rules of the game. I wanted to get as close to the same game the vikings played as possible.

Step 3: The Turn Counter

Like I mentioned before, the turn counter makes the game a lot more fun to play because it helps keep it fair for both players.

My idea was an abacus style device where beads slide from side to side representing turns taken.

The wooden beads already had 1/8 inch holes drilled in them, but it wasn't exact, so I ended up re-drilling the holes in 25 tiny wooden beads, which was a lot easier than it sounds. The idea is to get them to fit on one of the smaller dowels. The should slide easily along it, if they do not, then either drill the hole slightly larger or sand down the dowel. I ended up doing both....

Then, drill your two end pieces so that the ends of the dowel fit into them. I drilled a hole all the way through one and then about a half inch into the other so that I could still remove the dowel from the center even when the end pieces were affixed to the board.

Step 4: The Game Board

Next we need a game board to actually play on. There are several variants of Tafl that we know of, each of which uses a slightly different game board. Hnefatafl, the variant played by the vikings, and uses either an 11x11 board, or a 13x13 board. I decided to go with an 11x11 board because it seems that was the more common type and because I don't much care for the number 13. Plus, most other variants such as Tablut use smaller boards, so with an 11x11 board, you can still play any variant that uses a smaller board.

You could just draw or paint on the squares, but I chose to use my rotary tool to carve grooves into the board instead of drawing lines because I thought it would be cooler.

My board was 15x15 inches, so I just measured 2 inches from each side and cut a groove there, then moved 1 inch inward and repeated until I reached the center. Turned out that my measurements weren't that great, but the end result was passable.

I also glued some eucalyptus wood veneer on top of the playing surface because I thought it would look cool and I heard once that eucalyptus oils can keep spiders away, and I hate spiders. I didn't glue it down very well and I didn't wait long enough for the glue to dry, so some of the pieces of veneer came off or broke. Gluing them back on made it look alright though.

In the end, I had an 11x11 board with 1x1 inch squares.

Step 5: Pegs

Some of the authentic viking boards that we have found had pegged game pieces. I decided to build my board the same way.

To make the pegs for the pieces, I taped 4 of the 1/8 inch dowels together, then measured and cut them into 3/4 inch pieces. I did this until I had 36. Then I cut one more at a full inch because my king piece is 1/4 inch taller.

Using my drill press, I drilled a 1/8 inch hole in the center of each piece. Try to get this as close as possible, otherwise they might not fit great in the holes in the board.

Once you have the holes drilled in each piece, slide a dowel segment into each one so that it sits flush on one side and sticks 1/4 out the other side. Glue these all in place, but be careful not to get much glue on the side that sticks out, because we want this to fit pretty tightly into the board.

Then you will need to drill a hole in the exact center of each space on the board. I ended up drilling my holes a tiny bit bigger using a 5/16 inch drill bit, just so that the pieces wouldn't get stuck to the board.

Step 6: Decorations

Now all your game pieces are complete, you just need to paint the two sides different colors. Remember that one team will have 12 pieces and a king, and the other side will have 24 pieces. I chose to paint the king and kings men red, and leave the attackers unpainted.

I also used my extra dowel segments to make a crown for the king by drilling holes partway into the top of the king and fitting those dowel segments into them to form a circle. The end result looks more like a birthday cake than a crown, but it's close enough.

You will also need to mark the very center square on the board. This is the throne, a special space that only the king can enter.

Some boards that have been discovered also included markings for the starting places of each piece, but I didn't include that in my board.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

Finally, slide all the beads onto the turn counter and attach the turn counter side pieces. Then glue the turn counter down on the side of the board where it won't get in the way but is easily accessible.

Also sand down any rough edges so you don't get splinters while playing. Though if you get splinters and bleed all over the board, it might make it look more authentic. This was a viking game after all.

Step 8: Playing Hnefatafl (Rules)

Playing Hnefatafl is simple.

Players take turns moving their pieces. Each player can move one piece each turn, any number of spaces in any direction (but not diagonal). Pieces cannot jump over other pieces.

Pieces can be captured by placing one opposing team's piece on each side of that piece, forming a "sandwich" around that piece. Captured pieces are removed from the board. The king can only be captured if surrounded on all four sides. Moving a piece into a space between two opposing player's pieces is a valid move and does not count as being captured.

The attacker attempts to capture the king, while the defender just needs to evade capture long enough for the king to escape. The king can escape by moving off any side of the game board.

After each turn slide one bead to the other side of the turn counter to record the number of turns taken.

If the king escapes, then the board is reset, and players switch teams. The original attacker then must be able to escape in fewer turns than the original defender. The player that escapes in fewer turns in the winner.

If a king is ever captured (unlikely), then players switch teams, and the original defender must capture the king in fewer turns to win (a feat which is extremely difficult).

It is definitely recommended that you drink a bunch of mead while playing, preferably from large wooden mugs. It helps you get into the viking mood. However, authentic viking mead was probably more similar to beer, mead recipes are another thing that has been poorly recorded. However, most evidence suggests that viking mead incorporated malt grains as well as honey, and the yeast used was very similar to yeast strains used for ale. Modern mead tends to be more like wine than anything. Regardless, vikings drank mead, so grab the most authentic mead you can get your hands on, drink it, and enjoy playing Hnefatafl.