Originally written for a medieval journal, 2002.
Tafl is the catch name for a group of games popular in northern Europe up to a few hundred years ago. Variants have been found in Finland, Scotland, Ireland, England, Scandinavia and many other countries. Anywhere that had contact with the Vikings had contact with tafl.
The oldest record of a tafl-like game is from 250 BCE, when the Germanic tribes first entered recorded history. The oldest board found to date was in Denmark. The board was dated to 400 CE.
Tafl was written about in folk tales, poems and epics throughout northern Europe. It appears in an English manuscript dated somewhere during 925-940 CE, and in a Swedish botanist’s journal in 1732. (It is from this journal that we get most of our modern information on how to play from.) Gweyddbwyll (a Welsh variant) is included in the Arthurian legends, where Owain (a Welsh hero) bests King Arthur.
Being a good tafl player was so important that when the Norseman Earl Rognvalder Kail bragged about his skills, he topped his list with his strength at tafl.
The most prevalent version of tafl, the one you are most likely to encounter today, is the Finnish version, called Tablut. Tablut was played on a 9 x 9 checkered board. One side, the defenders, consisted of 9 men, one of whom was the king. They were usually white, and were placed in the center of the board. The king was placed in the center of the board, on a square called either the King’s Square, the Throne, or konakis. The attackers numbered sixteen, were most often red, brown or black, and set up on the edges of the board. The white side represented Swedes, and the black Moscovites (Russians). In other versions the King is called Hnefi (‘King’) or Cyningstan (Old English for ‘King-Stone’), and the pieces were called Hunns (‘knobs’), Taeflor (‘table-men’) or taefelstanas (Old English for ‘table-men’).
Pieces moved like a rook in chess, which is any number of spaces orthogonally (up or down, left or right, not diagonally).
In most variants any piece could move through the Throne, but only the King could land on it.
Pieces were captured by having an opponent close in on two sides, either top and bottom, or left and right. If a piece moves intentionally between two enemy pieces of its own volition it is not captured. Multiple captures were possible.
The King is captured by being blocked on all four sides. If the King is sitting beside the Throne, and is blocked by white on the other three sides, he is captured. Also, if any defenders are sitting beside the King, and they and the King are blocked in so none of them can move, the King is captured. (In some modern versions, the King is captured like any other piece.) The King is allowed to take part in captures for his side.
As should be obvious by now, the attacker’s goal is to capture the King. The King’s goal is to escape. There are at least two different ways to play this:
1) Get the King to an edge. In this version, the King wins if he reaches an outside edge of the board. If he makes a move that opens up a clear path to an edge for the King, he announces “Raichi”. If this path is opened by white’s move, he does not have to announce this, and can take opportunity of the opening on his next move to win the game. If he has two clear paths to an edge, he announces “Tuichi”. Two paths cannot be blocked during one move, so it is an automatic win.
2) Get the King to a corner. Some tafl boards have been found with ornate corners, leading scholars to believe that in some versions the King had to get to a corner to win. In this case, one of two rules had to added, to keep white from simply blocking the corners and forcing a stalemate.
2a) The corners count as Thrones, which means only the King can land in them. This doesn’t stop white from simply sitting beside them, effectively blocking access for the King, so most modern tafl boards use the next rule.
2b) The corners, and the center Throne, count as hostile spaces. Anyone sitting next to one is at threat of capture. Once the King leaves the Throne, he cannot land on it again.
Other Possible Variations
There is a lot of conjecture about what ancient games were really tafl games. Evidence is being pieced together from fragments of poems, journal entries and other such sources, and are usually incomplete or evasive in meaning. The one constant seems to be that the boards always had an odd number of checks, and that the defenders had half the number of men as the attackers, plus the King. Also, the attackers generally go first.
1) Fitchneal (Irish), played on a 7 x 7 board. Some game historians actually think this was based on an older Roman game, and was not related to Tafl at all.
2) Tawlbrydd / Tawlbrydd / Tawl-Bwrdd (Welsh), played on an 11 x 11 or 13 x 13 board. Tawl-Bwrdd is usually translated as ‘Throw Board’, and dates back to 914-943 CE. It was played on an 11 x 11 board, with the King and twelve defenders against twenty-four attackers. The way in which this game’s name has been translated, leads some to believe that dice were used in play. Some say that an even roll meant you missed your turn. Others believe that the roll told you how far you could move a piece that turn. This is disputed, as the randomness involves cuts down on a game of skill and tactics.
3) Hnefatafl (Saxon), translates as ‘King’s Table.’ At least one example exists of hnefatafl being played on an 18 x 18 board. Therefore, it is surmised that the pieces were actually placed on the corners of the checks, instead of in the checks, turning the board into a 17 x 17 board. (Many eastern games, such as Go, were played like this.) Hnefatafl on a 19 x 19 board greatly resembles Alea Evangeli.
4) Alea Evangeli (Anglo-Saxon), played on a 19 x 19 board. In this version the defender moved first and the four defenders right around the King are the King’s Guards, and cannot be captured. The other defenders are called Huns.
5) Some games were played on a 7 x 7 board where pieces could only move one space at a time, such as Scotland’s Ard-Ri (‘High King’). Escape was to the corners.
Sire Bohémond de Niée, Hnefatafl: The Viking Game.
Lord Brustende Bearsul (Patrick J. Smith), “Period Pastimes,” The Compleat Anachronist #71: Ways to While Away a Siege, 1994. 34-35, 46.
Gerhand Kendal of Westmoreland, “Alquerque and Tafl Games,” The Compleat Anachronist #4: Indoor Games, Jan 1983, 27-31.
Helmfrid, Sten, Hnefatafl: The Strategic Board Game of the Vikings, version 2, 2000.
Knutson, Charles, “The Games of the Vikings,” Renaissance Magazine #22, 2001. 22-23.
Salaamallah the Corpulant (Jeffrey A. DeLuca), Medieval Games. Third Edition. Willimantic, CT, 1995. 72-75.