Many people know Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné) as a father of modern taxonomy who classified many species. What many people don’t know is that Carl Linnaeus helped to keep a piece of knowledge about a fascinating game of Tablut.
Linnaeus wrote down the rules of Tablut in 1732, in a work titled “Lachesis Lapponica a Tour in Lapland“. It was translated from Latin to English in 1811 (unfortunately with errors, but you can see the translation on Project Gutenberg).
But Linnaeus was probably not aware that there is a large family of so-called Tafl-games also known as Hnefatafl games. All these games are based on the concept of two fighting armies – King’s army and enemy army. As you can guess, King’s army defends a King while enemy army tries to capture the King.
Word “tafl” is somehow problematic because in many languages it means a “board”. Note that there is a game of Halatafl and it has many variants. But it’s not really related to Hnefatafl or other so-called Tafl-games. There’s also a game of Tables, which gave a rise to Backgammon. Note that Backgammon is still known in Turkey as “Tavla”).
Another problem is that Linnaeus’s notes were not precise and English translation mentioned above was far from perfect. Some people tried to figure it out so today we have many variants of Tablut and Hnefatafl and it’s hard to say which is “the only right one”. On the other hand – many traditional games developed many variants so I think there’s no something like “the only one right variation of Hnefatafl”.
Tafl games can be really old. They are mentioned in several of the medieval sagas. Wooden tafl boards have been found in some boat burials and there have been more archeological discoveries of tafl-games in other warrior burials from the age of Vikings. It is believed that there is a connection between warrior status and the playing of board games. There is even a theory that people from the Viking’s age identified the value of military strategy and skill with a skill of playing some board games.
Although Tablut is truly Nordic, it seems it has roots in the Roman game known as Latrunculi or Ludus latrunculorum. Sometimes Latrunculi is called “the Chess of Rome” but it has nothing to do with Chess. We can only say that in the Roman Empire Latrunculi had the same cultural position as chess today. It was seen as a game of military tactics and a right entertainment for intelligent men. I already mentioned about this game in my post about Seega, which is also a part of Latrunculi heritage. Apart from this Hnefatafl is truly Nordic. It has a charm of simple but smart Viking’s games.
Today Linnaeus’s works are available online. Better translations were made and we can compare the rules of Tablut with other Tafl-games. Below I present you something you can call “standard” Tablut rules, but remember. There are other fascinating variants.
Tablut – rules of the game
Tablut is a board abstract strategy game for 2 players with no element of luck. Opponents have varied forces and goals. One player tries to move his special piece (King) to the board’s periphery while his opponent tries to capture a King.
Traditionally King is called Konakis.
Board and pieces
The game is played on a board consisting of 81 squares (9×9). Central field is specially marked. It’s called Throne, Castle or Arx.
Some fields on the board may be marked as shown below, but this is not necessary.
Pieces are also needed. Exactly 16 black pieces and 9 white pieces. Note that one white piece is specially marked. This is a King or Konakis.
Black pieces are called attackers. White pieces are called defenders.
At the beginning of the game, pieces are set on a board just like on the image below. White pieces (defenders) occupy central fields and form a cross. King is placed in the middle field, just in the middle of the white cross. Black pieces (attackers) stand near the edges of the board in four T-shaped groups.
White moves first. Players make moves alternately.
In one turn a piece may move any number of vacant squares horizontally or vertically (like a rook in chess). Diagonal moves are not allowed.
Capturing is done by catching (sandwiching). It means a surrounding enemy piece on two opposite sides. Captures may be made only horizontally or vertically (not diagonally).
Captured piece is removed from the board.
Let’s look at the image below. By making a move shown by a red line black piece catches white piece vertically (with an assist of the black piece above).
It’s possible to capture more than one piece in one turn. Note the situation shown in the image below. By making a move shown by a red line white piece catches two black pieces (one on the right and one below). Capture is made with an assist of two friendly pieces.
Note: Capture is made only after the atacking move, so a piece can safely enter between two enemy pieces without being captured.
The King also can be captured, but to this, it must be surrounded on all four sides, not just two.
Central field is called Castle. It is occupied by the King at the beginning of the game. After the king left the Castle, it cannot be entered by anyone, not even the King.
If King left the Castle, this special square is treated as “hostile piece” for any piece standing next to it. It means that any piece (black or white) can be captured by catching it between the enemy piece and the castle (of course it must be done only horizontally or vertically, as in normal capture).
If the king is on a square adjoining the castle horizontally or vertically, he may be captured when surrounded on the three remaining sides.
In one special situation, the defender may be captured when it stays next to the castle and King stays inside the castle. This is possible when the King is surrounded on three sides and protected by a defender on the last remaining side. The defender is killed when it’s pinned between the enemy piece and the occupied castle. Such a situation is shown below.
The goal of the game
Defender (White) wins when the king reaches any of the fields at the edge of the board. We say the King has escaped.
Attacker (Black) wins when the king is captured. The number of white pieces remaining on the board does not matter.
There are controversies about the balance of play in Tablut. Some people say it is slightly in favor of the attackers, some people say the opposite. I think there’s no one clear answer as long as there are still many variants of the game.
Below I present you a list of alternative rules I heard of.
- King may be captured in the same way as an ordinary piece (by surrounding it on just two sides). This rule makes the game easier for the attackers.
- King can be “weaponless”. It means he may not take part in captures. This rule makes the game easier for the attackers.
- King must escape to the corner, not just to the edge. This rule makes the game easier for the attackers.
- King may re-enter the castle. This rule makes the game easier for the defenders.
- Any piece may enter the castle after the King left it.
- King may be captured even if he stays in the castle, but it must be surrounded on all four sides.
Why Tablut is worth trying?
Believe me. If a game has Viking origins, it’s always worth trying 🙂
Seriously speaking, this is game is simple when you think about its equipment and rules, but has a complex strategy. You can play one variant and have fun for hours. But you can also discover how subtle changes in rules make big changes in strategy and chances to win. And what’s more, Hnefatafl sets can be really beautiful. I think that always matters!
I love those pieces shown in The Sweedish History Museum in Stockholm!
Read my articles about similar games with attackers and defenders.
- Ringo – playing round and round
- Belagerung – yet bigger „fortress”
- Halatafl or „fox and geese”