Tafl Day Thread

Chess and its relatives were far from the only historical abstract strategy games. In the Germanic and Celtic world, a group of games generically known as tafl (“table” in Old Norse) was very popular in the dark ages and middle ages. The origin of these games is not definitely known, but they may have derived from a Roman game called ludus latruncolorum, “game of brigands”. Many different varieties of tafl are attested, mostly varying in the size of the board, the number and initial positions of the pieces, and a few technicalities, but having overall the same objectives and game play. The best known variant was that popular in Scandinavia in the late Viking age, called hnefatafl.1

The tafl games are asymmetric; one player controls the “attackers” and the other the “defenders”, and they have different rules and win conditions. The attackers start with twice as many pieces, at initial positions along all four sides of the board. The defenders start in the center of the board, and one of their pieces is the “king”, which starts on the central square, the “castle”. The goal for the attackers is to capture the defenders’ king. The goal for the defenders is for the king to “escape” by reaching one of the four corners (or, in some variants, any edge of the board) without being captured.

All the pieces move like the rook in chess, any number of spaces horizontally or vertically. Capturing is done by sandwiching a single enemy piece between two friendly pieces. In some variants, the corners (which cannot be occupied by any piece except the king) and/or the castle can also be used as one side of this sandwich. In most variants, the king is “weaponless”, and cannot be part of a capture. The king, however, can typically only be captured by being surrounded on all four sides, and in some versions cannot be captured at all as long as it remains in the castle.

Though it seems to have been most popular in Scandinavia2, tafl variants existed from Ireland to Ukraine. By the end of the middle ages, though, its popularity began to be eclipsed by that of chess, which had been introduced from the Islamic world. However, a variant now known as tablut was played among the Sámi people as late as the 18th century, and its rules were recorded by Carl Linnaeus, of all people.