The game known to the Saxons as Cyningtaefl ("King's Table") or simply Tæfl (pronounce to rhyme with 'gavel') is derived from a common Germanic Tafl -game, and this was apparently one of the few board games known to the Saxons prior to the introduction of chess. The common Germanic Tafl is a development of the Roman game latrunculi ('soldiers'). One piece of supporting evidence--beyond the similarities of the games--is that Tæfl (meaning 'table') is derived from the Latin loan word tabula. The game is played on a chequered board, the number of squares in vertical direction being odd and equal to the number of squares in horizontal direction, so that there is a distinct central square (board-sizes include 7×7, 11×11, 13×13, 15×15 and 19×19 squares). The game simulates a battle between two unequal forces, a weaker force in the centre of the board (typically black or dark-coloured), surrounded and outnumbered by an attacking force (typically white or light-coloured) stationed on the perimeter of the board.
foreground: black & a white Tæflstaanas (Tafl-pieces) sculpted by Doris Slade
History & Discovery
Many of the ancient Scandinavian sagas make repeated mention of a game called Hnefatafl or Tafl, such as this one from the 'Voluspa' prophecy-poem in what is known as the Elder Edda (The 'then...will be found...which...in older days' seems to refer to a rebirth of Man after Ragnarök ):
'Then in the grass the golden taeflor ("table-men"),
the far-famed ones, will be found again,
which they had owned in older days.' (Poetic Edda, Hollander 12)
Or this one, from an Old Norse manuscript concerning the accomplishments of a gentleman:
'I can play at tafl,
Nine skills I know,
Rarely forget I the runes,
I know of books and smithing,
I know how to slide on skis,
Shoot and row, well enough;
Each of two arts I know,
Harp-playing and speaking poetry.'
--- Earl Rognvaldr Kali (Gordon 155, translated by Christie Ward )
One Norse source, the Hauksbók from the 14th century, presents a riddle which is paradoxically (and anachronistically) a clue to the basic rules of tafl:
'Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their Lord, the brown ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him? King Heiðrekr, solve this riddle!...It is Hnefatafl, the pieces are killed weaponless around the king, and the red ones are following him.' (Magnuson & Morris)
This description of 'brown maids' sheltering the King and 'fair [men]' attacking matches the traditional dark colouration of the King and his men and the light colour of the other pieces.
In Anglo-Saxon manuscripts we find the following two references:
(1) from 'Maxims I' [ Exeter Book], ll.181-182:
'Hy twegen sceolon tæfle ymbsittan, þenden him hyra torn toglide, forgietan þara geocran gesceafta, habban him gomen on borde..'
["The two shall sit round at Tæfl, until their troubles glide off of them, they forget their cruel fortunes, and have joy on the board.."]
(2) from 'The Fortunes of Men' [Exeter Book ], ll. 64-71b:
'Swa missenlice meahtig dryhten geond eorþan sceat eallum dæleð scyreþ ond scrifeð ond gesceapo healdeð, sumum eadwelan, sumum earfeþa dæl, sumum geogoþe glæd, sumum guþe blæd, gewealdenne wigplegan, sumum wyrp oþþe scyte, torhtlicne tiir, sumum tæfle cræft, bleobordes gebregd.'
["So variously the mighty lord, throughout the corners of the earth, deals out to all, declares and ordains and controls (his) creation (?); to some he gives riches, to some poverty, to some joy in youth, to some glory in war, determined (?) war-play, to some a throw or a
shot, radiant glory (or radiant Tyr perhaps?), to some skill at Tæfl, the trick of the coloured board."]
In the early Middle Ages, when chess was introduced in Scandinavia, it began to replace the indiginious Tafl-games and no sets of written rules or common tradition of playing survived. One of the first persons who became devoted to solving the puzzle of Hnefatafl was Willard Fiske, an American expert on languages (and a chess-players, co-editing the magazine Chess Monthly with legendary American chess player Paul Morphy ). Fiske collected a lot of material that was published in the book Chess in Iceland in 1905, but he finally abandoned the problem as insoluble. The only conclusion he could make was that is was played between two groups of "maids" with a "hnefi" on one side. Hnefi is an Icelandic word and literally means fist, but since the hnefi had a role corresponding to the king in chess it is often translated as "king". The word hnefatafl itself is a compilation of hnefa, genitive of hnefi, and tafl, which is the Old Norse word for board (again, originally borrowed from the Latin word tabula with the same meaning).
'Hy twegen sceolon tæfle ymbsittan, þenden him hyra torn
toglide, forgietan þara geocran gesceafta, habban him gomen on
borde..' (from Maxims I [Exeter Book], ll.181-182)
"The two shall sit round at Tæfl, until their troubles glide off
of them, they forget their cruel fortunes, and have joy on the
Another important clue to reconstructing the rules of hnefatafl was actually provided in 1732 by Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, in his diary of his travels among the Lapps. In the entry for 20th July 1732, Linnaeus described a game known among the Lapps as Tablut, which is a derivative of Hnefatafl:
'The Tablut board is marked out with 9 x 9 squares, the central one being distinctive and known as Konakis or throne. Only the Swedish king can occupy this square. One player has eight blonde Swedes and their monarch; the other has sixteen dark Muscovites. The king is larger than the other pieces. The Muscovites are placed on the embroidered squares. [The board was made of reindeer skin ornamented with needlework as the Lapps had no cloth].' (Bell 77-78)
The game remained a mystery until the British chess historian Harold J. R. Murray connected the description of a Saami ('Laplandish') game, Tablut, in the Linnaeus's diary with the descriptions of Hnefatafl in the Sagas. Murray's hypothesis, that the Saami game of Tablut was identical with Hnefatafl, was put forward in his book History of Chess in 1913. Thirty-nine years later Murray published another book called History of Board Games other than Chess. By that time, much more material that supported his theory had been discovered, notably a Welsh manuscript from 1587 by Robert ap Ifan describing a game called Tawl-Bwrdd. From the material that Murray presented in his second book, it became clear that Tafl -games spread also into Ireland and Wales.
FOR MORE HISTORY SEE THE LINKS (particularly the first three)
Here I present the rules for Cyning Tæfl - my version , the description assuming an 11x11 board (though other sizes would work as well). Pages in the LINKS section present alternative versions.
Pieces & Board:
There are 24 White pieces or Tæflstaans (‘tafl-stones’) and 12 Black Tæflstaans, plus a Black Cyningstaan (‘King-stone’). The board is 11x11 squares, with five dark, ‘restricted’ squares, one in the centre and one in each corner.
The objective of the Black Defending pieces is for the King to escape to one of the four corner squares of the board.
The objective of the White Attackers is to trap Black’s King.
All pieces, including the King, move as do Rooks in Chess. That is, they move horizontally along a row or vertically along a column, never diagonally. Pieces may not ‘jump’ over other pieces; the path between their starting point and their destination must be clear.
Black moves first.
Each player may make one move per turn, consisting of one legal move (as defined above). If a player has no legal moves, the game ends in stale-mate.
No piece, except for the King, may occupy any of the dark Restricted squares. Other pieces may cross over the dark Restricted square in the centre of the board, but may not land on it.
Either black or white Tæflstaans may capture by moving to surround a piece of the opposing colour on two opposite sides - capturing requires an active move on the part of the capturer, like so:
Surrounding a piece on two adjacent (non-opposing) sides has no effect:
Also, if a player moves his own piece between two pieces of opposing colour it is not taken:
In order to capture the white piece in the picture above, black would have to move one piece away and then back (or ‘sandwich’ the white Tæflstaan on the other sides), which would require two turns.
Multiple pieces may be taken at the same time in the following manner:
For purposing of capturing, the dark, ‘restricted’ squares count as an opposing piece (for either side). Thus if one of Black’s Tæflstaans is next to a dark square and a White Tæflstaan moves to the square on the opposite side, Black’s piece is captured:
The same would hold true if it were a White piece which stood next to a dark square and a Black piece moved into a capturing position across from the dark square (i.e. just swap the colours of the Tæflstaans in the above figure and the White piece would be taken). One practical effect of this is that it keeps White from blocking the King’s escape routes.
The King (Cyningstaan) cannot participate in capturing 1 ; unless he stands on the centre square, in which case it is still not the King himself who is crucial but rather the dark square he rests upon—White can as easily capture Black pieces against the centre dark square (regardless of whether Black’s King occupies that square or not).
The King also cannot be captured in the normal fashion. He must be surrounded on all four fronts (see Victory section below).
Black wins if the Black King moves to occupy one of the four corner squares 2 :
White wins if he surrounds the Black King on four sides (with White Pieces, or a combination of White pieces and a dark, ‘restricted’ square). The squares diagonal to the King do not count among these four sides:
If a player can make no legal moves, then the match ends in a stale-mate.
an excellent detailed page on the reconstruction of tafl based on various texts & archaeological finds
by Sten Helmfrid
Hnefatafl: an Experimental Reconstruction -
another page on Tæfl research by Neil Peterson
King's Table: Game of the Noble Scandinavians -
another fantastic page on Tæfl research by Christie Ward
Games of the Anglo-Saxons @ Regia.org
Irminsul Aettir Archives - Tafl
Tæfl, Tablut & related games
Tafl - The Game of the Vikings
International Journal for Board Game Studies -
no Tafl yet, but hopefully...
forum for TAFL (@ Yahoo! groups)
Taefl Gild - Website -
rules for playing Tafl on the forum, history, &c.
The Tafl Gild
the old home/archives of Taefllor
BUY PHYSICAL TÆFL SETS