What did the Vikings play for fun?

What did the Vikings play for fun?

In-between raiding, trading, and farming, Vikings developed another intriguing source of entertainment to keep themselves busy. Introducing Hnefatafl, the Viking board game that pitted two Vikings against each other in a strategic armchair battle of pride and glory.

Hnefatafl is a two-player board game where each player takes control of two different armies. One player controls the attacking force and must capture the defending players King. The other player takes control of the King and his retinue, who need to get their king to safety.

We do not know the actual rules for the game but best guesses are:

  1. Each player takes it in turns to move one of their pieces horizontally and vertically, and they can travel as many spaces as they want.
  2. You need to pin one of your opponent’s pieces to remove them from the board.
  3. The King needs to escape by making it to one of the corners of the board.


The game was so immensely popular in Scandinavia they exported it to Iceland, Greenland, the British Isles, and mainland Europe. The game’s popularity in these regions gave birth to several variants like the Welsh Tawlbwrdd, that has a surviving written account of the game from 1587.

By the 11th century Chess had also become widespread throughout Europe, after successful importation from the Arabians and the Iberian Moors. The use of chess quickly phased out Hnefatafl from most Viking territories. Thus by the 12th century Norwegians in Trondheim started to decorate their chess pieces in Scandinavian art styles using Walrus Ivory as their material of choice. Such examples of these pieces were discovered in the Isle of Lewis, in the Western Isles of Scotland. They are collectively known as the Lewis Chessmen.

During the 12th century, Norway owned much of the Scottish Western Isles, and so the Isle of Lewis was a stop off point for Norwegian traders heading towards the rest of Britain and Ireland. The British Museum believes that the chess pieces were meant to be traded in markets across the British Isles as decorative pieces. You can see one of the Lewis Chessmen in the exhibition, Viking: Rediscover the Legend.

For anyone interested in playing a game of Hnefatafl, we have a giant board in the gallery for visitors to play. You can experience for yourselves how the Vikings entertained themselves for centuries.

Also if you don’t want the fun to stop, or are looking for an unusual souvenir or gift, there are boxed copies of the Hnefatafl board game in the gift shop so you can take a set home to relax and unwind like a Viking.

Or join us for our free Learn to Play Hnefertafl sessions:

Sat 21 July

Sat 18 August 

Written by  our Viking: Rediscover the Legend volunteer Craig Robinson

Image is:

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Posted on 13 June 2018 under Exhibitions

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