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Vikings: The First Competitive Gamers!

Vikings: The First Competitive Gamers!

Tafl Games in Norse Runes

Ok, well that’s totally not true, but it got your attention! Viking certainly were competitive with their games, but games have been around as long people have had bouts of boredom, and that has been quite a long time.

We all know that the peoples of the North, the Scandinavians and Danes of old were brave warriors who not only fought as if their life depended on it, but their lives really did depend on it. They were raiders and sea traders, and when times got tough, the tough took to foreign shores. But it wasn’t always blood, sweat and tears with the Vikings. As a matter of fact, raiding was only a small part of their life, as we can see form a few written histories and a lot of ancient Sagas.

The Vikings had down-time?

As a matter of fact, while the Norse weren’t on the sea, they were working the land, but even nature is kind enough to give farmers and herders a break every now and again. Whether the weather was good or bad, sunshine (which was already rare) or snow, the Vikings took every opportunity to play games!

Viking Games:

You may expect that a warrior people like the Vikings played brutish games, the likes of which may have been passed down and created Rugby or American football, and you would be right… to a point. The Vikings certainly had their share of violent and dangerous games, and there are even accounts of people dying due to their injuries sustained while playing around. Talk about rough. Besides the extreme sports there were a handful of games that could be played without mortal injury.

Mounted Tug-of-War:

Viking Game Tug of War

Tug-of-War was a favorite game of the Vikings, and could be played with mixed teams, or even with parents and children. Though some versions described may not look like your typical middle-school team competition. One version of the game required players to get down on all fours and have a single rider who would try their best to pull a poll or rope away from the opposite rider. Sound easy enough, but did I mention that this is done with the riders back to back, and with their legs around the shoulder or neck of their humble steed?

Mounted tug-of-war was likely as fun as it looks, but while not as violent as swinging about clubs and sticks at your opponent, it could certainly result in a variety of injuries.

Foot Races:

Viking Competition Foot Race

Foot races were a favorite among the Vikings and were carried out in all seasons and all weather conditions. It was for the young, for the old, for fathers and sons, or anyone who wanted to test or show off their strength and stamina. After all, combat isn’t just about swinging a sword, you have to be able to get to the battle before the archer’s arrow finds you, and should the odds turn, you have to be able to get back to your ship!

One way we know that foot races were a huge part of Viking culture is because it exists in their mythology. The Norse gods themselves were quite interesting in the fact that they weren’t gods like we know in Western society. They were powerful, but they weren’t almighty, all-knowing beings, they were just at a different level than humanity. And so, they had quarrels and fights, love affairs, and of course games! The gods took pride in their speed, strength, and wit, just as the Vikings who worshiped them. After all, it is we who create god in our image. Or so says an obscure bit of modern philosophy.

Games of Strength!

Besides games of endurance or of speed, like tug-of-war or the ever-popular foot race, Vikings also enjoyed games of strength. Many of these have actually survived the years and have become the great-grandparents of many of our early Olympic Games, and certainly many of the still popular Highland Games.

As I am sure you can imagine, given the era, geography, and technology of the time, the Vikings didn’t have any amazing gear to have played anything that would be seen in the X-games. But, they did have rocks… and sticks… and in all honesty that was enough to develop quite a few competitive games of strength.

Shot Put for one, can be attributed to the Vikings and stone tossing. Another that we see in power-lifting is the stone carry, and from the Highland games, potentially the Caber toss (a caber is a tree trunk about 20 feet long and weighing about 175 pounds) were a nearly 200lbs pole must be lifted and thrown so that it flips end over end before touching the ground.

Becoming a Man!

Ok, so this one may not be a “game” exactly, but it is interesting and shows just how important these competitions of strength were to the Vikings. Viking games weren’t just ‘games.’ Winning or losing a game could mark you for the rest of your life, or at least until you had the chance to play again.

One of these strength games was actually a rite of passage for young Vikings, to cross over into manhood. It was a simple lift. All they had to do was pick up and hold a stone… a stone the weighedover 340 pounds! While a Viking boy could be an adult by the age of 15, he would not earn the respect of the true Vikings without this display of strength, and yes, they really did it!

Games of Skill~

While strength and races and whatnot were all well and good, one of the favorite types of Viking games were actually games of skill, cunning, and wit.

Witty Drinking Games:

Some of these games of wit resolved themselves into drinking games, which probably wouldn’t go over too well today, though I have to say, I would love to spectate.

One such game involved two teams of men and women (opposed or mixed). Each team would take turns draining their drinking horns as fast as possible and telling riddles, reciting ballads, or insulting one another, taking turns back and forth until one team couldn’t keep up their wit or humor. Seriously, I would love to watch something like this. Can you even imagine?

Tafl Games:

Viking Tafl Games

Though drinking and insults were somehow seen as a display of wit in Norse culture, the best and most popular games of mind were Tafl games (table games/board games). Tafl games were so popular that they were even included in the journals of early explorers who had made contact with Vikings, and into the Icelandic Sagas which record much of the intrepid daily drama of early Norse politics.

Tafl games have also been found in burials and sacred sites vastly spread across the globe. Pretty much anywhere the Viking went, they brought their games with them, even when going into Valhalla. One could say that war was hell, but games were heaven. The gods certainly did not influence the events of Midgard as we would move a knight or a pawn, but generals and chieftains did!

Tafl as a Strategy Game:

Tafl Hnefatafl Board Game

There are definite strategy games that have emerged all over the world, from Shogi to Risk, but Hnefatafl was one of the earliest in Scandinavia and Europe and was a favorite of the Vikings. It was played with an uneven number of pieces at a 2:1 ratio, meaning that one player (the defender) only had half the number of pieces as the attacker. It sounds crazy, but the Vikings knew that like life, war was not always fair, and it was the defender who was normally caught by surprise. This is also why the attacker always moved first, in addition to having twice the number of pieces.

Hearkening back to the foot races and games of speed, the Vikings were not unrealistic in their strategy games. The defending player did not have to subdue the attacker, but only manage the safe escape of the leader. After all, if a chieftain could escape a surprise attack, they could and would mount a rally a siege on the enemy and take the initiative of the attacker for themselves.

Without playing Hnefatafl, it is difficult to really understand just how challenging it is, whether playing as the attacker or the defender. Every one of the 36 pieces essentially plays like a Rook in chess, moving only in a straight line, but for as many spaces as they please. The real challenge is that the only way to interact with another pieces is to capture it with at least two of your own pieces. This means that whether attacking or defending, you must pay close attention to every move being made, or you could stumble into a trap!

The Truth of Tafl:

Looking though historic texts, sagas, accounts, and poems, we have found that there were actually somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 different varieties of Tafl games that the Vikings played as they spread their influence across the world. Some lasted through the ages, like Tablut, which had its full set of rules recorded and translated as time went one. Others didn’t fair so well.

Hnefatafl for one is still quite a popular game for history buffs and fans of a real challenge, but the truth is that the rules we use to play the game today are only a best guess as to how it was played back then. Some people fervently believe that Hnefatafl was played with dice, while many others say it was played just like every other tafl game of the age – pieces moving any number of spaces in a straight line.

If you would like to try you hand at Hnefatafl though, you can get your own hand-carved board and sculpted bone set at Norse Tradesman by clicking here.

an age-old riddle:

The reason for the controversy though is quite interesting. In one of the epic sagas, a riddle is posed whose answer is about a rule in Hnefatafl, but the translation could go either way.

In the saga, Gestumblindi's asks,
"What is that beast all girded with iron, which kills the flocks? He has eight horns but no head, and runs as he pleases."

The answer given can be translated in one of two ways though…
Either it is,
“It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and runs when he is thrown

Or…
It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked

The first translation refers to the dice potentially used to play the game. The eight horns being the 8 corners of the 6-sided cube and throwing referring to casting the dice itself.

The other the king, with the eight horns referring the to the eight defending pieces in total and running after attack being the ultimate objective of the defending player.

Regardless of the true translation of the riddle, the World Tafl Federation has solidified the modern standard rules of competitive Hnefatafl, and there are no dice to be seen.

Wrapping it all Up:

It has been a long journey through the history of Viking games, from drinking and racing, to cursing and strategizing, and everything in between. We have seen how Viking boys used strength games to become men, and how men and women, children and adults would use games to let off steam or practice for battle. Truly the Vikings were a marvelous people, and it is a shame that they are only remembered for the bloody deeds, and not as the progenitors of games like chess and backgammon.

To all my modern Vikings, live long and stay strong!

Cody Dees, Ph.D.
Resident Viking
Norse Tradesman

The guess of the wise is truth.-Grettir Saga, c.31

Ok, well that’s totally not true, but it got your attention! Viking certainly were competitive with their games, but games have been around as long people have had bouts of boredom, and that has been quite a long time.


We all know that the peoples of the North, the Scandinavians and Danes of old were brave warriors who not only fought as if their life depended on it, but their lives really did depend on it. They were raiders and sea traders, and when times got tough, the tough took to foreign shores. But it wasn’t always blood, sweat and tears with the Vikings. As a matter of fact, raiding was only a small part of their life, as we can see form a few written histories and a lot of ancient Sagas.

THE VIKINGS HAD DOWN-TIME?

As a matter of fact, while the Norse weren’t on the sea, they were working the land, but even nature is kind enough to give farmers and herders a break every now and again. Whether the weather was good or bad, sunshine (which was already rare) or snow, the Vikings took every opportunity to play games!

VIKING GAMES:

You may expect that a warrior people like the Vikings played brutish games, the likes of which may have been passed down and created Rugby or American football, and you would be right… to a point. The Vikings certainly had their share of violent and dangerous games, and there are even accounts of people dying due to their injuries sustained while playing around. Talk about rough. Besides the extreme sports there were a handful of games that could be played without mortal injury.

Mounted Tug-of-War:

Tug-of-War was a favorite game of the Vikings, and could be played with mixed teams, or even with parents and children. Though some versions described may not look like your typical middle-school team competition. One version of the game required players to get down on all fours and have a single rider who would try their best to pull a poll or rope away from the opposite rider. Sound easy enough, but did I mention that this is done with the riders back to back, and with their legs around the shoulder or neck of their humble steed?


Mounted tug-of-war was likely as fun as it looks, but while not as violent as swinging about clubs and sticks at your opponent, it could certainly result in a variety of injuries.

Foot Races:

Foot races were a favoriteamong the Vikings and were carried out in all seasons and all weather conditions. It was for the young, for the old, for fathers and sons, or anyone who wanted to test or show off their strength and stamina. After all, combat isn’t just about swinging a sword, you have to be able to get to the battle before the archer’s arrow finds you, and should the odds turn, you have to be able to get back to your ship!


One way we know that foot races were a huge part of Viking cultureis because it exists in their mythology. The Norse gods themselves were quite interesting in the fact that they weren’t gods like we know in Western society. They were powerful, but they weren’t almighty, all-knowing beings, they were just at a different level than humanity. And so, they had quarrels and fights, love affairs, and of course games! The gods took pride in their speed, strength, and wit, just as the Vikings who worshiped them. After all, it is we who create god in our image. Or so says an obscure bit of modern philosophy.

GAMES OF STRENGTH!

Besides games of endurance or of speed, like tug-of-war or the ever-popular foot race, Vikings also enjoyed games of strength. Many of these have actually survived the years and have become the great-grandparents of many of our early Olympic Games, and certainly many of the still popular Highland Games.


As I am sure you can imagine, given the era, geography, and technology of the time, the Vikings didn’t have any amazing gear to have played anything that would be seen in the X-games. But, they did have rocks… and sticks… and in all honesty that was enough to develop quite a few competitive games of strength.


Shot Put for one, can be attributed to the Vikings and stone tossing.Another that we see in power-lifting is the stone carry, and from the Highland games, potentially the Caber toss(a caber is a tree trunk about 20 feet long and weighing about 175 pounds) were a nearly 200lbs polemust be lifted and thrown so that it flips end over end before touching the ground.

Becoming a Man!

Ok, so this one may not be a “game” exactly, but it is interesting and shows just how important these competitions of strength were to the Vikings. Viking games weren’t just ‘games.’ Winning or losing a game could mark you for the rest of your life, or at least until you had the chance to play again.


One of these strength games was actually a rite of passagefor young Vikings, to cross over into manhood. It was a simple lift. All they had to do was pick up and hold a stone… a stone the weighedover 340 pounds! While a Viking boy could be an adult by the age of 15, he would not earn the respect of the true Vikings without this display of strength, and yes, they really did it!

GAMES OF SKILL~

While strength and races and whatnot were all well and good, one of the favorite types of Viking games were actually games of skill, cunning, and wit.

Witty Drinking Games:

Some of these games of wit resolved themselves into drinking games, which probably wouldn’t go over too well today, though I have to say, I would love to spectate.


One such game involved two teams of men and women (opposed or mixed). Each team would take turns draining their drinking horns as fast as possible and telling riddles, reciting ballads, or insulting one another, taking turns back and forth until one team couldn’t keep up their wit or humor. Seriously, I would love to watch something like this. Can you even imagine?

TAFL GAMES:

Though drinking and insults were somehow seen as a display of wit in Norse culture, the best and most populargames of mind were Tafl games(table games/board games). Tafl games were so popular that they were even included in the journals of early explorers who had made contact with Vikings, and into the Icelandic Sagas which record much of the intrepid daily drama of early Norse politics.


Tafl games have also been found in burials and sacred sitesvastly spread across the globe. Pretty much anywhere the Viking went, they brought their games with them, even when going into Valhalla. One could say that war was hell, but games were heaven. The gods certainly did not influence the events of Midgard as we would move a knight or a pawn, but generals and chieftains did!

Tafl as a Strategy Game:

There are definite strategy games that have emerged all over the world, from Shogi to Risk, but Hnefataflwas one of the earliest in Scandinaviaand Europe and was a favorite of the Vikings. It was played with an uneven number of pieces at a 2:1 ratio, meaning that one player (the defender) only had half the number of pieces as the attacker. It sounds crazy, but the Vikings knew that like life, war was not always fair, and it was the defender who was normally caught by surprise. This is also why the attacker always moved first, in addition to having twice the number of pieces.


Hearkening back to the foot races and games of speed, the Vikings were not unrealistic in their strategy games. The defending player did not have to subdue the attacker, but only manage the safe escape of the leader. After all, if a chieftain could escape a surprise attack, they could and would mount a rally a siege on the enemy and take the initiative of the attacker for themselves.


Without playing Hnefatafl, it is difficult to really understand just how challenging it is, whether playing as the attacker or the defender. Every one of the 36 pieces essentially plays like a Rook in chess, moving only in a straight line, but for as many spaces as they please. The real challengeis that the only way to interact with another pieces is to capture it with at least two of your own pieces. This means that whether attacking or defending, you must pay close attention to every move being made, or you could stumble into a trap!

The Truth of Tafl:

Looking though historic texts, sagas, accounts, and poems, we have found that there were actually somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 different varieties of Tafl games that the Vikings played as they spread their influence across the world. Some lasted through the ages, like Tablut, which had its full set of rules recorded and translated as time went one. Others didn’t fair so well.


Hnefatafl for one is still quite a popular game for history buffs and fans of a real challenge, but the truth is that the rules we use to play the game today are only a best guess as to how it was played back then. Some people fervently believe that Hnefatafl was played with dice, while many others say it was played just like every other tafl game of the age – pieces moving any number of spaces in a straight line.


If you would like to try you hand at Hnefataflthough, you can get your ownhand-carved board and sculpted bone set at Norse Tradesmanby clicking here.

Looking though historic texts, sagas, accounts, and poems, we have found that there were actually somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 different varieties of Tafl games that the Vikings played as they spread their influence across the world. Some lasted through the ages, like Tablut, which had its full set of rules recorded and translated as time went one. Others didn’t fair so well.


Hnefatafl for one is still quite a popular game for history buffs and fans of a real challenge, but the truth is that the rules we use to play the game today are only a best guess as to how it was played back then. Some people fervently believe that Hnefatafl was played with dice, while many others say it was played just like every other tafl game of the age – pieces moving any number of spaces in a straight line.


If you would like to try you hand at Hnefataflthough, you can get your ownhand-carved board and sculpted bone set at Norse Tradesmanby clicking here.

AN AGE-OLD RIDDLE:

The reason for the controversythough is quite interesting. In one of the epic sagas, a riddle is posed whose answer is about a rule in Hnefatafl, but the translation could go either way.


In the saga, Gestumblindi's asks,


"What is that beast all girded with iron, which kills the flocks? He has eight horns but no head, and runs as he pleases."


The answer given can be translated in one of two ways though…


Either it is,


“It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and runs when he is thrown”


Or…


“It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked”


The first translation refers to the dice potentially used to play the game. The eight horns being the 8 corners of the 6-sided cube and throwing referring to casting the dice itself.


The other the king, with the eight horns referring the to the eight defending piecesin total and running after attack being the ultimate objective of the defending player.


Regardless of the true translation of the riddle, the World Tafl Federationhas solidified the modern standard rules of competitive Hnefatafl, and there are no dice to be seen.

WRAPPING IT ALL UP:

It has been a long journey through the history of Viking games, from drinking and racing, to cursing and strategizing, and everything in between. We have seen how Viking boys used strength games to become men, and how men and women, children and adults would use games to let off steam or practice for battle. Truly the Vikings were a marvelous people, and it is a shame that they are only remembered for the bloody deeds, and not as the progenitors of games like chess and backgammon.


To all my modern Vikings, live long and stay strong!



Cody Dees, Ph.D.

“Resident Viking”

Norse Tradesman


The guess of the wise is truth.-Grettir Saga, c.31

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