Wednesday, May 28, 2014

H is for Hnefatafl

Some time between 1987 and 1991, I was given a copy of an intriguing game for Christmas that had been marketed under the name "King's Table" [1]

This game was billed as an ancient Viking interpretation of chess, and to my teenage self that was enough: I swiftly enveigled a few family members to play with me. [2] Sadly, once the Christmas season was over, this game only rarely saw the light of day, which is a true shame. I didn't know very much about the game at the time, just the page of notes that preceded the rules.

This was before the explosion of information on just about any subject on the internet, and there was nothing about the game that I could find in encyclopedias or other books in the library. Of course, this was partly because the game I got didn't include any of the names of the real games on which it was based - it was an amalgam of the various guesses as to how the table games played throughout the germanic, norse and celtic world about a thousand years ago probably worked.  The result was that I regarded the game as an interesting chess variant, but didn't really pursue it any further. [3]

A few years ago, I was reading about something [4] for some reason that now eludes me when I inadvertently stepped into a maze of tangent clicks.[5] The next thing I knew, I was reading an article on the question of whether or not dice were used in a game found in Viking graves, and comparison to a Welsh game called tawlbwrdd. As I read, I suddenly remembered the game from that Christmas long ago and realised that there had always been more to this game than just a chess variant.

To start, I realised that I had misinterpreted the rules [6] and play was actually more sophisticated than I had thought. To continue, the possible inclusion of dice in the game suggested that it was far more than merely a local variant of chess, and I had been missing an interesting dimension of the history of games in Europe despite its having been right under my nose.

Since then, I've read a bit more about the game, and my interest in exploring it has only increased. Sadly, malleable relatives are now far away in space and time, and it's more difficult to bully my current social circle into playing games.

Much as I'd love to play Hnefatafl a bit more, it doesn't seem likely I'll get a chance any time soon. [7] That won't stop me from reading more about it of course, but I can't help but chafe at the poor intersection of time and technology that led me to forget about it for so long.


1. I don't remember the exact variant of the game clearly, but it would have been a commercialized version of one of these.

2. For values of "a few" exactly equalling one.

3. Interestingly, though, when I think back my interest in the history, archaeology and anthropology of games basically dates back to this period - I don't clearly remember which came first, though, so I don't know whether my interest led to the purchase of the game, or receiving the game led to my interest in historical games.

4. I don't recall what.

5. As one does.

6.  Or perhaps the reconstruction on which the commercial game was based had been simplified - to its detriment.

7. Though apparently you can play online!

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