Reconstructing an early 12th century board game (chess and hnefatafl)

Now, here’s an exciting project!  I wanted to do something cool for a couple friends of mine, known in the SCA as Garick and Yasamin, when they were crowned King and Queen of the Outlands in November 2012. While researching hnefatafl I came across a passage in Króka-Refs saga that resonated with me. It involves a Greenlander named Gunnar, who made a board game as a gift for King Harald of Norway. As the saga writer noted, it was both hnefatafl and skáktafl (chess).

One reason I found this game so fascinating is that my hnefatafl research at that time was leading me toward the conclusion that Crusaders who traveled to Jerusalem around 1107-1110 brought chess (skáktafl in Old Norse) back to Norway on their return, and that it was this step in the social and religious conversion of Scandinavia from Viking Age heathenism to medieval European Christian culture that precipitated the fall of hnefatafl in the 12th century. Essentially, Crusaders were the genuine bad-ass war heroes of their day.  They traveled to exotic lands, fought in battles for the Crown and the Church, and came back home to tell the tale.  While in Jerusalem they learned of Chess from the Persians, and then they returned home and taught it to their families, friends and neighbors, who were eager to adopt what they likely considered “the Christian game” (in contrast to hnefatafl, the preeminent board game of the Norse heathen culture, although in any objective reality chess was the Muslim game).  Soon, chess eclipsed hnefatafl in popularity, and by the end of the century, hnefatafl was nothing more than an old-fashioned game for dowdy old fuddy-duddies.  In this historical context, a board game that is both hnefatafl on one side and chess on the other is naturally interesting to anyone researching hnefatafl.

ImageSince there is no extant board to accompany the story, I had no physical model for this game, but this allowed me to get creative.  I designed a game, not as I can show existed in the 12th century, but as I believe could have existed in the 12th century.  If chess was introduced to Norway around 1110-1120 (and probably to Greenland a few years later), and hnefatafl was played until the end of the 12th century, I believe this dual game would have been crafted in the early days of chess in Norway, when it was still gaining in popularity.  The famous Lewis chessmen were probably made around 1150 and, in my opinion, likely represent a milestone in the assimilation of chess into Scandinavian culture.  When the Cluny knight was made, on the other hand, Scandinavians were still just copying the form of Persian chess pieces, even if they were adding their own familiar dot-and-ring motif.  So I decided to focus on the earliest extant Scandinavian chess pieces, and I made the pawns to resemble pear-shaped lathe-turned hnefatafl counters like the ones cataloged in Roesdahl & Wilson’s From Viking to Crusader (Cat. Nos. 342, 572 and 595) and the one pictured below:

Image I turned the kings, queens and pawns on my collapsible spring pole lathe and finished everything with hand carving.  The pieces are all made of linden wood (aka basswood), because this is a common choice for woodcarving in Scandinavia.  The dark pieces, as well as the lines and runes carved into the board, are all stained a red-brown color, because this was the color commonly used for hnefatafl pieces.  The chess pieces are all modeled after the Persian style, but many of these incorporate Scandinavian flourishes, and as a final touch, I carved runic initials into the bases (R for rook, K for knight, B for bishop) for the benefit of modern players unfamiliar with the 12th century style pieces.  An extra eight white pawns allow players to use the eight red pawns, the red queen, and all sixteen white pawns for playing hnefatafl.

ImageI created this image to show the starting positions, as the game was played in the 12th century.  Note that in this version, the kings start on the same file, but the bishops/elephants, the knights/horses, and the rooks/chariots start in the same places as their modern counterparts.  The game is played the same as modern chess, except that half the pieces have very different movements than those used in modern chess.  Also, pawns are not allowed a two-step opening move (which was a time saver introduced some time around the 16th century to speed up the early stage of game play), so naturally the en passant capture is not allowed either.  Since most of the pieces have different moves, I also created the chart below to help clarify.


The board I made was entirely constructed out of red oak, comprising three planks tongue-and-groove joined together, with a mitered trim tongue-and-groove joined onto the board and dowel reinforced at the corners.  All pieces are glued together with hide glue, and the whole thing is rubbed with linseed oil.  You might also notice that the chess side of the board is not checkered, because chess boards in the 12th century were not checkered.  As a final touch, I used a tiny paintbrush to apply a red stain to the grooves of the incised lattice in the board, and I carved a runic inscription into the trim and stained the runes red as well.  I applied the stain after rubbing the board with linseed oil, so that any excess stain, if wiped away immediately, could be removed without leaving red blotches all over the place.  Once I conclude my research into Viking Age red pigments I will revisit this method of reddening taflstones, runes and game board etchings.

ImageThe runes are based on 12th century runes, which are a more phonetic development of the Younger Futhark, featuring a dot to mark voicing.

ImageThe message inscribed in Garick and Yasamin’s board reads:

Gǫrt af Wilhelm Mæs / fyrir Kong Garikk / ok Drottning Jasamin / Outlands, ár XLVII

This message in Old Icelandic translates into English as follows:

Made by Wilhelm Meis / for King Garick / and Queen Yasamin / Outlands, year XLVII

This is to commemorate their reign in the Outlands, in Anno Societatis XLVII.  Below are a few photos of the construction process.


My photos (including the medieval chess layout and the comparative movement chart) are included here under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 3.0) license. Other photos included here may be under copyright. Follow the links for further information.

4 responses to “Reconstructing an early 12th century board game (chess and hnefatafl)

  1. Pingback: Reconstructing a 12th century Scandinavian game board | wilhelmszabel·

  2. Actually chess came to Scandinavia through Viking’s trade with Arabs, somewhere in 9th-10th century. Crusaders came much later…

    • I’m aware of a few competing theories of just how and when chess spread into Europe. I would be interested in seeing any evidence of an earlier arrival of chess in Scandinavia.

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