Hnefatafl, a Viking board game

Reproduction Hnefatafl board game at the Settlement Museum

Reproduction Hnefatafl board game at the Settlement Museum

I’m back from my trip to Iceland, and I have a bunch of things to share with you! I’m going to start off with a Viking board game… but there are lots of costume things to share soon!

From the Settlement Museum (Reykjavik 871 +/- 2) there was a write-up about the board game called Hnefatafl. They had a brief description (grammatical errors included):

“Hnefatafl was a popular game among the vikings. This is evident in several findings of game pieces around archaeological sites across Scandinavia, in Iceland and in the British Isles. Most of the pieces are made out of bones, reindeer antlers and sometimes even glass. The tables were usually made out of wood. So, due to decay, not many tables have been found. Hnefatafl was played on tables of different sizes. Nobody knows for sure how the game was played, but the set of rules in this game are made after a description of a game played by a native tribe in Finland in 1732. That game is most likely one version of Hnefatafl.

Considering how much amount of game pieces have been found and the many mentionings of hnefatafl in old scripts, it had to be a widespread phenomenon. To be a good player was considered as important as being a good athlete or hunter.  At least Earl Rögnvaldur Kali thought so when he described a noble viking in the following words:”

(I’ve included only the English translation)

“I play Tafl enthusiastically

I can play nine sports

I know all the runes

Often I read and craft

I can go down hill on skis

I am fully able to row and hunt

I am interested in both

Playing of instruments and poetry”

They also included descriptions of how to play the game, which can also be found online.

Instructions from the Smithsonian

Instructions from Chomikuj

Instructions from the Board Game Geek

The Iceland National Museum had a display of a game board found in a men’s grave from northern Iceland. The write up said:

“Hneftafl Board Game. It comprises 24 pieces, turned from marine mammal tooth. The die is cut from the leg bone of a cow or horse, and the hnefi or “king” is a carved whalebone, man-like figure. When the game was found, half the pieces are said to have been red, and half white. The rules of the old game are not known with any certainty, other than both sides took turns attacking and defending the king.”

Gravesite find, pieces from the Hnefatafl board game from the Iceland National Museum

Gravesite find, pieces from the Hnefatafl board game from the Iceland National Museum

Hnefatafl appears to also be called Hneftafl, & HnefTafl.


A token found in the man's grave along with the Hnefatafl game pieces

A token found in the man’s grave along with the Hnefatafl game pieces

The grave side also included this small figure. I didn’t actually photograph the description of it though.

National Museum of Iceland
Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 530 2200

Minjasafn Reykjavíkur – The Settlement Exhibition – Reykjavik 871 +/- 2
Aðalstræti 16, Old West Side, Reykjavik, Iceland
+354 411 6370

2 comments on “Hnefatafl, a Viking board game

  1. Tim Millar says:

    Excellent and informative article! Thank you. We’ve just had the English National Hnefatafl Championship at Sutton Hoo (a Saxon burial site), and I twice attended the World Championships in Shetland. I mostly play on-line these days – fascinating and absorbing game!

    • Dawn says:

      That sounds amazing! I tried to find a way to play online against the computer – but none of the links I tried worked – do you have any links to share?

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