Viking Hnefetafl


One of our favorite activities while studying the Vikings was playing the game of Hnefetafl (pronounced Nef-uh-tah-full). Hnefetafl is a strategy game like chess, though much simpler to play. It simulates a Viking raid, with attackers trying to capture the King and defenders trying to protect him.

We made the game board years ago, using instructions from a previous curriculum. I tried in vain to find a board online that you could print…so I’m including instructions in this post about making your own. Don’t worry, it won’t be difficult!

Online Hnefetafl:

I’ve found a site where you can play online. Click on one of the game boards to play. This site is great, as it allows you to play against the computer, as either the attacker (black) or the defender (white), and it also allows you to do a two player game and play both sides. You can choose from an 11 x 11 board or a 9 x 9 board. Click on one of the boards to begin playing. Make sure that you click the word “English”, which you’ll see beside the board on the next screen, if you want the computer to prompt you in English instead of the default Danish!

They have the rules printed on their site, or you can read the rules I’ve written below.

Make your own Hnefetafl Board

It’s worth it to take 15 minutes to make your own board, because Hnefetafl is just that fun! My kids have gone back to it again and again. Games are over quickly and it’s a little bit addictive!

If you are great on the computer, you can design your own game board that way….otherwise, you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.

You’ll need a square piece of posterboard, a ruler and some markers. The board is laid out similar to a checker or chess board, but with 121 squares (11 rows and 11 columns). Smaller and larger versions have been found in ruins, but 11 x 11 seems to be the most common. Use your ruler to mark off equal sized squares, 11 rows and 11 columns.

You’ll need 3 different colored markers to designate where the attackers, the defenders and the King call home.

Each of the four corners and the very center square should be colored the same (with a matching color or pattern, we’ll say blue for our purposes). These squares belong to the King. The center square is his throne and the 4 corner squares are his exit points to escape from the attackers.

Every square touching the center square, as well as the squares that are two squares away from the center in a straight line, should be colored identically (we’ll say yellow). That gives you 5 blue squares (the corners and the middle) and 12 yellow squares (a kind of compass, surrounding the middle blue square).

The final pattern and color is for the sides.

As you look at the perimeter of the board, you’ll see the 4 blue squares in the 4 corners. Each blue corner should have two empty (uncolored) squares beside it in each direction. The middle squares along the perimeter will be colored identically, let’s say in green. There are 5 middle squares on each side, plus four empty squares and two blue corners per side, for a total of 11 squares per side.

Finally, the square that touches the middle square on each side will also be green.

Do the same on all four sides. When you are done it will look like this!

The Rules

The rules are fairly simple. You’ll need 3 different colors of glass beads (or some other marker) to represent the players (24 beads in one color for the attackers, 12 beads in another color for defenders, as well as one glass bead in a third color for the King). You can substitute something else for the markers (24 pennies, 12 dimes and one nickel).

The King sits on his throne, which is the center blue square, and he is surrounded by his men on the yellow squares (the 12 defenders). The rest of the beads are the attackers, and they are set up around the board on the green squares.

It is hard to differentiate the King from the defenders in this picture, but you get the idea. The light blue beads are attackers, the green beads are defenders and the center, turquoise bead on the throne is the King. Also, we colored this board a bit differently than our instructions, but just disregard these differences.


The four sides represent four ships. The middle represents the King on his throne, surrounded by his loyal defenders. The defenders try to help the King escape by enabling him to get to one of the four corners. The attackers win if they can capture the King before he reaches one of the corners and escapes. Typically the attackers have the upper hand, so good manners dictate playing twice and switching sides so that each person has a chance to play both roles. If you want to keep score, count how many of the opponent’s pieces are captured in both games, and add up the total to determine the final winner.

Here are the rules:

1) Pieces can move as far as they want to in a single turn, but only in a straight line right to left or up and down. No diagonal moves are allowed. Think of how the Rook moves in chess; Hnefetafl pieces move the same way.

2) The throne and the four corners may only be occupied by the King. Another piece can pass through the throne if the King is not sitting on it, but no piece may land on the throne or corners except the King.

3) The attackers are allowed to move first. Turns alternate between the two players. Pieces are not allowed to jump over each other.

4) Pieces are captured in one of two ways: either they are trapped between two enemy pieces, or between an enemy piece and one of the King’s squares (the center square or the corner squares). The two enemy pieces must be directly beside the captured piece (left to right or top to bottom), not diagonal.

Also, the trap must be closed by the move of the opponent. In other words, if a defender sneaks in between two attackers which are already in position, the defender is not captured. Captured pieces are removed from game play for the rest of the game.

Since corner squares can be used to help capture an opponent’s piece in an attack, it isn’t wise to stay adjacent to one.

5) The King can be captured just like any other piece unless he is sitting on his throne or on one of the four squares directly adjacent to his throne. If he is on this throne, the attackers have to surround him in all four cardinal directions.

If he is on any of the four squares directly adjacent to his throne, the attackers have to surround him on the four points of the compass.

6) If the King is in danger of being captured on the next move, the attacker must say, “Watch your King”.

That’s it! The King is wise to sacrifice a few of his defenders in the early rounds, as often they end up getting in his way as he tries to escape. The attackers do well to set up a blockade around all four corners, but this requires fast action from the outset of the game.


  1. Thanks for sharing. It sounds fun. I’ll have to file this one away for when we study the Vikings again.

  2. Ooh, we love games! I’ve bookmarked this post to come back to – it looks great fun! Thanks.

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