Board games history: the Viking game of Tafl
Posted November 5, 2009on:
The Tafl is an ancient Viking board game and also one of the oldest board games ever invented.
Talfl board game is the Nordic answer to the game of chess, but its board is larger and the high number of odds leads to a high number of variants to be considered at every move; this turns this board game into into a true exercise of skill and strategy.
References to Tafl and other board games abound in many famous Viking Sagas, however some of the rules are still uncertain.
You can find here a modern reconstruction of the rules of this ancient board game.
For sure we know that Tafl was a board game for two players very popular among Viking, Norse, Celtics and other Northern Europe populations, and we also know that the game consists of:
a game board of 19 x 19 ;
24 white pawn pieces
1 white King piece
48 black pieces.
Tafl it’s a strategy board game; a wargame based on attack and defence: like in the game of chess, there are whites and blacks pieces; whites comes with a king while blacks do not. The goal for whites is to liberate their king frome black threat making him arrive at one edge of the board, while for blacks, the aim is to capture the enemy king. With the exception of the king the other pieces are all the equivalent of a pawn in chess and can move how many boxes they want until you meet an obstacle and it is forbidden to move diagonally (like the rook in chess). As regards the positions of the king occupies the middle box and is surrounded by his pawns instead blacks are positioned at the edge of the board. To “eat”, a pawn must close between two pieces while the king must be closed in four pieces.
The first evidence of the existence of this Viking board game is given to us from the discovery of a Roman tomb dated 400 AD in the Danish island of Wimose: inside the tomb, researchers fount a little fragment of the Tafl board. In an English manuscript of the tenth century (more correctly dated to the reign of King Athelstan of Wessex, 925-940) is instead shown a table with the initial layout of all pieces and some brief rules for the game.
The full name of this board game is Hnefatafl which probably means “the king’s board”: The term “Tafl” comes from the Latin “tabula” which stands for board.
The prevalence of board games in ancient Norse culture is mainly associated with migration of the people of Viking and the “playful culture” of these people is evidenced by a written Rögnvaldr Kali, dated between 1135 and 1158, in which appears a verse that refers to the Tafl board game.
We report the translation in English, from ancient Norse language:
I can play at Tafl,
Nine skills I know,
Rarely forget I the runes,
I know of books and smithing,
I know how to slide on skis,
Shoot and row, well enough;
Each of two arts I know,
Harp-playing and speaking poetry
The Tafl board game perfectly suites the mentality of the Viking people and deeply reveals the “Viking spirit”: The starting position in the board reflects the technique favored by these sailors of northern Europe: a sudden assault to overcome the enemies.
once the playerwith the king is attacked, is very difficult for him to defeat the “attackers” that surround his pieces: the goal of the game, for defenders, is just to rescue the king, a symbol of the entire Vikng stock. The capture of the king represents the destruction of the whole people, instead his salvation means hope.
It seems, according to some authors, that the game of Tafl is related to even older board games: the Greek game “Penthe Grammai” (cited by Sophocles, fifth century BC), with which it shares the capture mode, the “Plinthion” or “Game of city “ (quoted by Cratinus) and the ancient Roman game “Latrunculi” . Other authors also found some relationships between Tafl board game and the Egyptian game ” Seega”.