As of this writing, several serious questions remain regarding the physical form of hnefatafl and its variants, chiefly the question of whether or not dice were employed. Even less is known of the rules regulating the players’ actions. There are enough literary and archaeological clues to piece together a vague reconstruction of the game and some of its most basic rules, but even these are uncertain and other important rules remain entirely unknown. So the short answer is, no one knows how hnefatafl was played. The reconstructed rules listed below represent a tentative reconstruction based on known literary references and archaeological remains, but even these are subject to amendment as more information comes to light with further study.
Several variants have been observed in contemporary literature, including Irish and Welsh references to a game featuring a king with four defenders against an attacking force of eight, an Anglo-Saxon variant featuring a king with 24 defenders against an attacking force of 48 on a 19×19 board, and an Icelandic variant whose scale is not specified in the known saga references. The best documentation we have of any tafl variant is Linnaeus’s notation of the Såmi game known as tablut, featuring a king with eight defenders against an attacking force of sixteen on a 9×9 board. This is the only known source that attempts serious documentation of the rules of play, but even it is problematic for reasons I have discussed elsewhere.
Archaeological clues tell us even less of how the game was played, but may offer some insights when considered in comparison with contemporaneous literature. For instance, several Scottish, Orcadian and Irish boards are known, all showing 7×7 positions, though some of these are represented in Scotland and the Orkneys by an incised slate tablet with a 7×7-cell grid featuring a cross in the central cell and some featuring a 7×7 line lattice with the central intersection circled and arcs around the four corner positions. Several wooden Irish boards are known, pierced as if to accommodate pegged pieces, though most of these are too deteriorated to be of much use. The gloriously pristine and ornately carved board from Ballinderry is the only Irish board complete enough to notice any markings other than peg holes, and like the Scottish boards, it shows a grid of 7×7 positions and features a circled central position and arcs around all four corner positions.
It would be enticingly simple to say that all tafl variants employed the same rules of play regardless of scale, but evidence and common sense suggest otherwise. Pictish and Irish variants were apparently similar in form and scale, but these may have had important differences in rules of play, though these rules have been lost to the intervening ages. I suspect the king of the Irish variant was expected to escape to a corner, though Linnaeus noted that the king of Såmi tablut was expected to escape to any of sixteen edge spaces (excluding the corners and the attacker camps along the middle of each edge). The board found at the Trondheim public library site, the Wimose fragment from Denmark, the Toftanes board from the Faroe Islands and the Coppergate fragment from York are all unmarked at the corners. It is tempting to believe that these all required the king to escape to any edge space, while the Irish variant required escape to a corner, but this is a suggestion and the historical facts are unknowable.
Many other questions remain as well. Was the king subject to the same two-man capture as the pawns, or was he captured only when surrounded on all four sides? Were pawns prohibited from occupying the king’s hall in the center of the board, or even from passing through it? Were the king’s hall and the four corner citadels (where such spaces are distinctly marked) hostile spaces, against which enemies could be captured? Any game featuring unequal forces with different objectives is inherently unbalanced. How did the ancients overcome the strategic imbalance of hnefatafl?
I suspect balance may have been achieved by bidding. Two players sitting down to a game of hnefatafl would bid the minimum number of turns they would require to effect the king’s escape. One would then move the king’s men in attempt to escape within the number of turns bid (or fewer) while the opponent attempts to block or delay that escape. Failure to escape within the number of turns bid is a loss. Next, the players would switch sides and play again, allowing the loser an opportunity to redeem his honor by escaping in fewer turns than his opponent.
- The king begins in his hall, in the precise center of the board.
- [Is this a restricted or closed space? Is it a hostile space?]
- The defending pawns are stationed around the king, and these are surrounded and outnumbered by attacking pawns.
- Each player may move only one piece per turn. All pieces move as far as they may along an unobstructed path in any of the four cardinal directions (diagonal movements are not allowed). [Cf: rook in chess.]
- [Did some of the smaller-scale variants (e.g. the Irish variant played on a 7×7 board) allow pieces to move only one space per turn?]
- A piece is captured when it is flanked by enemies on two opposite sides (diagonal captures are not allowed).
- [Did some variants employ hostile board spaces, against which enemies could be captured?]
- The king’s objective is to escape to the edge of the board [or to a corner] as quickly as possible.
- The attacker’s objective is to either capture the king or block or delay his escape.