Introduction: Magnetic Hnefatafl Board Game

About: Most of the things I build usually relate to either astronomy, physics or woodworking in general.

Hnefatafl which translates into "King's table" is a strategic board game that was played by the Vikings between the 8th and 10th century. It was a popular game played in Nordic countries and it followed the Viking civilization through other parts of Europe. As chess became more popular, Hnefatafl was slowly forgotten.

I learned about the game when user Prushik posted an Instructable called "Hnefatafl Board - The Viking Board Game". I like playing chess and I thought this would be a good game to try out. I also liked the idea of playing a game that was forgotten a long time ago.

As an amateur woodworker, I wanted to make a board that looks nice. Also, I am the kind of person who gets annoyed when game pieces are positioned partway on the lines. Although Prushik's design keeps the pieces centred on their square, I was not entirely convinced by the pin and hole system. I started to think about another system and I decided to use magnets.

Here's my modern take on a forgotten game from the Viking era.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

For this project, I used a combination of modern high-tech equipment and traditional hand tools.


Laser Cutter: As a member of YuKonstruct Makerspace, I have the chance to have access to an Epilog Laser cutter. It enables quick and precise cuts and engraving. I put the laser to good use by engraving the surface of the board game.

Table Saw: I used it to ensure a square cut of my plywood boards.

Band Saw: It was used to re-cut the walnut strips to the right width.

Mitre Saw: To cut the walnut at 45 degree angle.

Orbital Sander: This helps to bring the walnut sides flush with the plywood.

Hand Plane: To straighten the walnut boards after cutting them on the band saw.

File and Sand Paper: Smooth out the angles


  • 1/8" Birch Plywood for the top of the board. We'll engrave it, so find a nice piece without knots and scratches.
  • 1/2" Birch Plywood. It goes right underneath the 1/8" board and contains the magnets.
  • Hardwood for the sides of the board game. I used walnut because I had some at home and also because of the contrast with birch which is pretty light in colour.
  • 1/4" Birch Plywood for the pieces.
  • Polyester felt to make pads for the pieces.
  • 158 Neodynium magnets (rare-earth) 1/4" diameter and 1/8" thickness. You'll need 121 for the board and 37 for the pieces.
  • Optional: 20 gauge copper wire if you want to make metal inlays on the side of the board.
  • Polyurethane varnish.

Step 2: Cut the Plywood Boards

Cut both 1/2" and 1/8" boards to the same dimension. They should be square. Use a table saw if you have one.

The dimension of my boards are 11 5/8". I designed it for 12" but probably messed up the settings when importing from Inkscape to Corel Draw. Any size will work. Just make sure to scale up/down the tokens too.

Step 3: Design Your Board Game

There is a common rule to all games in the Tafl family: One player attacks and the other one defends. The defending player tries to protect the king positioned in the centre of the board. Attackers outnumber the defence by a 2:1 ratio.

Hnefatafl is played on an 11x11 board. A group of 6 attackers are placed on each side of the board. The king is in the centre surrounded by the defence.

I have seen a few designs where the starting position of each piece was marked by a drawing. I decided to borrow the idea and draw a drakkar for the attacking pieces. The defending pieces are placed on Celtic designs.

The centre square and corners share the same design. They are strategic positions. The centre one is the starting position of the king. The corners is where the king has to go.

I added some decoration outside of the playing area. I used the copper inlay technique to design the corners.

Step 4: Laser Cut the Playing Area

I used an Epilog laser cutter to etch the 1/8" board. It took about 40 minutes at 600 dpi.

Step 5: Place Magnets in the Bottom Board

Start by drawing 10 pencil marks on each side of the 1/2" board. Join them together as shown on the first picture. The lines cross at the centre of each square.

Using a nail, mark the square centres. This will make things easier when drilling.

Using a 1/4" Forstner bit on a drill press, drill the 121 holes required for the magnets.

Place the magnets in the board. Make sure to put them all with the same polarity facing up. Mine were marked with a red dot on one side.

Step 6: Glue the Top and Bottom Boards Together

Spread some glue between the row of magnets and glue the top board onto the bottom one. Use clamps and some weights during dry time.

Step 7: Add Stability

To prevent any instability in the board, we'll add a cork base. Line up the board onto a cork sheet and use a utility knife to cut the cork at the right dimension.

Step 8: Add the Board Sides

Let's admit it, Baltic birch plywood looks nice on the surface but the sides are not super good looking. It's just plywood after all. To make it look better, I decided to add hardwood around it. I chose walnut since I already had some in the house and it makes for a good contrast with birch.

First, cut 4 strips of wood to the same thickness, width and length. If the width of the strip is W and the side of the plywood board is L, cut the 4 strips to a length of L + 2W + a little bit just in case. The thickness should be a bit more than 5/8" because we have to accommodate room for the cork pad.

With a mitre saw, cut the end of the 4 strips to a 45 degree angle. Place them around the plywood and make sure that the dimensions are right. If the angle is not right, attach the 4 strips together and sand them together until you reach a true 45 degree.

Once the angle is right, cut a slot on the inside of the strips. I used the table saw to cut them all at the same place. The blade thickness turned out to be 1/8". I cut small triangles of plywood and fitted them in the slots.

Make the same slot in the corners of the plywood. Assemble all the parts like on the photo. If everything fits, add some wood glue and clamp it all until it dries.

Use a sander to bring the sides to the level of the plywood. Make sure the bottom is also all levelled.

Step 9: Glue the Cork Panel

Now that the sides are in place and sanded to an equal height, glue the cork panel to the 1/2" plywood. Flip it over, place it onto a flat surface and add some weight on top.

Step 10: Design the Pieces

The game needs 2 types of pieces: attack and defence. A special piece represents the king.

I designed a few shields to make defence pieces. For the attack, I designed a sword and an axe.

Step 11: Laser Cut Pieces

We need 12 defensive pieces (2 sets of shields) and 24 attack pieces (12 sets of sword and axe). The laser cutter leaves some smoky residue on the surface of the wood during the cuts so it's a good idea to sand each individual pieces afterwards.

Step 12: Add Magnets to the Pieces

Using the same technique as before, use a 1/4" Forstner bit on the drill press and put 2 blocks of wood to always drill in the centre of each piece.

Glue magnets in the back of each piece making sure they are in the right position. If you're not sure, put the magnet on the board first.

I tried contact glue and it was a failure. I switched to epoxy and this worked great.

Step 13: Add Felt Pads

To avoid any scratches on the board and hide the magnets, I added felt pads to each pieces. Using the laser cutter, I cut 37 pads out of polyester felt. It has the advantage of slightly melting and does not fray like wool.

Spray some glue on the pieces and the pads. After a few minutes, glue them together.

Step 14: Laser Cut Board Decorations

If you want, you can decorate the sides of the board. I added some Celtic designs to it using the laser cutter.

Put some painter's tape and run a first pass at 15% power and 100% speed. It won't go through the tape but it will let you know if the position of your drawing is right.

Once you're happy with the size and position, Change settings to 100% power and 50% speed.

If you want deeper grooves, just run it twice.

Step 15: Add Copper Inlays

I wanted to try the copper inlay technique I saw online. I started by flattening some 20 gauge copper wire on an anvil. After cutting a small piece, I measured it, bent it and bevelled the edges. Once I was sure this piece was right, I made 11 more copies of it. I repeated the same process for the inside circle.

Glue the copper using instant glue and let it dry overnight.

Using a file, trim the excess until the copper is flush with the wood.

Finish the work with a small metal file and sand paper (600 grit gives a nice finish).

Step 16: Coat the Board and Pieces

After sanding the entire board with fine sand paper, I applied some polyurethane varnish.

Mix the varnish with 50% paint thinner for the first coat. Sand lightly between coats. The second coat doesn't need as much paint thinner (10%).

Step 17: The Finished Board

Once the varnish is dry, you can place the pieces on the game. Now head to the next step to learn the game rules.

Step 18: The Rules

Setup Time< 1 minute
Playing Time5 to 20 minutes

The rules of Hnefatafl were never recorded anywhere so we can only guess how the game was played from the other Tafl variants.

Here are the rules for Copenhagen Hnefatafl:

  • The king is in the centre, surrounded by 12 defenders. 24 Attackers are positioned around the defense.
  • The attacker's goal is to capture the king.
  • The defender's goal is to bring the king in one of the board's corners.
  • Attackers play first.
  • During a player's turn, a piece can be moved any number of squares but can not jump over pieces.
  • The corners and central square are special spots; they are hostile to both sides.
  • The central square may only be occupied by the king. Other pieces can move through but not stop on it.
  • Attackers and defenders can both capture enemy pieces by "sandwiching" them.
  • Moving between 2 opponent pieces does not count as a capture.
  • You can "sandwich" a piece between one of your pieces and a hostile spot.
  • The king is captured when surrounded by 4 attackers or 3 attackers and the central square.
  • Several pieces can be captured by surrounding them against the board edge (shield wall capture).
  • The defence looses if all its pieces are surrounded and non of them can reach the board edge.
  • The king wins if he builds an edge fort.
  • Either player looses if he can't move on his turn.
  • If a move is repeated 3 times, the aggressive player looses the game.
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