Hnefetafl (Kings Table)

Vikings for all occasions, no game too hard!

Manaraefan Herred

How to play Hnefatafl:

           The game is for two players, and each has a different aim; one is attacking and besieging, the other is defending and escaping.

           Set the pieces out on the marked squares except the corners, the king in the centre with the light pieces around it, and the darker pieces around the edge. The arrangement is symmetrical, and there are twice as many dark pieces as there are light ones.

             The dark pieces are the attackers; they move first. Their aim is to prevent the king escaping to one of the corner squares, and to box him in on all four sides so that he cannot move at all. The aim of the light pieces is to avoid siege and manoeuvre the king to one of the corner squares.

             All pieces move in the same way, along rows of squares in any direction, like the rook (or castle) in chess.  They may be moved as many spaces as are free but may not jump over other pieces. There is no diagonal movement. The central square is the king's square and no other pieces may occupy it, though they may pass over it.

             Sandwiching one piece between two of the opponent’s captures pieces (Fig 1).  However a piece moved deliberately between two of the opponent's pieces is not taken (Fig 2). The king cannot itself be taken in this way but may take part in taking other pieces (Fig 3).  The king is taken if it is surrounded on all four sides (Fig 4).

Special situations

             If the light pieces encircle the king and all the remaining dark pieces, they win; for although they may not be able to prevent movement inside the circle, they prevent the king from escaping and so achieved their aim.

             Any piece except the king is taken if it is trapped against one of the corner squares (Fig 5).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 5

Board by  Alric of Hrafnslith Herred and pieces from  Past Times.

Comments on this site should be sent to Roger Barry


             First set the scene.  Ask if any of the children have played chess, if they have remind them that chess is a wargame, two armies fight to capture the opposing king.  Hnefatafl continues the game from the check mate position.  The king’s army has lost the battle and the enemy warriors are closing in to kill or capture him.   The brave warriors of his hearth troop are sworn to protect their king and get him to safety or die in the attempt.

             Secondly explain the rules.  Try to relate the movement of the pieces to familiar games like chess and draughts.  Set up some example moves.  Explain how the rules relate to battles, for example two warriors face each other in an equally matched fight, one is only taken when an enemy comes up behind him and attacks from the rear.  The King, being the strongest, toughest and best equipped warrior can take a great deal of damage before going down, that is why four attacking warriors are needed to take him.

             Thirdly extol the virtues of a Viking warrior, courage, self-sacrifice, boldness and intelligence.  For the king to escape, his hearth troop must have the courage to face the enemy, they must be prepared to sacrifice themselves for his freedom, they must move boldly and intelligently.  If a warriors life is to be expended it must be to achieve an appropriate goal, any fool can sacrifice himself, an intelligent warrior will only do so at the expense of his foe.  Children have a tendency to move the pieces one space at a time making it easy to defeat them.  Explain that the king and warriors must move boldly and quickly if they are to fight their way out of the trap.

             The attacking warriors also display courage, self-sacrifice, boldness and intelligence but may also show mercy.  It is not always necessary to kill an enemy piece, indeed it is sometimes better to allow an enemy warrior to live as he can block the path of the escaping king.  Imagine a disorganised mob of confused warriors bumping into each other, if they are killed the king may suddenly see an escape route open up before him.  Denying the king that opportunity shows mercy tinged with cunning.  Slaughtering enemy warriors for no purpose is not the act of a noble warrior but that of a mad man.

             Fourthly explain some tactics and how they relate to a battle, you can do this as the game progresses.  Some examples are, a solid line of warriors will block the kings escape route, this line of warriors is known as a shield-wall.  To have a chance of escaping the king must threaten two corners at once, this displays the need to confuse your enemy and observe the whole battlefield.  Conversely the attacking player must cover any threatened square with at least two pieces; warriors must support each other.  Shield-walls can be broken if the king has a warrior behind it, it cannot hold when attacked from front and rear at the same time.  Making such a determined attack at another point that the attacker has to move his warriors across the board can also break a shield-wall.

             Finally, as the game unfolds you can tell the story of a heroic last stand or escape to freedom.  The whole game becomes an epic struggle that fires the imagination.