Earworm Tablut

“Earworm Tablut”

Our game Earworm Tablut is based on the 1,000-year-old board game known as Hnefatafl. Once a popular bold game of strategy and wit it was known to be a game for nobles and intellectuals. As you are about to read the game seemed to be lost to history after the introduction of Chess. Luckily through historical reconstruction, we can now grasp how this game works, and with that comes to our own version Earworm Tablut. There are many ways to play this game, unlike chess. Earworm Tablut can be defined as a branch from both Hnefatafl and Tawlbyund.

Earworm Tablut


The Viking Game

These were the accomplishments of the noble of Viking Age Scandinavia. Before the introduction of Chess (Old Norse Skak-Tafl) in the XIth and XIIth centuries, Scandinavians sharpened their wits by playing a game known as Tafl. Tafl in Old Norse means “table” and by the end of the period referred to a variety of board games, such as Chess (Skak-Tafl or “check-table”), Tabula (the medieval ancestor of Backgammon, introduced from the French as Quatre and thus Kvatru-Tafl), Fox and Geese (Ref-Skak, “fox chess”, Hala-Tafl or Freys-Tafl), Three Men’s Morris (Hræ_-Tafl “Quick-Tafl”) and Nine Men’s Morris.

Earworm Tablut
The beauty is in the details.

However, the term Tafl was most used to refer to a game known as Hnefa-Tafl or “King’s Table”. Hnefatafl was known in Scandinavia before 400 A. D. and was carried by the Vikings to Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Britain, Wales, and as far east as Ukraine. The Saxons had their own variant, derived from a common Germanic Tafl game, which was apparently the only board game known to them prior to the introduction of Chess.



Hnefatafl and its numerous variants were played on odd-sized boards as small as 7 x 7 and as large as 19 x 19. Usually wooden, they sometimes had holes drilled in the center of each playing square, the pieces being pegged -this made for easy storage or even for traveling boards. Most boards had the starting positions of the pieces marked in two distinct patterns to facilitate setting up. In some cases, the board is drawn Go-style, the pieces standing at the intersections of the lines rather than at the centers of the squares. The board itself is sometimes mentioned as Tafl or Tann-Tafl (“tooth-table,” a Tafl-board inlaid with walrus ivory).

A beautifully carved board with 13×13 squares was found at Gokstad in Norway. This is a double-sided board with a Nine Men’s Morris layout carved on the reverse side as with other less impressive examples. Many other wooden Tafl boards have also been found throughout the Viking and Anglo-Saxon world, but some of the boards were much simpler affairs being only marked out with charcoal or scratched onto the surface of slices of rock.

The Scottish (Ard-Ri, “High King”) and Irish (Fidchell, Fitchneal or Fithcheall) variants were both played on a seven by seven board, with slightly different starting layouts. Fitchneal is mentioned in the Mabinogion and in Cormac’s Glossary (IXth century); the descriptions are scanty, so there is an element of speculation in assigning these games to the Hnefatafl family. Tablut, the Finnish variant, was played on a nine by nine board.

Earworm Tablut Earworm Tablut
Ard-Ri Fitchneal Tablut

The King is the crossed piece ();
the central and corner squares are marked by an X

Hnefatafl, the Norse variant, was played either on an eleven by eleven board or a thirteen by thirteen board.

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Two variant Hnefatafl boards

Tawlbyund (or Tawl Bwrdd, “Throw Board”), the Welsh variant, was played on an eleven by eleven board. It dates back at least to the Xth century. The Welsh also played the seven by seven Irish game of Fitchneal, which they called Gwyddbwyll.

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Two variant Tawlbyund openings
(as described by Robert ap Ifan in a 1587 manuscript)


Alea Evangelii, finally, was the Saxon variant and used a nineteen-by nineteen board -it was apparently the only board game played by the Saxons. It takes its modern name from the opening line of the Xth century manuscript it is documented by: “Incipit alea evangelii quam Dubinsi…“. Some commentators suggest that this arrangement represents a sea battle, with a King’s ship defended by twenty-four white ships and a fleet of forty-eight dark attackers.

Earworm Tablut
Alea Evangelii;
the gray pieces are the elite King’s Guard
(from C. C. C. Oxon. 122, a manuscript dating from the reign of King Æthelstan)



The game was sometimes played with dice (Tawlbyund, for example), which would either indicate the maximum distance a piece could move or whether the player could move at all or not (move on an odd roll, miss a turn on an even roll). The Irish called the dice variant Brandubh. As a true game of skill, Hnefatafl is best played without dice.


  • The King piece was called Hnefi (“King”, Old English has Cyningstan “King-Stone”); the pieces Hunns (“knobs”), Tæflor (“table-men”) or Tæfelstanas (Old English “table-men”).
  • The Lapps call their Tablut pieces “Swedes” and “Muscovites” (they were very similar to modern stylized chessmen, the Swedish King resembling a King, the Swedish Hunns pawns, and the Muscovites bent rooks). They sometimes had pegged bottoms that fit in holes drilled in the board. The King was bigger and more ornate.
  • With the larger boards (e.g. Alea Evangelii), the King’s pieces were sometimes differentiated, with a small, elite “King’s Guard” of uncapturable pieces.
  • There are many kinds of board games and gaming pieces from Scandinavia and from the British Isles. Gaming pieces were often hemispherical and made of antler, amber, bone, clay, glass, horn, stone, jet, wood, or even horses’ teeth. Finds of several light and several dark pieces together have been made sometimes with a single piece being a different shape, like a sea urchin, in the same area.
  • For 9×9 boards, sixteen dark pieces surrounded eight light pieces with an additional King. Boards with more squares typically had twelve light pieces and a King facing twenty-four dark pieces. The colors were often switched.
Earworm Tablut
It doesn’t always need to be fancy.


The King (large white piece) goes on the central square (Throne –Konakis in Finnish), surrounded by his men (other white pieces). The enemy (black) pieces are set up around the edges of the board. Black moves first -except in the case of Alea Evangelii, where White moves first.


  • Turns alternate between the players.
  • All pieces move in the same way, like modern rooks at Chess. That is, on his turn, a player may slide a single piece of his color any number of squares in either orthogonal direction (up-down or left-right, no diagonal moves) as long as it doesn’t jump over another piece of either color. The Throne and the four corner squares are off-limits to all pieces except the King. With the smaller board variants, pieces of either color may pass over the Throne; with the larger board variants, only the King may do so.
  • The White player is trying to have his King escape his assailants by reaching a corner square. If the White player moves so that his King ends up with a clear path to any of the four corner squares, he must announce that he has an escape route open. The Lapps use the word Raichi (“Check”) to announce a single route and Tuichi (“Checkmate”) to announce a double route. On his next turn, if he can still do so, the King may be moved to a corner square and escape. White then wins.
  • If the Black player inadvertently opens an escape route for the King, the White player may take advantage of it immediately!
  • If the moving piece ends up sandwiching an opposing piece between itself and another piece of the moving color or a corner square, the sandwiched piece is removed from the board. This is called custodial capture. It is possible to capture several pieces in a single move.
Earworm Tablut
White captures both black pieces

The King must be sandwiched along both axes to be captured. The Throne, corners, and edges count as Black pieces for purposes of sandwiching the King, so Black needs only three pieces to capture the King on the edge of the board or if he is right beside his Throne, two if the King is right beside a corner square. When the King is in danger of being captured on Black’s next move, he must announce “Watch your King” to the White player (this is reminiscent of Chess’ prohibition against moving one’s King into check). Black wins by capturing the King. The King can also be captured if he and no more than one defender are surrounded on all sides and incapable of moving.

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In all cases, Black captures the King and wins

A piece may safely move to place itself in a sandwich between two opposing pieces (or a corner square).

Earworm Tablut
White can safely move in between the black pieces


The winner is the White player if he manages to reach a corner square with his King, the Black player if he manages to capture the King. Because the game is uneven, it is good etiquette to play two games, switching sides. Each player keeps track of how many pieces he lost or took from his opponent and this score is used to determine the ultimate winner.


With the smaller boards, a different game is played if the pieces can only move one square at a time. With the larger boards, the King can escape by simply reaching any edge square rather than a corner square. Optionally, a piece may not move to place itself in a sandwich between two opposing pieces without being captured. Finally, an element of chance can be introduced using dice, as described earlier.


The King’s forces usually possess a slight advantage, despite being outnumbered. Tactically, the defender (King’s men) must arrange for the King to escape the board. Therefore, the defender should try to capture as many attackers as possible to clear an escape route, while not trying too hard to protect his own men since they, too, can block the King’s escape. The attacker’s object is not only to prevent the King’s escape but also to capture him. The best way to do this is to avoid making captures early in the game, instead of scattering the attackers to block possible escape routes.


Hnefatafl started to decline in the XIth century with the rise of Chess. It disappeared from Wales in the late XVIth century and from Lappland in the early XVIIIth. Although the recorded rules are all post-period, there are no significant differences between variants of widely separate geographic locations. We owe the record of Tablut to the diary of the young Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, who visited Lappland in 1732.

Writings of the times mention various board games, but it can be quite difficult to work out exactly how the game was played. Among the many names for games known from the literature, we have Brannan-Tafl, Hala-Tafl, Hnefa-Tafl, Hnot-Tafl, Hræ_-Tafl, Kvatru-Tafl and Skak-Tafl, although the rules for many of these remain unclear.

There are many references to Hnefatafl in Old Norse literature, from sources ranging from the poems of the Poetic Edda to saga references such as Orkneyinga Saga, the Greenland Lay of Atli, Hervarar Saga, Fridthjof’s Saga, and more. Most frequently these references are to the game pieces.

The earliest mention of the game appears in Voluspa 60:

Then in the grass, the golden tæflor, the far-famed ones, will be found again, which they had owned in older days.

Rigsthula speaks of the noble child Earl learning to swim and play Tafl. From Hervarar Saga come two riddles in the riddle-game between Odinn and King Heidrek:

Who are the maids that fight weaponless around their lord, the brown ever sheltering and the fair ever attacking him?

Answer: the pieces in Hnefatafl (in this case the brown pieces occupy the center, attacked by the white pieces).

What is that beast all girdled with iron which kills the flocks?
It has eight horns but no head?

Answer: the Hnefi or King. We know that women also played Hnefatafl from the reference in Gunnlaug’s Saga Ormstunga in which Gunnlaug plays Tafl with Helga Thorsteinsdatter, the granddaughter of Egil Skallagrimsson. Fridthjof’s Saga Ins Fraeki has a game between Fridthjof and Bjorn, where comments ostensibly made about the game are actually answers to King Helgi’s man Hilding:

But as their troops seemed but few to them, they sent Hilding, their foster-father, to Fridthjof, and asked him to join the troops of the kings. Fridthjof was sitting at Tafl when Hilding came.

He said: “Our kings send word to thee, and they would have thy fighting men for the war against King Hring, who wishes to fall upon their kingdom wrongfully and tyrannously”. Fridthjof made no answer, but said to Bjorn, with whom he was playing, “That is a weak point, brother: But thou needest not change it. Rather will I move against the red piece to know if it is protected”.

Hilding spoke again: “King Helgi bade me tell thee, Fridthjof, that thou shouldst go on this raid, else thou wilt suffer hardship when they come back”. Bjorn said, “Thou hast a choice of two moves, brother: two ways of saving it”. Fridthjof said, “First it would be wise to move against this Hnefi and that will be an easy choice”. Hilding received no other answer to his errand. He went back quickly to the kings and told them of Fridthjof.

They asked Hilding what sense he made of these words. Hilding said: “When he spoke of the weak point, he meant this raid of your; and when he said he would move with the fair piece, that must refer to your sister Ingebjorg. Therefore, look to her well. And when I promised him hardship from you, Bjorn called that a choice, but Fridthjof said that the Hnefi had first to be attacked, and by that he meant King Hring”.

Several things are lacking in these brief references: the arrangement of the board, the initial placement of the playing pieces, and the rules of the game. Archaeology provides some additional clues.

There have been numerous grave finds of game pieces. One runestone from Ockelbo, Sweden, shows two men balancing a board game on their knees, which reflects the saga references where arguments over the game frequently cause one or both players to leap to their feet, upsetting the Tafl-board and scattering the pieces. Fragments of actual game boards have been excavated as well.

One board from the Gokstad ship has a 15 x 15 ruled board on one side for Tafl, and what appears to be a Nine Men’s Morris board on the reverse side. A magnificent Tafl board thought to have been manufactured on the Isle of Man was found in a crannog excavation in Ballinderry, West Meath, Ireland.

Archaeologists had long recognized the similarities of these boards to those used for Fox and Geese, but this was not enough to reconstruct the Viking Age game. Further clues were provided by an English manuscript from King Æthelstan’s court (c. 925-940 A. D.) which describes a game known as Alea Evangelii, which attempts to give the board and the arrangement of the pieces upon it scriptural significance as a harmony of the gospels. Again, no rules for the movement of the men are given. But the manuscript provides a diagram showing the initial arrangement of the game pieces.

Robert ap Ifan in 1587 described Tawl-bwrdd as follows:

The aboveboard must be played with a King in the center and twelve men in the places next to him. And twenty-four lie in wait to capture him. These are placed, six in the center of every end of the board and in the six central places. Two players move the pieces. If one belonging to the King comes between the attackers. he is dead and is thrown out of the play; and if one of the attackers comes between two of the King’s men, the same.

The final clue to reconstructing the rules of Hnefatafl was provided in 1732 by Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist. In the diary of his travels among the Lapps (Lachesis Lapponica). In the entry for 20 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 gas 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). Rules:

  1. All the pieces move orthogonally any number of vacant squares (the move of the rook in Chess).
  2. A piece is captured and removed from the board when the opponent occupies both adjacent squares in a row or column. This is the custodian method of capture. A piece may move safely onto an empty square between two enemy pieces.
  3. The king is captured if all four squares around him are occupied by enemy pieces; or if he is surrounded on three sides by enemy pieces and on the fourth by the Konakis. When the king is captured, the game is over, and the Muscovites are victorious.
  4. The Swedes win if the king reaches any square on the periphery of the board. When there is a clear route for the king to a perimeter square the player must warn his opponent by saying “Raichi!”. When there are two clear routes he must say “Tuichi!” This is the equivalent of “checkmate” since it is impossible to block two directions in the same move.



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