Hnefetafl

A Norse Game

Choose game and opponent to play:

 
Single-Seat
Computer plays Attacker
Computer plays Defender
Board Size
Weaponed King
Played By
Ard-Ri
Not Available
Not Available
7x7
No
Scots
Tablut
Not Available
Not Available
9x9
No
Saami
Fitchneal
9x9
Yes
Irish
Hnefetafl
11x11
Yes
Norse
Tawl-Bwrdd
Not Available
Not Available
11x11
No
Welsh
Hnefetafl
Not Available
Not Available
13x13
No
Norse
Alea Evangelii
Not Available
Not Available
19x19
No
Saxons

Hnefetafl (or Hnefatafl) is a Norse game dating back to at least the 4th century, probably derived from the Roman game of Latrunculi (which was probably a copy of, or evolution from, the Greek game of Petteia). Hnefetafl was played widely in Scandinavia and in the areas the Vikings raided, such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Saxony. After the 11th or 12th century, it was largely displaced by chess (skak-tafl), although it was played into the 17th century among the Saami.

Rules

The object of the game is to capture the defender's king, or to get the king to escape. In some versions, the king escapes by reaching a corner of the board, while in other versions the king escapes by reaching an edge of the board. In escaping, the king is aided by 8, 12, or 24 defending warriors, and opposed by (usually) twice as many attacking warriors.

All pieces move any number of squares in a straight line along a row or column (no diagonals, much as a rook moves in chess). Pieces may not be jumped.

The light square in the center (and in some versions the light square in each corner) is called a king's square, and only the king may land on one. In some versions, a king's square blocks movement, while in other versions a piece may freely move over a king's square. In some versions, the starting squares of the attacking pieces are designated as the attacker's camp. Defending pieces may not enter the attacker's camp.

Ordinary pieces (but not the king) are captured by being bracketed (called custodial capture) by two enemy pieces across from each other. In some versions, the king's square can also be used (in place of a piece) to capture an attacker or any piece. In some versions, the king may be used to capture, and in other versions the king may not. A piece may safely move between two enemy pieces, though; only the moving player may capture; this is called a resting move.

The king may be captured by being surrounded on all four sides by enemy pieces or the king's square (although in some versions, the king is captured as any other piece). In most versions, the board edge does not count as surrounding a piece; a king that is against a board edge cannot be captured (and in many versions, has already won).

The moving player must make a move; passing is not permitted. If the moving player has no legal move, the game is a draw.

In most versions, the attacker moves first.

List of Variations

There are numerous conjectures in the rules reconstructions, making it difficult to keep track. Here's a brief listing of some variations that the rules might have had.

Escape Rules

For the defender to win, the king must escape. But what constitutes an escape for the king?

Reach any edge square
Reach any edge square not in the attacker's camps
Reach any edge square, and have a legal move for the king.
Make a move along an edge with the king (that is, move the king from a square on the edge to another square on the same edge).
Reach any corner citadel square (the four squares that form a 2x2 square in the corner of the board.
Reach any corner square.

Sometimes, the board would mark the king's escape squares with a different color.

Attacker's Camp

The squares on which the attacker's men start were sometimes known as the attacker's camp.

The squares on which the attacker's men start are like any other.
Defenders may not land on the attacker's camps, but may move through them.
Defenders may not land on or move through the attacker's camps.
Defenders may not land on or move through the attacker's camps, and attackers may not land on an attacker's camp square unless they started their move in the same camp.

King's Squares

King's squares can be moved over, but not landed upon (except for the king)
King's squares can be moved over, but not landed upon
King's squares cannot be moved over or landed upon (except for the king)
King's squares cannot be moved over or landed upon

Capturing the King

The king is captured by being surrounded by four attackers.
The king is captured by being bracketed by two attackers.

Hostile Squares

Hostile squares are squares that can help to capture an enemy. They act as the non-moving men for captures. Note that these options can be combined; for example, the attacker's camp could be hostile to both defenders and the king.

The central king's square isn't hostile.
The central king's square is hostile to the king.
The central king's square is hostile to attackers.
The central king's square is hostile to defenders.

Attacker's camp squares aren't hostile.
Attacker's camp squares are hostile to defenders.
Attacker's camp squares are hostile to attackers.
Attacker's camp squares are hostile to the king.

The corner king's squares aren't hostile.
The corner king's squares are hostile to the king.
The corner king's squares are hostile to attackers.
The corner king's squares are hostile to defenders.

The edges aren't hostile.
The edges are hostile to the king.
The edges are hostile to attackers.
The edges are hostile to defenders.

About the Applets

Different reconstructors have fixed on different starting layouts and different rules variants for the various games. These applets, like all modern sources, do not necessarily follow the exact rules or starting placement that would have been used in the Middle Ages; sources (even for Tablut, the best documented version) are too sketchy to do otherwise.

The applets are coded in Java and compiled with Sun 1.2.1 JDK (the code conforms to Java 1.1.5, and should work with a JVM that implements 1.1.5 or later). They appear to work properly under Windows 95 and NT using Sun's applet viewer, Netscape Communicator 4.04, and Microsoft Explorer 4.0 (Netscape Communicator 4.04 requires the Java 1.1.4 patch, available from Netscape's download area). The program can also be run as an application, although sound is not available in this case.

Currently, the applets are available in single-seat and human against computer versions only. The computer player is a prototype, and is not very good (unlike the Morris computer player, which is able to beat novice players with some frequency). The architecture was designed to allow games with two human players on separate machines, and this may be available in the future.

Code last updated April 30, 1999.