Contrary to popular belief, the Vikings didn’t spend all their free time sacking and pillaging. They engaged in all kinds of recreational activities, including what are known today as board games.
The most popular board game in Viking times was “Hnefatafl” (meaning “king’s table” in Old Norse). According to growing archeological evidence, thanks to the far-reaching influence of the sea-faring Vikings the game was played in Iceland and throughout the British Isles, all over Northern Europe and even east of the Baltic Sea.
The game itself, played on a wooden or textile board (shown above), is as unique as it is asymmetric. The chieftain with his soldiers is outnumbered but defends himself against attackers and tries to escape. The chieftain in his castle in the center of the board may save himself from the attackers by fleeing into one of the corner castles without being taken prisoner during the flight. Although the rules of the game are rather simple, it requires tactical skill to take the enemy by surprise and win the game.
Seems a lot more challenging than Candy Land, that’s for sure!
Hnefatafl was often mentioned in several of the Old Norse sagas, including Orkneyinga saga, Friðþjófs saga, Hervarar saga, and others.
The term tafl (Old Norse for "table" or "board") is the original name of the game. However, Hnefatafl became the preferred term for the game in Scandinavia by the end of the Viking Age (circa 1066 CE), to distinguish it from other board-games, such as Skáktafl (Chess), Kvatrutafl (Tables, the medieval forerunner of Backgammon) and Halatafl (Fox And Geese), as these became known.
Hnefatafl and other “table” games were commonly played all across Northern Europe from as early as the year 400 CE, until it was replaced by Chess in the 12th Century.
A carving of two men playing Hnefatafl found on a Viking runestone in Sweden.