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Mastering Hnefatafl: The Viking Board Game for Wannabe Warlords

MAY 14, 2024

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Ah, Hnefatafl! The ancient Viking board game that's as fun to play as it is to pronounce. If you’ve ever wanted to channel your inner Norse warrior without, you know, the whole pillaging and plundering part, then Hnefatafl is your game. Think of it as Viking chess, but with more beard and less bureaucracy.

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What is Hnefatafl?

Pronounced [nefə-thapl] or “neða-topple,” Hnefatafl literally translates to ‘board of the fist,’ which hints at its warlike nature as a strategy game. The figurative meaning, however, is more closely related to something like “King’s board,” believed to be the inspiration for modern board games like Chess and Backgammon.


Hnefatafl is played on boards ranging from 9x9 to 16x16, but the traditional setup uses an 11x11 board and requires two players. Unlike most games, the 37 pieces are not divided equally—just like life and war are often unfair. The attacker has 24 dark warrior pieces, while the defender has 12 light warriors and 1 king piece. To start the game, the attacking and defending pieces should be arranged as they are shown on the image below.

Leif Erikson

A Brief History of Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl was a popular game among the Norse and other Germanic peoples from as early as the 4th century. It was more than just a way to pass the time; it was a reflection of Viking society, emphasizing strategy, planning, and the harsh realities of battle. The game has been found in archaeological digs throughout Northern Europe, including sites in the UK, Ireland, and Scandinavia. This widespread presence underscores its importance and popularity during the Viking Age.


The game's historical significance is further highlighted by its mention in various sagas and medieval texts. For instance, the "Orkneyinga Saga" tells of Earl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, a notable Hnefatafl player, showcasing the game's role among the Viking elite. Similarly, the "Grettis Saga" references Hnefatafl as a popular winter pastime, proving that even the fiercest warriors enjoyed a good board game. Interestingly, some sagas depict Hnefatafl matches as so intense they could spark fierce arguments and even physical fights—proving Vikings took their games as seriously as their battles!


Hnefatafl was played by kings and warriors alike, often during the long winter months when seafaring was not possible. It served not only as entertainment but also as a training tool, sharpening the minds of those who would lead and fight in real battles. The asymmetric nature of the game, where one side is heavily outnumbered, reflects the unpredictable and often unfair nature of warfare, making it a true Viking game.

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How to Play Hnefatafl (Step-by-Step Guide)

Below is a handy cheatsheet with a step-by-step guide on how to play Hnefatafl. Click on the image to enlarge it and save it for easy reference during your games. Happy playing, and may your strategies be as sharp as a Viking’s axe! 
Leif Erikson

Watch and Learn: 
Ready to see Hnefatafl in action? Check out this awesome video guide below! It’s like having a Viking strategist in your living room, minus the war cries and battle axes. Enjoy, and happy gaming!

Hnefatafl in the Present Time

The ancient Viking board game, Hnefatafl, isn’t just some dusty relic from the past; it’s a living, breathing game with a vibrant modern community. If you thought chess was the only game of kings, think again!

World Quickplay Hnefatafl Championships: 
Every year, the World Quickplay Hnefatafl Championships take place on the island of Fetlar in the Shetland Islands. These aren’t your grandma’s board games—players get just ten seconds per turn, making it a fast-paced, heart-pounding affair. The Shetland Islands, with their rich Viking history, provide the perfect backdrop for this epic showdown.

World Tafl Federation Championships: 
Since 2011, the World Tafl Federation has been holding annual Hnefatafl World Championship events. The latest championship was a nail-biter, featuring three different tournaments: modern Hnefatafl played by Copenhagen rules, historical Hnefatafl, and sea battle Hnefatafl. Competitors from all over the globe battled it out, but in the end, Mario Aluizo emerged victorious, claiming the title of the undisputed Hnefatafl world champion.

Conclusion

Now that you're equipped with the knowledge of a Viking chieftain, it's time to conquer your friends and family on the Hnefatafl board. And if you don't have the game yet, don't worry! You can grab our Hnefatafl Bone Set or the light Hnefatafl Travel Set version. Because let's face it, no true Viking would be caught without their trusty set of this legendary Viking game!

So go on, make Odin proud and may your enemies tremble before your strategic prowess. Who knows, maybe you will be the next Hnefatafl champion! Skål!

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