Last updated on September 7th, 2023 at 10:16 am
… created by Scandinavians over 1500 years ago.
Basics of Hnefa-tafl (required for playing)
There are two sides in the original game (hnefa-tafl – king’s table): attacking and defending. The defending side starts in the center of the board, and the attackers in the middle of each of the four edges of the gameboard. The two sides have different goals.
The units in the game are able to move vertically or horizontally for an unlimited number of spaces on the board, with the exception of the “king” who is able to move only two squares, again, vertically or horizontally, per turn. The “eating” of the units takes place when a player in his/her turn moves his own unit so that it traps an opponent’s unit between two units of his/her own. Note that a unit may move to a spot between two of his opponent’s units without being eaten.
The goal of the game depends on the side you are playing. The defender’s goal is to reach one of the four corners of the board with the “king” (the unit in center of the gameboard). Reaching any of these corners marks the defender victorious and thus ends the game. Correspondingly, the goal of the attacker is to prevent the “king” from reaching any of these corners by surrounding it both vertically and horizontally with his/her own units.
Legend of Ragnarok
The original game mode is included in King’s Table -The Legend of Ragnarok, but there is also a campaign, “Ragnarok”, which is the major part of the game.
Firstly, the Ragnarok mode differs from the original in its units. Both sides will have four special units on the battlefield. They are chosen from six characters of the corresponding side in the Mythology of Valhalla. For example, the forces of Darkness could have Loki, Jormungand, Hyrm and Garm, and the forcess of Valhalla could have (in addition to Odin who is the “king” of the game) Thor, Tyr, Freyr and Vidar. These special units differ from the normal units (the Einherjar of Valhalla and the giants of Darkness). For example, Tyr (Valhalla) and Garm (Darkness) must be surrounded by three units in order to be “eaten”.
In the campaign, you play as Odin, trying to find a way to cheat your own destined fate. In order to fool it, you find yourself playing this game with mortals. Thus, in this task you will play against many different personalities, while the game will keep getting harder with every victory that you achieve.
The foes all have unique personalities, which can be observed through the comments that they make during the game. This is a nice addition, especially when these comments make you laugh.
Unfortunately, the game is short and can be completed in under three hours due to the lack of difficulty, which cannot be increased or decreased. But luckily there is the multiplayer mode, which can be played in original or Ragnarok mode. The music is perfectly relaxing and fits the game brilliantly. The graphics haven´t suffered enough to hinder the playability of the game and are actually quite beautiful.
King’s Table – The Legend of Ragnarok is strategy at its best. It is an excellent game that shouldn´t be missed by any who are interested in chesslike boardgames or Scandinavian mythology.
Kings Table – The Legend of Ragnarok
On August 3rd, the village of Fetlar, Scotland (go ahead, try to find it – I’ll wait), will hold the Hnefatafl World Championships. With a population of 86, Fetlar might seem an unlikely place to hold the world championships of one of the world’s oldest games. The truth is Hnefatafl, or “King’s Table”, is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the days of the Vikings. In fact, for the 250 or so years that make up the Viking Age, Hnefatafl (or games very similar to it) was the chess, the checkers, the go, and the Nintendo for the Norse.
A modern version of Hnefatafl. Traditional boards are simpler and pieces were often stones or marbles. The layout and the rules are, however, the same. Today, only dedicated tabletop gamers have ever heard of it and many of them have never had a chance to play the game. That is a shame for it’s an extraordinary game with a number of lessons embedded in it for the curious intelligence professional. For example:
- It is an asymmetric game. As you can see from the board above, one side starts in the center and the other side surrounds it on all four sides. One side outnumbers the other by about 2:1. The sides even have different victory conditions (the player with the pieces in the center need to get the “King”, the large playing piece in the middle of the board, to one of the corners. The other player is trying to capture the King). It is not too hard to see a game such as this one incorporated into courses, classes or discussions of asymmetric warfare.
- It is a conflict simulation. Most historians agree that there were relatively few large scale battles involving Vikings. Instead, most of the time, combat resulted from raiding activities. Hnefatafl seems to reflect the worst case scenario for a Viking raider: Cut off from your boats and outnumbered 2:1.
- It provides a deep lesson in strategic thinking. Lessons in both the strategy of the central position (hundred of years before Napoleon made it famous) and in the relative value of interior vs. exterior lines of communication are embedded in this game.
What makes this game even more fascinating for me is what it teaches implicitly – that is, what are the lessons it teaches the players without the players knowing that they are learning? Furthermore, what does this tell us about the Viking culture? For example:
- It takes two soldiers to kill another soldier. This is one of the few games where it takes more than one piece to capture another piece. Basically, one pins and the other piece comes up and deals the killing blow.
- It is good to be King. The only piece that really matters is the King. If the King escapes and loses 90% of his soldiers in the process, it is still a victory. Likewise, if the King is captured but at a horrific cost to the enemy, it is still a loss.
- It is easier for the player in the center to win. You heard that right, because of the value of interior lines and because of the difficulty of capturing the King, the player who is surrounded, cut-off and outnumbered 2:1 has the advantage. In fact, in games with novices a simple, “fight through the ambush” strategy almost always wins.
Now, imagine this game being played night after night in the langhús of some Viking Jarl. What lessons are being implicitly conveyed to the young Viking warriors? Work together, protect the King, and don’t worry about how bad it looks – we can win! All in all, not a bad way to teach important lessons in a barely literate society. More importantly, understanding this game provides yet another insight into Viking culture and strategic thinking.
The value of this particular game to intelligence professionals and others is one of the reasons I decided to offer a version of it as the second game from my new company, Sources and Methods Games. It has historical significance as well as providing deep lessons in asymmetric warfare, strategy and cultural intelligence. It is an excellent addition to the intelligence studies classroom.