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Games of the Viking and Anglo-Saxon Age

A game of Tabula in progress
*A game of Tabula in progress

Dice Games

Antler dice in a game of very high stakes.
*Dice and coins

Dice were made of antler for the most part, although examples of bone, walrus ivory and jet are also known. More perishable materials, such as wood and horn, were also likely to have been used. They were often rectangular, with the 1 and 2 on either end and the 3,4,5, and 6 on the four long sides.

Others types were also found including modern shaped and numbered examples. Although the numbers on opposite faces do not always add up to seven (as on a modern dice), this arrangement is the most common. One curious dice found in Viking Dublin is a cubic dice, much like most modern dice, but has the curious number combination of 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 6. This is reminiscent of the 'average' dice used in some modern 'wargaming' (in this case with the numbers 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5). The nature of the games played with dice are unknown, but simple games such as 'who can get the highest (or lowest) number were probably common (and are suggested by some of the sagas), as were games similar to 'liar dice' or 'yahtzee'.

The 'long-dice' are usually found in sets of two or three, and normally have the numbers 1 and 2 on the smallest face, suggesting they were used for a game where low numbers were needed, although there is also a suggestion they were used for tabula/kvatrutafl. The use of the 'average' dice is unknown, but again may be for tabula/kvatrutafl. Dice have also been excavated that when x-rayed, revealed small weights inside them to deliberately favour one number; i.e. there were cheats even then.

Board Games

There are many finds of board games and gaming pieces from Scandinavia and from the British Isles. Gaming pieces were often hemispherical and made of antler, amber, bone, glass, clay, stone 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.

Reconstructed Tafl boards
*Reconstructed Tafl boards

Another type of gaming piece found have been made from disk shaped slices of hart's pedicle (the lowest part of the antler, often including the boney seat of the antler), which must have been taken from a fully grown male deer carcass since this would not have been available with fallen antler. In some cases these have been beautifully carved and decorated and often have a hole in the centre where the porous heart of the pedicle has been removed.

Writings of the times mention various board games but it can be quite difficult to work out exactly how the game was played. The word tafl (literally 'table') was used to describe a board game, with the pieces being referred to as toflur or hunn. Among the many names for games known from literature we have brannantafl, halatafl, hnefatafl, hnottafl, hrŠ­tafl (literally 'quick-tafl'), kvatrutafl, merels, skaktafl and tabula, although the rules for many of these remain unclear. In any case the rules may have differed from place to place.

Hnefatafl

This was probably the commonest of the board games played, and was almost certainly a Germanic development of the Roman game latrunculi (soldiers).

The game can be played on a board with 7x7, 9x9, 11x11, 13x13, 15x15 or a 19x19 squares. The centre often has special markings.

A beautiful carved board with 13x13 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 pieces for these games were usually hemispherical. For boards with 9 squares a side, 16 light and eight dark pieces were used, with an additional king. Boards with more squares used 24 light, 12 dark and a king ( hnefi or cyningstan).

Original playing pieces found at Hedeby
*XXXX

Although by the later Middle Ages chess had taken over, hnefatafl still survived in Wales and is described in a manuscript of 1587. It was then called tawlbwrdd and was played on an 11x11 board with 24 light pieces, 12 dark pieces and a king.

In 1732 a Swede called Linnaeus discovered a game called tablut whilst he was travelling in Lappland. The Lapps called the pieces 'Swedes' and 'Muscovites' and played the game on a 9x9 board.

The Rules

The 'king' moves first. He has half the number of pieces his opponent has (6/12 in the 7x7 version, 8/16 in the 9x9 version, 12/24 in the 11x11 and 13x13 version, 24/48 in the 19x19 version . He wins the game if he can manage to get his 'king' out into one of the corner squares (the large 19x19 version often allows the king to win if he can reach the edge of the board). His opponent can win by trapping the king.
A reconstructed Tabula board, styled on the example found in Gloucester.
*A reconstructed Tabula board

All the pieces move in straight lines like the rook or castle in chess, and a piece may be moved any number of squares providing no other piece is standing in the way. It may not pass over another piece. A piece is taken by making a move which traps it between two of your pieces, but not on any diagonal; i.e the north and south, or the east and west positions around an enemy piece. It is possible to take two opposing pieces at the same time. A player is also permitted to move between two opposing pieces without being taken.

The king can normally only be trapped if he is surrounded by four pieces unless he is on the edge of the board where only three would be needed to 'surround' or two at a corner. The four corner squares (which are sometimes decorated) may only be occupied by the king, but if the king is under attack the corner square is regarded as being occupied by an opposing piece. The same goes for the centre square, so here the king can again be trapped by just three pieces.

Duodecim scripta (or Tabula or Kvatrutafl)

This game is a development of the popular Roman game of duodecim scripta, also known as tabula or alea, which was also played in Germany and Scandinavia in the Roman Iron Age, where it appears to have been known as katrutafl. Several wooden boards for this type of game are known from the Saxons' Germanic homeland, and metal fittings for boards of this type have been found from the Viking Age in Germany and Denmark. The only known surviving British example of a tabula board was found in Gloucester; dating to the eleventh century. The decorated bone plates that once covered the now rotted wooden board and the playing pieces, beautifully carved from bone and antler, and were originally decorated with paint, can be seen in the Gloucester city museum. Playing pieces suitable for this game are a more common find.

Rules

The actual rules used at the time are not known but it may have been played like this:

15 white and 15 black (or red) pieces are used and three dice.

The pieces are set up as shown on the drawing and moved in the directions indicated by the arrows.

They are moved according to the number shown on the dice, each dice indicating a single turn. For instance if you throw a 5, a 4 and a 3 you can:

A Fivestones set made from 6 sheeps knuckles and a leather ball
*Fivestones

However, when the dice scores are combined you must be able to make each move separately, if you start to and find that you cannot because you are blocked by the other player's pieces the move is annulled and you loose that turn.

The aim of the game, as in modern backgammon, is to move all your pieces to your 'home ground' and then off the board before your opponent can do so with theirs.

If a piece is standing by itself it is unprotected and can be taken by the opposing piece. If two or more pieces are standing together the section is occupied, and the opponent can neither take a piece or place any of his own in that section. No more than 5 pieces may occupy the same section.

A piece that has been taken, is considered as being placed behind the opponent's home ground and is moved from there onto the board according to modern rules.

When a player has all his pieces placed on home ground he can start taking them off the board by one or more moves. To remove a piece from section three he must throw a three and so on but you may use a higher number to remove a piece if you have none of that number remaining on the board. The first to remove all remaining pieces is the winner.

In reality a very small King and board counter found at Hedeby made from antler
*King and counter from Hedeby

Merels or Nine Men's Morris

From the earliest times (it was played even in ancient Egypt!) This game has been known as 'the game on the other side of the board'. Several boards found in both Viking and Anglo-Saxon contexts have had hnefatafl on one side and nine men's morris on the other. However the game has also been found rather unexpected places - ship's timbers, loose boards, benches, lumps of rock and, later, even on church pews and tiles.

We do not know which of the 'tafl' names was used for this game, but the latin word merels is often used for this game just after Anglo-Saxon times. The name merels comes from the low latin word merrelus, meaning a 'token, counter or coin'.

Nine men's morris is a simple game. The board is quickly made, and pieces could be any set of black (or red) and white stones, bones, etc., which could also be used for any other game.

The game remains well known even today but we do not know the rules of the Viking or Anglo-Saxon version. It is indicated that a die may have been used. Perhaps only particular scores, for example - even numbers, gave the right to move. However the way it is played today is as follows:

Rules

Glass playing pieces and two Kings found at Birka in Sweden
*Glass gaming pieces from Birka

The nine mens morris board is made up of three concentric squares connected by intersecting lines in the centre of each of the square's sides. Players start with nine pieces off the board. Each player takes it in turn to place one of his pieces on one of the intersections. If a player forms a line of three, one of the opposing pieces is removed from play by taking it off the board. Wherever possible the piece taken should not be taken from an existing line of three.

When all pieces have been placed on the board, the players move the pieces around one intersection at a time. On completion of a line of three an opposing piece is taken as before. Forming a line of three is called forming a 'mill'. There is nothing to stop a player forming a mill, moving a piece away and then moving it back again in subsequent moves. The winner of the game is the player who removes all the opponent's pieces.

A simpler version of nine mens morris is the game of 'three mens morris' familiar to most people today, albeit in a modified form, as 'noughts and crosses'. It is played in the same way as nine mens morris, except the board is made up of three lines of three positions (or on the intersections of a 2x2 section of a larger squared board). The winner is the first person to form a mill. Pieces may not move diagonally, or jump over other pieces. This may be the game known as hrŠ­tafl('quick-tafl').

A detail from the Ockelbo stone in Sweden showing a gaming board
*Carving showing gaming board

Halatafl

At Ballinderry in Ireland a little game board has been found with holes in place of squares and with the centre and corner positions clearly marked. Two notches on the board indicate a division between white and red pieces similar to modern solitaire. It is thought to be the halatafl known from the sagas. An alternative idea is that this could be used for a form of the game known as fox and geese or a 7x7 hnefatafl board or, indeed, all three.

The Ockelbo stone from Sweden shows a board with the same markings at the centre and the corners and with four oblique lines. The special markings at the centre and corners may suggest that these squares were clear at the beginning of the game.

Rules

A set of rules for halatafl is as follows: The initial set up as in the image below - white and red have 22 identical 'men' set up on the board with 49 holes marked. The centre and corner holes are left empty.

A Foxes and Geese board in plan
*A Foxes and Geese board

The pieces can be moved in two different ways; either they move one step at a time either forwards, sideways or diagonally along the marked lines, but never backward. Or they jump over a neighbouring piece to an empty hole behind it. They may proceed jumping as many times as possible in any direction or even backwards. The jump can be made over any piece - your own or your opponent's - and if you jump over one or more of your opponent's pieces they are taken and removed from the board.

White opens the game by moving a piece onto the centre hole; red takes it by jumping over it and the game proceeds until one of the players has fewer than five pieces left - and loses.

A jumping piece may make an intermediary landing at a corner hole. However no piece is allowed to stay there.

Chess and Draughts

Contrary to what many books say, neither chess or draughts were commonly played in the early medieval period. Chess did not become popular until brought back by Crusaders after the first Crusade (1096-99) and draughts was not played until much later in the Medieval period. The Lewis chessmen, although Viking, date to the mid twelfth century. However, recent excavations at Dublin and York have revealed playing pieces shaped like Arabic chess pieces, but with pre-Conquest style Scandinavian style decoration. It would not be strange if the Vikings, thanks to their contacts with the Arab world, learnt this game earlier than other Europeans, although this is just speculation. Chess certainly did not become popular or widespread until the twelfth century.

Knucklebones and Fivestones

A form of 'knucklebones' or 'fivestones' was played, probably the form where a number of small bones (usually pig or sheep knuckles) or stones are taken in the palm of the hand. The bones are then flicked in the air and the idea is to catch as many bones as possible on the back of the same hand. The winner is the player who catches most bones. Other versions of this game might include the version where one stone is taken in the palm of the hand whilst the others are left on the ground. The stone/bone on the hand is thrown into the air. Whilst it is in the air the player must pick up the stones/bones on the ground with the same hand and catch the thrown piece before it hits the ground. If the player succeeds with one piece in his hand, he moves onto two, then three, etc.. Another popular form of knucklebones would have been the game we now call 'pass the pig', although particular bones from a sheep's foot would have been used as playing pieces. This would have been a popular game to gamble on.

Included here are some toys for smaller children. The sword and horses are copied from Dublin, and although not included in the photo, a number of animals made from felt have been identified from various Viking sites throughout northern Europe.
*XXXX

Riddling

One of the most popular games was riddling. A warrior was not considered to be up to much unless his word skill was as good as his weapon skills. Riddling was a good way of demonstrating this skill and many of the riddles of the time are full of double meanings which suggest two answers, one innocent, the other more 'raunchy'. These riddles could be anything from a one to a hundred lines long and sought to describe everyday objects in an unusual way. Part of the skill of riddling was to be able to construct the riddle using the correct 'poetic' conventions. Obviously, as well as the correct construction, it was important to make sure that the description given was not too obscure. Here are some actual Saxon riddles (Answers at end).

  1. I'm by nature solitary,
    scarred by spear
    and wounded by sword, weary of battle.
    I frequently see the face of war, and fight
    hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope
    of help being brought to me in the battle,
    before I'm eventually done to death.
    In the stronghold of the city sharp-edged swords,
    skillfully forged in the flame by smiths
    bite deeply into me. I can but await
    a more fearsome encounter; it is not for me
    to discover in the city any of those doctors
    who heal grievous wounds with roots and herbs.
    The scars from sword wounds gape wider and wider
    death blows are dealt me by day and by night.

  2. I'm told a certain object grows
    in the corner, rises and expands, throws up
    a crust. A proud wife carried off
    that boneless wonder, the daughter of a king
    covered that swollen thing with a cloth.

  3. Wob's my name if you work it out;
    I'm a fair creature fashioned for battle
    When I bend and shoot my deadly shaft
    from my stomach, I desire only to send
    that poison as far away as possible.
    When my lord, who devised this torment for me,
    releases my limbs, I become longer
    and, bent upon slaughter, spit out
    that deadly poison I swallowed before.
    No man's parted easily from the object
    I describe; if he's struck by what flies
    from my stomach, he pays for its poison
    with his strength - speedy atonement for his life
    I'll serve no master when unstrung, only when
    I'm cunningly nocked. Now guess my name.

  4. On the way a miracle: water become bone.

  5. Favoured by men, I am found far and wide,
    taken from woods and the heights of the town,
    From high and from low. during each day
    bees brought me through the bright sky
    skillfully home to a shelter. Soon after that
    I was taken by men and bathed in a tub.
    Now I blind them and chasten them, and cast
    a young man at once to the ground,
    and sometimes an old one too.
    He who struggles against my strength,
    he who dares grapple with me, discovers immediately
    that he will hit the hard floor with his back
    if he persists with such stupidity.
    Deprived of his strength and strangely loquacious,
    he's a fool, who rules neither his mind
    nor his hands nor his feet.
    Now ask me, my friends,
    who knocks young men stupid,
    and as his slave binds them
    in broad waking daylight?
    Yes ask me my name.

  6. On earth there's a warrior of curious origin.
    He's created, gleaming, by two dumb creatures
    for the benefit of men. Foe bears him against foe
    to inflict harm. Women often fetter him,
    strong as he is. If maidens and men
    care for him with due consideration
    and feed him frequently, he'll faithfully obey them
    and serve them well. Men succour him for the warmth
    he offers in return; but this warrior will savage
    anyone who permits him to become too proud.

  7. The dank earth, wondrously cold,
    first delivered me from her womb.
    I know in my mind I wasn't made
    from wool, skillfully fashioned with skeins.
    Neither warp nor weft wind about me,
    no thread thrums for me in the thrashing loom,
    nor does a shuttle rattle for me,
    nor does the weaver's rod bang and beat me.
    Silkworms didn't spin with their strange craft for me,
    those strange creatures that embroider cloth of gold.
    Yet men will affirm all over this earth
    that I am an excellent garment.
    O wise man, weigh your words
    well, and say what this object is.

  8. A woman, young and lovely, often locked me
    in a chest; she took me out at times,
    lifted me with fair hands and gave me
    to her loyal lord, fulfilling his desire.
    Then he stuck his head well inside me,
    pushed it upwards into the smallest part.
    It was my fate, adorned as I was, to be filled
    with something rough if that person who possessed me
    was virile enough. Now guess what I mean.

  9. A strange thing hangs by man's hip,
    hidden by a garment. It has a hole
    in its head. It is stiff and strong
    and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
    When the retainer hitches his clothing
    high above his knee, he wants the head
    of that hanging thing to find the old hole
    that it, outstretched, has often filled before.

  10. I saw a creature: his stomach stuck out behind him,
    enormously swollen. A stalwart servant
    waited upon him. What filled his stomach
    had travelled from afar, and flew through his eye.
    He does not always die in giving life
    to others, but new strength revives
    in the pit of his stomach: he breathes again.
    He fathers a son; he's his own father also.

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ANSWERS:

  1. Shield
  2. Dough/Bread
  3. Bow
  4. Ice
  5. Mead
  6. Fire
  7. Mail shirt
  8. Helmet
  9. Key
  10. Bellows

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