Tafl isn’t so much a particular board game but a family of games played on a checkered or latticed gameboard with two armies of uneven numbers, based of a Scandinavian board game called tafl or hnefatafl. Everywhere that Vikings spread Tafl followed. This includes places such as Iceland, Britain, Ireland, and Lapland. Many versions of Tafl were also played across most of Northern Europe since a little earlier than 400 BCE until Chess took over in the 12th century.
The original name of the game “Tafl” comes from the Old Norse word for ‘Table’ or ‘Board’ pronounced [tavl] but Hnefatafl became the name of choice to differentiate it from other board games that themselves later became known as Skáktafl (chess), Kvatrutafl (Tables) and Halatafl (Fox games). Hnefatafl likely got it’s name from it’s central ‘King’ piece referred to as ‘knefl’ or ‘fist’, so hnefatafl possibly meant “board game of the fist”, several sources also refer to it as ‘King’s Table’. Anglo-Saxon’s may have used the term ‘tæfl’ for a specific game or to refer to many board games as we might use the term ‘cards’. Many confuse other games with tafl games just because of the inclusion of ‘tafl’ in their names. The game ‘Fox and Geese’ or ‘Halatafl’ in Old Norse, dates from at least the 14th century and is still known and played in Europe, Kvatrutafl which is the Old Norse name for ‘Tables’ is the ancestor of Backgammon, and Skáktafl is the Old Norse name for chess.
Hnefatafl has been mentioned in many medieval sagas such as the Orkneyinga saga, Friðþjófs saga, Hervarar saga, and others. These mentions give clues as to the widespread use of board games and how they are played. In Orkeyinga saga Jarl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson boasts his skill at Hnefatafl. In Friðþjófs saga we find out that the king’s men are red and the attackers are white, and that ‘hnefl’ refers to the ‘king’ piece. In the Hervarar saga a riddle, posed by a character identified as Odin in disguise, refers to “the weaponless maids who fight around their lord, the [brown/red] ever sheltering and the [fair/white] ever attacking him”. There is some controversy over whether “weaponless” refers to the maids or, to the king himself, which may support the argument that a “weaponless king” cannot take part in captures.
Another of the riddles is, “What is that beast all girded with iron, which kills the flocks? He has eight horns but no head, and runs as he pleases.” The answer is a matter of debate here as the response can be translated as: “It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and runs when he is thrown;” or, “It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked.” The problem is in translating the word húnn, this may refer to a die, the “eight horns” referring to the eight corners of a six-sided die and “the flocks” that he kills referring to the stakes the players lose. The húnn may also refer to the king, his “eight horns” referring to the eight defenders, which is more consistent with the latter translation, “He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked.”
Variants of Tafl
Brandub (Irish: bran dubh) was the Irish form of tafl. This variant was played with five men against eight, and one of the five was a “Branán”, or chief. A number of 7×7 boards have been found, the most famous being the elaborate wooden board found at Ballinderry in 1932. The name brandub means “black raven”.
Ard Rí (Gaelic: High King) was a Scottish tafl variant played on a 7×7 board with a king and eight defenders against sixteen attackers.
Tablut is a variant from Sápmi. The game was played on a 9×9 mat of embroidered reindeer hide. In Talbut the light (defending) pieces are referred to as “Swedes” and the dark (attacking) pieces as “Muscovites”.
Tawlbwrdd was a variant played in Wales. It is played with 8 pieces on the king’s side and 16 on the attacker’s side and was played on an 11×11 board with 12 pieces on the king’s side and 24 pieces on the opponent’s side. Tawlbwrdd is played with a king in the centre and twelve men in the places next to him, and twenty-four men seek to capture him. These are placed, six in the centre of each side of the board and in the six central positions.
Alea evangelii, which means “game of the gospels”, was described, with a drawing, in a 12th-century manuscript, from Anglo-Saxon England. It was played on the intersections of a board of 18×18 cells. The manuscript describes the layout of the board as a religious allegory, but it is clearly based on Hnefatafl.
Around 1960, Milton Bradley published Swords and Shields, which was essentially Tablut.
Breakthru was developed in the 1960s and features tafl-like symmetry, but with twelve defenders plus one “flagship” (king) pitted against twenty attackers upon a tiered board.
Thud, a modern game inspired by a series of fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett (which in turn were inspired by the historical tafl games), also features the general symmetry of tafl games, although it is played on an octagonal board with only eight defenders pitted against thirty-two attackers.