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Vikings have a reputation for being mighty seafaring warriors who raided and colonized a huge chunk of Europe. These fierce Scandinavians influenced much of European history thanks to their huge expeditions. But did you know that Viking chess was actually played as far back as 1400 years ago?

To be fair, the question of did Vikings play chess isn’t entirely straightforward, as the version played by Norsemen of old is a bit different from the chess you might know today. But there are a few similarities, too – and you can even play it yourself!

Keep reading to learn all there is to know about this ancient game created by Vikings.

Viking Chess: The Ultimate Guide to Hnefatafl

What is Viking chess called?

Viking chess is called Hnefatafl, sometimes shortened to Tafl. Considered one of the predominant strategy games of both Nordic and Celtic people at the time, Hnefatafl literally translates to “fist table” from the Old Norse words hnef – which means “fist” – and tafl – which means “table”.

So, if anyone ever uses the shortened version of the name and asks you if you want to play a game of Tafl, they’re literally asking you to play “table”.

How do you say Viking chess?

There are no recordings of actual Vikings speaking, so we cannot be certain how they pronounced Viking chess in their language. However, when looking at modern Scandinavian languages, there are likely similarities and thus it is assumed that you pronounce Hnefatafl as “neh-fuh-taa-fl”.

Interestingly, Icelandic is considered the closest modern language to Old Norse. In Icelandic, “f” is pronounced more like a “p” and so there’s every chance that this is how Vikings said the word as well.

In any case, Hnefatafl may look like an odd word, but pronouncing the name should come easily to most English speakers, assuming we don’t use the Icelandic method of doing so. This is because, at the end of the day, the name is pronounced almost exactly as it looks, except the H is silent. Simple, right?

How do you play Viking chess?

The rules of Viking chess were never officially recorded by the Norse Folk who played it, so we cannot know for sure exactly how the game was played at the height of its popularity. Since only game pieces and fragments of boards were left behind, modern players of the game have had to create their own rules based on what we know from similar games.

We still don’t know if dice were ever used during gameplay, but there are mentions of dice in some Norse Sagas. However, historians and Hnefatafl players are not sure where dice would have come into play and there is a bit of a controversy about the matter. For this reason, dice are not a part of the modern version of Hnefatafl.

vikings playing chess (Hnefatafl) in a medieval drawing
A drawing of two people playing Hnefatafl from a Swedish runestone. Source: Berig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Though the ancient version of this game is lost to history, the modern gameplay is more simple than many beginner players might think. It’s easy to get put off by strategy games that look complex because all the rules seem too complicated. But Viking chess isn’t as tricky as you may think. This game is a mix of two styles of game – a hunt-style game and a war-style game.

War games are typically played between two players with equal-sized armies, which leads to a well-balanced and natural style of gameplay. On the other hand, hunt games are played with one player trying to get their piece from one start to a different spot while the opposite player tries to put a stop to it. These types of games can be hard to balance since the “prey” player only has one piece.

Hnefatafl is a hunt game that gives the “prey” player an army – leading to an interesting twist on today’s modern chess game. Note that several variations of this game exist today thanks to the fact that no official rules were recorded by the Vikings. But we’re going to go over the most commonly accepted rules for Viking chess.

So, how exactly do you play it? Let’s take a look either by reading through the rules below or checking out this video which explains it well.

How do you start a game of Viking chess?

The game starts with two players each deciding who wants to play the attackers, and who wants to play the defenders. Once that’s decided, the attackers start with 24 warrior pieces, and the defenders start with 12 warrior pieces and a single king.

The attackers place their pieces evenly on each of the four sides of the game board – 6 pieces on each side with 5 pieces centered on the first row of each side and the remaining piece centered in the row next to it.

The defending pieces go in the center of the board in the shape of a diamond, with the king protected in the center of his warriors. The four corner squares of the board and the center square that the king starts on are called the refuge squares.

Note that these refuge squares can only ever be occupied by the king.

War was an important part of many other aspects of Viking culture. For example, take a look at: Did Viking Face Paint Exist? (The Historical Truth)

How does a game of Viking chess end?

Ending a game of Hnefatafl is usually pretty straightforward. The attacking player wins by capturing the defender’s king. The defending player wins by getting their king to one of the four refuge squares on the corners of the board.

In some cases, the game might end in a draw. This happens if a player is unable to move on their turn. A game can also end in a draw if a position gets repeated three times.

What’s a position, you ask? This is defined as the location of all the pieces on the board combined with which player’s turn it is. So, if you and your opponent keep repeating the same moves back and forth and can’t do anything else, you can call it a draw to end the game.

How do the pieces move?

The attacking player gets the first move, with players alternating turns for the rest of the gameplay until the game ends.

Each piece – including the king – can move vertically or horizontally. No piece can jump over other pieces.

pieces from viking chess history in a museum
Hnefatafl pieces in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities. Source: Berig (CC BY-SA 3.0)

How are pieces captured?

This will depend on the type of piece being captured. You can capture the king by occupying all 4 adjacent squares around him with an attacking warrior. Once you surround him, he’s yours!

When it comes to warriors, you can capture opposing pieces by sandwiching them either vertically or horizontally with your pieces after making your move.

So, naturally, it’s a lot easier to capture warriors than it is to capture the king.

Exceptions and clarifications about playing Viking chess

Hnefatafl is a pretty straightforward game, but there are a few key things to note before you play your first game.

First, you can use refuge squares to capture warriors unless they are occupied by the king.

Second, the king can still be captured if he’s on the central refuge square, but he can never be captured on the edge of the board since it’s impossible to surround him on all four sides with your warriors.

Finally, you can’t capture your pieces. But if a move allows it, you can capture more than one piece that belongs to your opponent at the same time.

What is a Viking chess set?

A Viking chess set consists of a grid-marked game board, which is 11 squares across in all directions with a refuge square in the center and each corner of the board. There will also be a darker set of game pieces, which are the attackers, and a lighter set of pieces, which are the defenders.

The playing pieces can come in several different designs, but in all cases there will be two colors. You can also find other variations of Viking chess sets, with some boards being 13 squares across.

person as a viking playing chess (Hnefatafl)

Where did Viking chess come from?

Viking chess, or Hnefatafl, got its start in Scandinavia, where the Vikings hailed from. Historians believe the Vikings based the game on a Roman game called Ludus Latrunculorum, which itself was based on a Greek game called Petteia.

Historians have found many boards, pieces, and literature related to Hnefatafl throughout northern Europe.

For this reason, we know the Vikings were able to spread their version of chess and several of its variants through a huge part of Europe, including Greenland, France, Germany, Ukraine, and the British Isles. They were able to spread it so far and wide thanks to both trade and invasion (which is also the exact reason that it’s been suggested that there likely were Black Vikings).

Did Vikings invent chess?

While Vikings invented many chess-like games such as Hnefatafl, they did not invent the chess game that is played widely throughout the world today. Viking Tafl games were invented by the Vikings, but they were inspired by older games that the Norsemen were introduced to by the Romans.

Instead, early forms of chess are believed to have been developed in India in approximately the 6th century. It then continued to evolve as it spread throughout the world, particularly following the Arab invasion of Persia and then into southern Europe. It seems that the current version of the game can be found from around the year 1500.

When did the Vikings play chess?

Viking chess became popular around the end of the 8th century C.E. but can be traced as far back as the 4th century C.E. Tafl style games were popular throughout the entire Viking era and throughout the middle ages.

Viking chess as an outdoor game

Some people refer to the game Kubb as Viking chess. An outdoor game, it’s very different from Hnefatafl and while many claim it’s a Viking game, there isn’t actually any evidence of this. The goal of the game is to knock over wooden blocks by throwing wooden sticks at them and so is broadly similar to horseshoes.

Whether or not it’s actually worthy of the title “Viking chess”, Kubb is still very widely played in Scandinavia. You’ll actually often find groups of people playing it in parks throughout the region when the weather is good enough to be outside.

It’s very simple and a ton of fun. Check out the video below to see how to play this.

What other games did the Vikings play?

While Viking chess is the most well-known game of the Vikings, the Norse people enjoyed a wide variety of both indoor and outdoor games, including:

  • Tablut. This is another Tafl style game that modern Hnefafafl games base many of their rules on.
  • Nitavl. This is an ancient game that dates back to ancient Egypt. The Vikings enjoyed playing this game, which became very popular in many parts of Europe by the 14th century.
  • Kubb. As mentioned above, this is also sometimes called Viking chess and is a game that takes place outside on a rectangular pitch. Two teams would take turns throwing batons on wooden blocks called Kubbs on the other side of the pitch that belonged to the other team.
  • Dice games. We don’t know the names of any of the dice games that the Vikings played. But, the Sagas mention dice multiple times. So we know the Vikings loved playing with dice.
  • Gambling games. Many Sagas from the time of the Vikings mention turning the traditional board and dice games into betting games.
  • Shatranj. This game is also called chaturanga. It was an early form of the chess we play today. This game came to Scandinavia from India through the Vikings’ trading contacts in Constantinople.
  • Drinking games. The Vikings enjoyed their alcohol! They would play drinking games by pairing up, and with each drink, the participants would compose and recite a poem that bragged about their reputation (like how brave and manly they were). The poem was also supposed to taunt their opponents by telling them how cowardly and unmanly they were. The goal of this game was to maintain or improve your verbal skill as the competition went on and you and your partner got more drunk with each poem. Think of it as a medieval drunken rap battle!
  • Hnutukast. In this game, players threw bones leftover from a meal at each other with the intention of causing injury. This game is only talked about in legendary Sagas, so we don’t know much more about the gameplay than this.
  • Sporting games. Sports were very important to the Vikings and were community events that often lasted several days during feasts, religious festivals, and assemblies. Examples of sporting games that the Vikings played are ball games, wrestling, weight lifting competitions, swimming, horse fights, scraper games, and skin throwing games. The Vikings were pretty brutal, even in gameplay – it wasn’t uncommon for these games to lead to injury or even death.
  • Ice skating. During the winter, the Vikings used ice skates for transport, but also for fun. They made their ice skates from horse or cow lower leg bones that were tied to the feet with laces made of leather.

Did Vikings play chess?

The chess we play today is quite different from Viking chess, and the Norsemen of old did not play modern chess. Hnefatafl was, however, a strategy game similar to modern chess and, like chess, the goal was to trap the King’s piece. As such, Vikings certainly played their form of chess.

Today’s game of chess has Indian roots and can be traced back to 1500 years ago. The first form of chess was called chaturanga (also called Shatranj), which spread to Persia from India. After the Arabs invaded Persia, the game spread throughout the Muslim world and eventually spread to Southern Europe and Russia. From there, chess spread throughout most of the world and Hnefatafl fell out of popularity.

It’s believed that chaturanga reached Scandinavia before the end of the Viking era. So it’s possible that the Vikings played the earliest version of chess before it evolved into the game we know today.