Hnefatafl - King's Table


Figure 1. Hnefataflboard


The Taflboard
The Taflstones and Their Moves
Capturing a Taflstone
Winning the Taflgame
The Shieldwallrule

Tafl emk örr at efla,
íþróttir kannk níu,
týnik trauðla rúnum,
tíð er mér bók ok smíðir.

Skríða kannk á skíðum,
skýtk ok ræ´k, svát nýtir,
hvárt tveggja kannk hyggja
harpslótt ok bragþóttu.

Jarl Rögnvaldr Kali Kolsson: Lausavísur (Orkn.34) translation


In Earl Rögnvaldr Kali's "Lausavísur" as well as in many other Norse sources a board game called "tafl" is mentioned. In old England a game by the name "tæfl" was known. Also in Old High German texts we can find a game named "zabal".
First the name "tafl"/"zabal" meant "board game" in general. Only after the introduction of chess and backgammon a distinction between "chess" (Old Norse: "skaktafl", Middle High German: "Schachzabel" ), "backgammon" (Old Norse: "kvatrutafl", German: "Wurfzabel"), and King's Table (Old Norse: "Hnefatafl", German: "Königszabel") was carried out. Furthermore the Old Norse term "hnefatafl" contains the word "hnefa" which means "fist", "closed hand", or "thing held in one's closed hand". The Scandinavian "kniv" (knife), English "knife" and German "Knebel" (gag) are cognate with the Old Norse word "hnefa".  

Rules for Hnefatafl

The Taflborð - The Board

Mostly King's Table is played on a board with 13x13 squares. Often this board is also simply called taflboard from Old Norse "taflborð". In the centre of the board the king's throne is situated. Only the king is allowed to walk on the throne. At the beginning of the game the king is placed there sorrounded by his twelve men. The corner squares are the so called burgs. They represent the king's refuges. These refuges, too, are allowed to be walked on only by the king. For both sides, defenders as well as attackers, these burgs count as opposing pieces, what is of great importance in case of the capturing taflstones.

The Taflstones and Their Moves

In King's Table in principle two kinds of pieces are distinguished. On the one hand there is the mostly larger shaped king (Old Norse: hnefi, Old English: cyningstan) and on the other hand are the smaller taflmen (Old English: tæfelstanas, Old Norse: töflur, literally "Zabelsteine" in German). In King's Table as well as in chess two sides play against each other. On the one side, or better said in the middle, stands the king with his twelve defenders. His rivals are two dozen taflmen who attack from outside. So, the game is not completely even. The attacking side has no king but twice as many taflmen at its disposal.

Setup of the Taflstones

At the start of the game the kingstone is placed on his throne in the middle of the board. His twelve men are gathered around him on the surrounding squares. Eight of his defenders are situated on the immediately neighbouring squares. In front of them stands a vanguard in each direction. The attackers are splitted up into four groups of six men and placed like a "T" with a one-man vanguard in front of five men on each edge of the board.


Figure 2. Setup

Goal of the Game

The defender's goal is to enable the flight of the king onto one of his burgs in the corners of the taflboard. The attackers first aim at foiling the flight. For this the burgs should be besieged at first (figure 3). Over and above that the kingstone should be taken captive.

Die Eckfelder absichern!

Figure 3. Laying siege to the corner burgs

How to Move the Taflstones

-All taflstones only move along a row (left-right) or a column (up-down) like the rook in chess. So, an indefinite number of free squares can be crossed.
-It is not permitted to move in diagonal direction or to jump across one's own or any opposing taflstones.
-Each move has to end on a free square.
-The first move is always carried out by the attackers.
-Zugzwang reigns, that means you are forced to carry out a move in each round.

Capturing a Taflstone

Opposing taflmen can be captured by trapping or sandwiching one taflstone with the help of two enemy taflmen, that means the three taflstones stand in a row. It is possible to do so both in vertical and in horizontal direction, but not diagonally. There are some special rules to consider.

Einfaches schlagen eines Spielsteines

Einfaches schlagen eines Spielsteines durch den K�ig

Simple Capture of Taflstones

A taflstone can simply be captured by sandwiching it between two opposing taflstones after they had been moved horizontally or vertically immediately next to this taflstone.

Trapping a Taflstone with the King

The king, too, is allowed to take part in capturing or trapping an opposing taflstone this way.

Weiss zieht zwischen zwei Steine

Safe Move between Two Opponents

However, when a taflstone is moved between two opposing taflstones, this does not count as a capture. On the contrary, the opponent even must spend one additional move to clear the square in order to trap this stone.

Eckschlag von Schwarz

Eckschlag von Weiss

Capturing at a Corner Square

The refuges count as opposing taflstones for both 'white' and 'black'. Therefore you need only one taflstone to capture the enemy stone that stands immediately next to such a burg.

Schlag von zwei Steinen gleichzeitig

Double Trap

In case of an appropriate position in the game it is also possible to defeat two opposing taflstones by one move.

Schlag von zwei Steinen gleichzeitig an einer Eckburg

Double Trap at a Burg

Also by using a corner square that - as already told - counts as an opposing taflstone for both players a double trap is possible.

Weiss schlägt drei Steine in einem Zug

Threefold Trap

Even a threefold trap is possible.

Trapped taflstones are removed from the board afterwards. You are not forced to capture a taflstone.

Winning the Taflgame

The game is won when the kingstone is captured by the attackers or when the king succeeded in escaping to one of the burgs.

Gefangennahme des Königs durch vier Gegner

Winning by Capturing the King

The king can be captured on his throne or on any other ordinary square by four opposing taflstones.

Gefangennahme des Königs durch drei Gegner

If the king is placed on one of the squares that lie horizontally or vertically next to the throne you need only three opposing taflstones to hunt down the king.

Gefangennahme des Königs durch drei Gegner an der Spielfeldkante

The capture of the king with the help of three black stones is also possible on the edge of the taflboard.

Gefangennahme des Königs durch viele Gegner

Winning by Double Trap

If one of the king's men tries to shield his master's flank in order to rescue him from being surrounded, the king's capture is still possible because of the double trap rule even though the second taflstone is sandwiched by opposing taflstones.

Gewinn durch Erreichen einer Fluchtburg

Winning by the King's Flight

White wins the game by the king's flight to one of the corner burgs.

The Shieldwallrule

Shieldwallrule means the application of the double trap and the capture of the king on the edge of the board to the ordinary taflmen. The shieldwallrule is used in order to prevent one side, especially the attackers, from resting safe on the edge of the taflboard.
So, if several taflstones with the same colour stand side by side on the edge of the taflboard and one opposing taflman is placed in front of each of them, it is possible to capture the complete row at once by flanking the opposing taflstones. In contrast to the so far explained kinds of capturing the refuges do NOT count as substitute taflstones in this case.

Schlagen nach dem Schildwallgesetz

Capturing by Using the Shieldwallrule

If there is the same number of opposing taflmen in a row in front of a row of taflmen the whole group can be captured at once by bracketing them.

Kein Schlagen nach dem Schildwallgesetz

No Capture

According to the shieldwallrule it is NOT allowed to capture a stone that stands beside a corner burg.
Only the king can be taken captive this way (see above).

The shieldwallrule is rarely used. Rather, it enables the breakup of a row of opposing taflmen on the edge of the board by forming a row with one's own taflstones because the other player wants to avoid the loss of several taflstones at once.
These rows facing each other remind of a shieldwall, a viking battle formation, the rule is called after.

Have fun with the taflgame!