The sagas of the northmen make the perfect subject for games. We take a look at historic games played by the Vikings, along with modern video games inspired by the era.
When they weren’t swashbuckling their way across the seas to find new lands to conquer, the Vikings had plenty of time to fill. It might surprise you to learn that, like us, one way they did that was to sit down and play board games!
Let’s take a deep dive into the games of Viking history, then and now.
Gaming in the Viking Age
As we’ve mentioned a few times before, the Vikings didn’t really bother to write their traditions down. Histories, traditions and cultures were passed down through the generations orally. Writing using runes and runestones was used more for tributes and keeping track of trades.
So, what we know about the Vikings generally comes either from sagas written long after the fact or from the things we dig up from the ground. Thankfully there’s evidence from both sources that the Vikings loved a good board game.
You might remember that the brutal raid on Lindisfarne pretty much started the whole Viking thing. Recently, archaeologists working on the island, trying to find the exact location of the original wooden monastery, uncovered a number of Viking items including tools, coins and a very rare game piece.
The small glass piece, about the size of a coin, is made from swirled blue and white glass with a ring of white glass droplets to represent a crown.
The trench where it was found has been dated to the 8th or 9th century. We don’t know whether it was dropped by a Viking raider or was used by the locals on the island to imitate the raiders’ game after they’d left.
What we do know, however, is that the piece is of such quality that it must have been used, at least originally, by someone wealthy. And the other thing we’re pretty sure of is the game, or at least the type of game, it was used for.
Tafl Viking Games
Tafl games, literally meaning table games, are a family of ancient tabletop strategy games played by Norse and Celtic people. Names of different Tafl variants include Hnefatafl, Tablut, Tawlbwrdd, Brandubh, Ard Rí, and Alea Evangelii. They all would have had slightly different boards and rules, but the main concept was the same.
Hnefatafl was the variant that was played most widely in Scandinavia during the Viking Age and it’s likely this is the game they played with the piece found on Lindisfarne.
Hnefatafl – Hnef meaning ‘fist’ – is mentioned in several of the sagas including Orkneyinga saga, Friðþjófs saga and Hervarar saga. From this we can see that it would have been played throughout the Viking empire and pretty much everyone would have known about it.
We don’t know the exact rules – more on this shortly – but the game would have been played on a board of 11×11 or 13×13. It was an ‘uneven’ game in that the two sides had different numbers of pieces. On one side, the aim was to defend the King and advance it to the corner of the board. The other side simply had to defend the corners and capture the King.
Hnefatafl likely died out as a certain game from the orient called Chess gained more popularity during the Middle Ages. In the 20th century people successfully managed to recreate Hnefatafl and so ‘Modern Hnefatafl’ is a game you can buy and play today, either in tabletop form or online.
We don’t really know the rules of Hnefatafl, so how can we play it? Well it just so happens that there’s a Sámi variant called Tablut that we do have the rules for. Tablut survived into the 18th century and the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was kind enough to note down the rules in this 1732 ‘Expedition to Lapland’.
The name Tablut may have come from a misunderstanding as the word (also dablut) simply means ‘to play boardgames’. For years there were also problems with the rules because he recorded them in Latin in his diary, Lachesis Lapponica, and they were then translated wrongly into English in the 19th century!
Several attempts were made by avid gamers to balance the problems in the mistranslation – chiefly that the game heavily favoured the defenders. Retranslations in the 20th century clarified things significantly and game experts settled on a set of rules that fixed Tablut into a balanced game.
This also allowed a reasonable reconstruction of the other tafl games such as Hnefatafl when combined with clues from the sagas.
One more game with a slightly tenuous connection to the Viking era is Kubb. It’s often known as Viking Chess – a name also often applied to Hnefatafl. Taking place on a rectangular pitch, the two teams take turns to thrown batons at Kubbs – rectangular wooden blocks on their opponent’s side.
Any that are knocked down successfully get placed upright on the opposite side. So, the more successful you are, the harder it then is for your opponent. Once you’ve knocked down all your opponent’s Kubbs with your batons you get a chance to knock down the King and win the game.
It’s a lot of fun and pretty simple to play and while there are rules, you can also make up your own amongst friends to make it easier or harder!
Some people claim that the game is of Viking origin but there’s no actual evidence that this is true! The first known mention of the game comes from 1911 where a similar game called Kägelkrig – Skittles War – was included in the Nordisk familjebok (Nordic family book).
The modern game dates to the 1980s when commercial sets appeared. Did the Vikings play Kubb? We don’t know. It’s the kind of game that would be simple to play at the time so it’s more fun to imagine that they did!
Modern Viking board games
Following a decline during the early days of video games, tabletop board games in general have enjoyed something of a renaissance. As Vikings and Norse mythology are very popular, so many game developers attempt to mine the era to create popular board games.
Most of these take a fairly standard game type and add in Viking imagery. There’s plenty out there so I’ll just introduce a handful here to give you an idea of some of the better games that are available.
As I mentioned above, you can now buy Hnefatafl, Tablut and other similar games, to play with friends and family. Now that we have balanced rules, whether they relate exactly to the rules in the past or not, these games provide a fun strategy game that’s close to one that the actual northmen would have played.
There are also online versions to play, where you pitch your tafl skills against real people or artificial intelligence.
Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga
You’re vying for glory across three epic sagas in Fire & Axe, originally titled Viking Fury. You get to choose between diplomacy and trade, or plunder and pillage as you start the game building up your crew and goods.
The game looks a little bit like Risk, one of the most famous ever board games. There’s a ‘world map’ and you move around conquering territories and hopefully surviving on the open seas. There have been a number of editions since its release in 2004 but no expansions to burn through your wallet!
Named for the mythical tree that connects the nine realms of Norse mythology. You are playing the role of one of 6 Norse Gods attempting to defend the realms from nefarious creatures, including everyone’s favourite trickster, Loki.
Yggdrasil has also been reimagined into the more recent Yggdrasil Chronicles, from the same game designer, with a similar concept and with yet more expansions to buy if you want to change your adventures.
Another standalone game that lives by its own merits, Vikings has been around since 2007 so it can be hard to get hold of nowadays, but if you find it in a board game café or a second-hand shop it’s worth giving it a try. Despite the name, this focuses more on the ‘simple farming folk’ side of Viking live and leaves the plundering to others!
In terms of gameplay, this is similar to games such as Catan where you have to contend with other players for resources over the course of 6 rounds. There’s a little randomness thrown in with a ‘pricing wheel’ that pairs characters with tiles and sets their prices.
One of the most highly rated of the Viking-themed board games, Blood Rage sees you directing your clan through three ages picking up things to help you in the final stages where Ragnarok is upon you. Choose carefully or you might end up with no way to defend yourself!
The gameplay is effectively a card-drafting/deck-building game. You play through three ages building your deck and hoping you’ll have enough strength to outwit your opponents. As you’d expect from a Viking game, the only losing strategy is to shy away from battle and a glorious death!
A Feast for Odin
Possibly the best game – although that’s very subjective – A Feast for Odin combines a little bit of everything all into one. Raid and trade as you explore the world before you. Try to amass the biggest fortune as that’s the object of the game!
Try to cover as much of the board as you can and puzzle together the lives of everyday life of a Viking village. Released in 2016, the game has been nominated for many ‘Game of the Year’ awards and already has a few expansions to change things up a bit.
Viking video games
Throughout the history of video games, the Vikings have appeared as a theme. They even appear when they’re not Vikings! Loads of games have a ‘fierce warriors from the north’ concept, including one of the most popular games of the 21st century – The Elder Scrolls V – Skyrim.
Vikings also pop up in some surprising places. Who knew that Donkey Kong battled Vikings in one of his adventures? 2014’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze gave us anthropomorphic Viking-themed creatures called ‘Snowmads’ who take over the island leaving our old friend DK to defeat them.
Here’s our pick of Viking games. Most of these are on the older side so you may be hard to find but don’t worry… I’ll be coming up with some more recent titles in another article soon!
The Lost Vikings
This is a platform game from the early 1990s on SNES, Genesis, Amiga and PC. You control three Vikings who have lost their way in time and try to get them back to the Viking age by following the levels and solving some quite tricky puzzles.
The 16-bit graphics look great and even though it’s an old game it has plenty of charm. So much so that it has a bit of a cult following, even now.
You can pick up the re-release for Game Boy Advance from 2003 or download a free version from Battle.net that you can play today.
Bringing Viking video games into the 21st century we have Rune, released on PS2 and PC in 2000 before being ported to Mac OS and Linux.
You play the part of Ragnar, a young Viking warrior sworn to protect Odin’s magic runestones. Through battling and adventuring you have to prevent Loki from unleashing Ragnarök.
Rune is a bit like ‘Doom with Vikings’ and offers enjoyable gameplay. The 2012 re-release, Rune Classic, is available to buy on Steam. The sequel Rune II, released in 2019, is an online co-op game that offers more of the same!
Icebreaker: A Viking Voyage
Vikings on the go? Who’d have thought! Icebreaker is a mobile physics-puzzler type game from Rovio Stars, the studio behind Angry Birds.
An icy wind has swept the Vikings away and scattered them all over the land. You have to use your skill and cunning to get them back to their longship, slashing the wood and breaking the ice that’s in their way.
It’s a simple concept but it can offer hours of fun, especially in short bursts. It’ll also test your brain as you have to work out the best way to get the Vikings back to the boat. You can buy it today on the App Store and Play Store if you fancy giving it a go.
Vikings: War of Clans
Clash of Clans clones are ten a penny and often they’re little more than a reskinning of the same old concept. War of Clans, however, actually tries harder to make the game unique. Rather than simply plodding along on your own, Vikings: War of Clans sees you teaming up with friends to create a real clan and you grow in power together as well as individually.
The game is free to play online at https://plarium.com/en/strategy-games/vikings-war-of-clans/ either through a web browser or their dedicated app.
Have you played any of these games already? Or have we whet your appetite to find out more? Let us know in the comments.