Your Cart


Viking Board Game: Hnefatafl

Posted by Kurt Evald Noer on

The Ancient Game of Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl, often referred to as "King's Table," is a fascinating board game that was widely played by the Vikings and other Northern European cultures from as early as the 4th century AD until the arrival of chess in the region. This strategic game, which simulates a king's escape from attackers, offers a unique glimpse into the social and cultural life of the early medieval Scandinavians.

Hnefatafl playing pieces of various shapes have been found in numerous Viking grave sites, made out of everything from wood, to bone, to glass.

How to Pronounce Hnefatafl

This, like many words that have a Scandinavian origin, are often the subject of a hot debate on pronunciations. Certain words can be pronounced differently between Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Icelandic. And of course the American version of certain words can be completely different as well. With that said, below we list the two most common ways we find this word pronounced:

The H is silent and it is commonly pronounced: NEF-ah-tah-full.

Others insist the F's should be pronounced like V's: NEV-ah-tah-vull.


The Basics of Hnefatafl

Hnefatafl is played on a checkered board with a central square (the king's throne) and pieces representing the king, his defenders, and attackers (Vikings). The objective of the game is for the king to escape to one of the board's corners while the attackers aim to capture him. 

The game's asymmetric nature, with different objectives and pieces for each player, distinguishes it from many other traditional board games.

Historic Finds and Mentions

The most significant archaeological discoveries of Hnefatafl pieces have been made in various parts of Northern Europe, highlighting the game's widespread popularity. One of the earliest known finds is from the Ockelbo Runestone in Sweden, dating back to around 800 AD, which depicts two men playing a tafl game. Another significant find includes the Ballinderry gaming board discovered in a crannog in Ireland, dated to the 10th century.

In addition to physical finds, historical mentions of Hnefatafl are found in various sagas and texts. The Icelandic sagas, particularly "Orkneyinga Saga" and "Fridthjof’s Saga," reference tafl games, indicating their role in Viking leisure activities. The 12th-century Welsh manuscript "The Laws of Hywel Dda" also mentions a game similar to Hnefatafl, suggesting its reach beyond Scandinavian borders.

The Rediscovery and Revival

Interest in Hnefatafl waned with the rise of chess in Europe. However, the 20th century saw a revival of interest in the game, driven by archaeological discoveries and scholarly research. Modern reconstructions and adaptations of Hnefatafl rules are based on a combination of historical references and educated guesses, as the original rules were not documented. 

We (Sons of Vikings) offer a variety of modern versions of Hnefatafl, available here.  The version seen here is our 'Berserker' option based on the rook pieces found in the famous Isle of Lewis chess pieces, that were found buried in the sands of Northern Scotland. Learn more about Viking chess.

Primary Sources on Hnefatafl

For those interested in delving deeper into the history of Hnefatafl, here are some primary sources:

  1. The Ockelbo Runestone (Sweden, c. 800 AD): Depicts figures playing a tafl game.
  2. Ballinderry Gaming Board (Ireland, 10th century): An archaeological find that includes a well-preserved Hnefatafl board.
  3. "Orkneyinga Saga" and "Fridthjof’s Saga": Icelandic sagas that mention tafl games.
  4. "The Laws of Hywel Dda" (12th century): A Welsh manuscript referring to a game resembling Hnefatafl.

These sources offer valuable insights into the ancient game's prevalence and cultural significance across Northern Europe.

Hnefatafl remains a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the Vikings and their neighbors. Its revival in modern times allows us to connect with a pastime enjoyed by our ancestors over a millennium ago, preserving an essential part of our shared history.

View our collection of various Hnefatafl (and Viking related chess) games.