Hnefatafl: The Intriguing Viking Chess Set Explained

viking chess set

Have you ever heard of Hnefatafl, an ancient game of strategy and wit that originated during the Viking Age? Hnefatafl is a chess-like game that has captured the imagination of history enthusiasts and game lovers alike. In this article, we will take a closer look at Viking chess sets and explore the fascinating world of Hnefatafl.

Key Takeaways

  • Hnefatafl is an ancient game of strategy that originated during the Viking Age
  • Viking chess sets are fascinating historical artifacts that continue to captivate collectors and enthusiasts today
  • The game of Hnefatafl involves unique pieces and a distinct board design
  • Players use various tactics and strategies to outmaneuver their opponents and secure victory
  • Modern variations of Hnefatafl allow for continued exploration and enjoyment of this intriguing game

The Viking Age: A Brief Overview

The Viking Age is a period in European history that lasted from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century, characterized by the raiding, trading, and settling of Norse seafarers from Scandinavia. During this time, the Vikings established colonies in countries such as England, Ireland, and Russia, and played a significant role in shaping medieval Europe.

The Vikings were skilled shipbuilders, navigators, and warriors, known for their feared raids on coastal towns and monasteries. However, they were also skilled traders, establishing extensive trade networks throughout Europe and beyond.

While the Viking Age is often associated with violence and pillaging, it was also a period of significant cultural, social, and economic exchange. The Vikings left a lasting impact on the societies they encountered, with their influence still visible in modern-day Scandinavia and other parts of Europe.

Origins of Hnefatafl

The origins of Hnefatafl are shrouded in mystery, with no clear evidence of its exact creation. However, historians and archaeologists have uncovered clues that suggest the game originated in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, around the 5th to 12th centuries CE.

One theory suggests that Hnefatafl was created in the 4th century CE by the Saxons, a Germanic tribe that lived in what is now Germany and Denmark. Another theory suggests that the game was brought to Scandinavia by the Romans, who played a similar game called Ludus Latrunculorum.

Regardless of its exact origins, Hnefatafl quickly became a popular pastime among Vikings and was played across Scandinavia, as well as in other parts of Europe, including Ireland, Scotland, and England. The game remained popular until the end of the Viking Age, after which it gradually declined in popularity.

Rules of Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl is a chess-like game that requires strategy and careful planning to outmaneuver your opponent. Here are the basic rules of the game:

  1. The game is played on a board with a 9×9 grid. One player controls the white pieces, and the other controls the black pieces.
  2. The white pieces start in the center of the board, while the black pieces start on the edges.
  3. The objective of the game for the white player is to capture the black king. The objective for the black player is to prevent the white player from capturing the king.
  4. Each piece moves like a rook in chess, moving horizontally or vertically across the board. Pieces cannot move diagonally.
  5. Pieces can be captured by surrounding them on two opposite sides along a straight line. If a piece is surrounded on two sides, it is removed from the board.
  6. The king piece is captured in the same way as any other piece, but the game ends immediately if the king is captured by the white player.
  7. If the black player manages to move the king to any of the four corners of the board, the game ends and the black player wins.
  8. If the white player captures all of the black pieces, or if the black player is unable to make any moves, the white player wins.

Starting Position

Here is the starting position for the game:

  a b c d e f g h i
1       x          
2     x       x    
3   x       x   x  
4 x     k         x
5         x        
6     x       x    
7   x       x   x  
8     x       x    
9       x          

White starts the game by moving first.

The Hnefatafl Board and Pieces

The Hnefatafl board is a square, consisting of 11×11 to 19×19 intersecting lines marked with a grid pattern. The playing pieces are usually made of bone, ivory, or wood and are either circular or oblong in shape. The king piece (or “tafl”) is usually larger than the other pieces and may have a special design or symbol, such as a cross or a shield.

The pieces are typically divided into two opposing sides: the attackers and the defenders. The attackers have 24 pieces, which are placed along the edges and corners of the board. The defenders have 12 or 13 pieces, including the king, which is placed at the center of the board.

The board design and pieces used in Hnefatafl have strong symbolic and cultural significance. The grid pattern of the board represents the landscape of Scandinavia, while the pieces symbolize the different classes of Nordic society. The King piece represents the king, and the defending army represents the nobles who protect him. The attacking army represents the common people who seek to overthrow the king.

Overall, the intricately designed board and pieces add to the charm and allure of Hnefatafl, making it a popular choice for collectors and enthusiasts alike.

Strategies and Tactics in Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl is a game that requires strategy, patience, and quick thinking. The objective of the game is for the attacking player to capture the king, while the defender’s goal is to help the king escape. Here are some of the essential strategies and tactics that players use in Hnefatafl:

  1. Control the center: The center of the board is the most valuable area, as it offers the most mobility for pieces. Controlling the center allows players to move their pieces more effectively and create opportunities for attacking or defending.
  2. Protect the corners: The corners of the board are vulnerable spots, as they cannot be attacked by the king. However, if pieces are left unprotected, they can be easily captured. Players need to ensure that their pieces are not left vulnerable in the corners.
  3. Use the king as bait: The king is a valuable piece, but it can also be used as bait to lure attackers into unfavorable positions. By using the king strategically, players can force their opponents to make mistakes, opening up opportunities for attack.
  4. Create barriers: Barriers can be formed by stacking pieces on top of each other, preventing opponents from moving through certain areas. By creating barriers, players can control the movement of their opponent’s pieces and force them into unfavorable positions.
  5. Plan ahead: Hnefatafl requires players to think several moves ahead, considering the consequences of each action. Planning ahead allows players to anticipate their opponent’s moves and adjust their strategies accordingly.
  6. Be unpredictable: The element of surprise can be a powerful tool in Hnefatafl. By making unexpected moves, players can catch their opponents off guard and gain an advantage.
  7. Use the edge: The edge of the board can be used to trap pieces, cutting off their escape routes. Players can use the edge to create advantageous positions and force their opponents into making mistakes.

These are just a few of the many strategies and tactics that players can use in Hnefatafl. The game offers endless possibilities for creative play, making it a fascinating and challenging pastime for players of all skill levels.

Modern Variations of Hnefatafl

While the rules and board layout for traditional Hnefatafl have remained relatively consistent over time, many enthusiasts have explored variations of the game to keep it fresh and exciting. Here are a few modern takes on Hnefatafl:

Variation Description
Tablut A variation of Hnefatafl played on a smaller 9×9 board. The king starts in the center of the board and must be captured for the attackers to win.
Ard Ri This variation is played on a larger 13×13 board and features additional pieces called Dogs that move like the king or pawns. The game is won by either capturing the king or by moving the king to one of the four corner squares.
Tawlbwrdd Played on a circular board, Tawlbwrdd reflects the tradition of circular board games in Celtic cultures. The game involves a combination of chess and Tafl, with different pieces having unique moves and powers.

These variations are just a few examples of how Hnefatafl has evolved over time to continue captivating players. Whether you prefer to stick to traditional rules or explore new variations, there is no doubt that Hnefatafl offers endless hours of strategic entertainment for enthusiasts of all ages.

Collecting Viking Chess Sets

If you’re a fan of Viking history and board games, then collecting Viking chess sets may be a perfect hobby for you. Here are some tips and tricks to get you started on your collection.

Find Authentic Pieces

When it comes to collecting Viking chess sets, authenticity is key. Look for reliable and reputable dealers who specialize in Viking artifacts and products. Be wary of cheap imitations or pieces that claim to be “Viking-inspired” or “Viking-style.” These may not be genuine Viking chess sets and may not hold the same value as authentic pieces.

Understand the Value

The value of Viking chess sets can vary depending on factors such as age, condition, rarity, and historical significance. Do your research and consult with experts to learn more about the market value of different sets. Keep in mind that some pieces may appreciate in value over time, while others may not hold the same long-term investment potential.

Consider the Materials

Traditional Viking chess sets were made from materials such as bone, antler, and wood. Modern reproductions may use materials such as plastic or resin. Consider which materials you prefer and the overall aesthetic of the set before making a purchase.

Display Your Collection

Once you’ve acquired a collection of Viking chess sets, you’ll want to display them proudly. Consider investing in a display case or shelf to showcase your pieces. Be sure to keep them in a clean, dry, and protected environment to preserve their condition and value.

By following these tips, you can start your own collection of authentic Viking chess sets and connect with the rich history of the Viking Age. Happy collecting!


In conclusion, the world of Viking chess sets and the game of Hnefatafl offer a captivating way to connect with the rich history of the Viking Age. Whether you are a history enthusiast or a board game lover, exploring Hnefatafl can provide hours of strategic entertainment.

As you have discovered, Hnefatafl has a fascinating history that dates back centuries and is rooted in the Viking culture. The game’s unique rules and pieces make it a challenging and rewarding experience for players of all skill levels.

If you are interested in experiencing Hnefatafl for yourself, there are various methods to do so, from purchasing a physical set to playing online versions. Regardless of how you choose to play, the game promises an exciting and engaging experience.

By learning about the strategies and tactics involved in Hnefatafl, you can develop a deeper appreciation for the game’s complexity and the strategic prowess required to achieve victory. Furthermore, exploring modern variations of Hnefatafl can provide a fresh perspective on this ancient game and keep it alive for generations to come.

So why not embrace the spirit of the Vikings and experience the thrill of Hnefatafl for yourself? As you immerse yourself in this exciting world of strategy and skill, you will gain a deeper understanding of Viking culture and history, and perhaps even awaken your inner warrior.


What is Hnefatafl?

Hnefatafl is an ancient Viking board game of strategy and tactics. It originated during the Viking Age and was played by warriors and kings.

How do you play Hnefatafl?

The objective of Hnefatafl is for one player, the defenders, to protect their king and for the other player, the attackers, to capture the king. Players take turns moving their pieces orthogonally, capturing enemy pieces by surrounding them on two opposite sides.

What are the rules of Hnefatafl?

The rules of Hnefatafl vary depending on the specific variant being played. However, the general rules involve moving pieces orthogonally, capturing enemy pieces by surrounding them on two opposite sides, and protecting or capturing the king.

How many players can play Hnefatafl?

Hnefatafl can be played with two players. One player takes on the role of the defenders, while the other player becomes the attackers.

Can Hnefatafl be played online?

Yes, there are several online platforms and mobile apps available where you can play Hnefatafl against other players from around the world.

Are there different variations of Hnefatafl?

Yes, there are several variations of Hnefatafl, with different board sizes and variations in rules. Some variants may have larger boards and additional pieces, offering a more complex gameplay experience.

Where can I find a Hnefatafl set?

Hnefatafl sets can be found in specialty board game stores or online retailers that specialize in historical games. You can also find DIY instructions to create your own Hnefatafl set.

Is Hnefatafl suitable for children?

Hnefatafl can be enjoyed by children, but it may require some guidance from adults to understand the rules and strategy involved.

Can Hnefatafl be played solo?

Some variations of Hnefatafl can be played solo, where one player takes on both the role of the defenders and the attackers. This allows for practicing strategies and gameplay without requiring an opponent.