The game of hnefatafl is unusual in having two differing sides. One, with the king at its head, has a number of guards with whose help the king must escape from the board. The other side is twice as numerous, and must capture the king before he makes his escape. It differs from traditional hunt games in that the king himself, though prey, has an army of his own, each defending piece having the same powers of movement and capture as an attacker.
Many different board sizes and numbers and arrangements of pieces were used across the Viking world, so there are a number of "named" variants, as well as forgotten variations and house rules. But the generic name "hnefatafl" is often used for ancient and modern variants which have not themselves been given a distinctive name.
History of Hnefatafl
Hnefatafl was created at some time in the early mediaeval period, or the "dark ages" as people other than historians like to call them. It was probably adapted from the Roman game of ludus latrunculorum, with which is shares a number of characteristics. The Roman game travelled as far north as Denmark, where examples have been found among war booty offerings.
The game reached its height in during the Viking age, where the Norse raiders, traders and settlers took it with them to the various lands encountered in their travels. It took root in the British Isles, Eastern Europe, across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland and may have made it to continental North America.
It declined after chess was adopted as the fashionable game of northern Europe. References to hnefatafl in the Icelandic sagas and other literature were changed to chess, so that contemporary readers could understand them. Hnefatafl lingered on in remote districts, however, and was documented in the early modern period in Wales and in Lapland.
Scholarly interest in the game began a revival in the twentieth century, resulting in a number of commercial versions under various names from the 1960s onwards. A number of new games take their inspiration from hnefatafl, such as Breakthru and Thud. The revival is growing, with an annual tournament on Fetlar being held since 2008.
Rules for Hnefatafl
These are the rules devised by the Fetlar Hnefatafl Panel, used in the World Quickplay Hnefatafl Tournament and in a number of other tournaments around the world. They are for boards 11 squares by 11 squares.
There are two sides. The attackers arranged in groups of 6 at each side of the board, making a total of 24 and the defenders are arranged around the king in the centre of the board. The king is on the central refuge square.
The aim of the attackers is to capture the king. The aim of the defenders is to help get the king to a refuge square at the corner of the board. The refuge squares are red.
Moves are the same for all pieces. A piece may move horizontally or vertically but not diagonally. The piece may move one or more squares, until it is stopped by the presence of another piece, a refuge square or the edge of the board. The central square is the starting square for the king’s fifth refuge square. No other piece may rest on this square but they may cross it if there is no other piece obstructing the other side of that square.
Starting. The attackers have the first move.
Taking is by sandwiching an opponent piece horizontally or vertically between two of your own. This squashing process is referred to as “the hammer and anvil”. Pieces cannot be squashed diagonally.
A piece can move between two opposing pieces into a sandwiched position and is then not taken. The opponent has to move a piece away and then carry out the hammer manoeuvre to take the piece.
It is possible to move a piece so that it causes more than one opposing piece to be squashed. In this case more than one opposing piece has been taken. The maximum number of pieces it is possible to take in one move is three.
A piece may be positioned where one move by the opponent would capture it but the player on move need not take that piece. Taking is also possible by squashing an opposing piece between one of your pieces and a refuge square. The refuge square is then the anvil. It may be that the king is on the central refuge square in which case only an attacking piece may be taken using it as the anvil until the king has moved away.
If the king has left the central square then either attacker or defender may be squashed against that square and so taken.
Any piece that has been taken should be removed immediately from the board.
Taking the king is by surrounding him on all four sides. If the king is at the side of the board it cannot be taken. The attackers must force the king from the edge of the board in order to surround him and take him. It is permitted to capture the king on the central refuge square. (i.e. one attacking warrior on each of the four sides.)
If the same position is reached on three separate occasions with the same player to move the game can be adjudicated a draw.
If a player is unable to make a legal move when it is their go then the game is drawn.
This text has been taken with permission from http://www.fetlar.org/assets/files/hnefatafl-rules-02-09-2012.pdf.
Strategy in Hnefatafl
The game has a basic strategy for each side. The attackers have to form a blockade to contain the king and his defenders, and gradually close in the ring until the defending forces are suffocated, capturing defenders and eventually seizing the king himself.
The defenders can stop this happening by breaking through holes in the attackers' blockade, tackling the attackers from behind, trying to widen the holes through the blockade to allow the king to break free.
As hnefatafl is a sophisticated game with many variants, there are details and subtleties to the strategy enough to keep an avid game player happy for a lifetime.