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Rules for Medieval Games
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Medieval World   The Ancient World



Rules for Medieval Games

Instructions from Tara Hill Designs

~ Tafl (hnefatafl) ~ Valhalla ~ Nine-Man's-Morris ~ Fox and Geese ~ Sailor's Solitaire


An Ancient Viking Siege Game

Tafl (pronounced TAH-bl) dates back to before 400 AD, and was played throughout Scandinavia, Iceland, Germany, England, Wales and Ireland. It remained popular until the 17th. century, when it was gradually supplanted by chess. The word tafl is probably derived from the Latin tabula, which also referred to a board game. The game was also sometimes called hnefatafl, meaning 'king's table'.

Historical tafl boards could have anywhere from 49 (7X7) to 324 (18X18) cells or squares. The squares were sometimes checkered, while other boards had only the centre and corner squares distinguished. Some tafl boards placed the pieces on the intersections of the lines rather than in the squares themselves. Others had holes for pegged pieces to be placed in.

This board is loosely based on a 10th. cent. one found in Ballinderry, Ireland (the border patterns point to it's manufacture in the Isle of Man). The Ballinderry board had peg-holes, and two handles so that it could be held between two people. It used a 7X7 grid, although most tafl rules refer to either a 9X9 or 11X11 board.

Literary references to the game agree that the game was played by two people with an unequal number of playing pieces. There were two types of pieces described - the 'tablemen' or pawns (usually 24), and a single king. The side with the king had half the number of men as the opposing side. The king was placed in the centre, surrounded by his men. They in turn were surrounded by the men of the opposing side. All pieces had the 'rook's' move, and pieces were captured by surrounding them on two sides.

Little more was known about the game until a 18th. cent. manuscript by Linnaeus, containing a detailed description of a certain Lapp game, was found. The game was called tablut, and the description of the rules was consistent with other references to tafl. The rules and board layout I have provided here are based on this account, with some minor changes to make the game fairer and easier to play.


The Rules

The following rules have been tried and tested, and seem to work the best. However, tafl is an ancient game that had many variations, so feel free to make any changes you feel might make the game fairer or more interesting.

Board Layout

The king is placed in the centre. His men (the 8 dark pieces) are arranged around him in a cross (or a square if you prefer). The opposing men (the 16 light pieces) are arranged in four 'T' shapes in the middle of each of the four edges of the board (see photo).


All pieces move like the 'rook' in chess - in straight vertical or horizontal lines. Pieces cannot 'jump' each other, or take over another's space. Only the King may occupy the centre square, although others may pass through it.


A piece is captured and removed when it is surrounded by two opposing men on opposite adjacent squares. This must be done by the opponent - moving a man between two opposing pieces does not result in a capture. The king may participate in captures, but can only be captured when he is surrounded on four sides (see Winning).



The king's side wins if the king reaches any one of the corner squares (some rules say any edge square, but most people find this too easy). The opposing side wins if it captures the king by surrounding him on four sides, or on three sides againt the edge, rendering him unable to move.

Optional rules:
1) Pieces may be captured by a single man against the board edge.
2) The corner squares of the board may be treated as brown (king's) pieces, and like the centre square, no one would be allowed to occupy them except the king. An opposing piece could also be captured against a corner by a single man.



Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall - Valhalla. The game is a Norse version of Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.

The origins of this variation of the game are somewhat mysterious. The story goes that a German archaeologist found it during the excavation of a Viking-era site, made himself a copy and created rules for it. The original was apparently lost in a fire in Berlin, but the archaeologist taught the game to his children and grandchildren and so it survived. No one is certain how close this version is to that lost original, but the board layout, the general pattern of play, and the theme of passage into the afterlife, are all in keeping with its Egyptian, Greek and Roman predecessors.

The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each player’s pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpent’s jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.

The Fate Casting Sticks

In most ancient games, sticks are used instead of dice to determine the number of spaces the player may move. Each stick has a ‘heads’ side and a ‘tails’ side, and the number of ‘heads up’ sticks in a throw determine the score. The exception is when all four sticks land ‘tails’ (blank side up), in which case the score is 5.

The fate casting sticks in Valhalla incorporate the additional influence of the runic symbols on each stick:

  • Sowulo: The Sun.
    Represents power, energy, and strength.
  • Tiewaz: The God Tyr.
    Represents honour, courage, and victory.
  • Gebo: A Gift.
    Represents unexpected good fortune and blessings from the Gods.
  • Hagalaz: The Hailstorm.
    Represents setbacks, natural disasters, and the fickleness of fate.
Sowulo and Tiewaz each represent one point, but Hagalaz cancels one point in a cast, unless accompanied by Gebo, in which case the negative effect of Hagalaz is cancelled and each ‘heads up’ stick once again represents one point. Again, four ‘tails up’ sticks would represent five points. Throws in which each rune represents one point are called ‘natural’ casts. Throws in which Hagalaz decreases the score are called ‘unnatural’ casts.

Some examples:
= 2
= 3
= 5
= 1
= 0
= 3
= 4

This method of scoring makes the game more interesting because it takes into account the vagaries of fate. However, if you wish to simplify the game or are playing with young players, the traditional 1-to-1 scoring method may be preferred.


Playing Instructions

Play may begin in one of two ways:
1) with all ships off the board. Players take turns casting and moving their ships onto the board to one of the first five positions. If a space is occupied by another ship of either colour, the player forfeits their turn. An opponants pieces may not be 'hit' on any of these five positions.
2) with the six light ships in positions 1-6 , and the six dark pieces in positions 7-12(see illustration below). This may at first appear to give the dark ships an unfair advantage, but several factors actually even out the odds. The first person to throw a natural one (i.e. one ‘heads up’ stick, not including Hagalaz) would begin play by moving the dark piece from position 12 to position 13 (this will be their colour for the rest of the game). Play then passes to the other player, who will be moving the light coloured ships.

Optional Rule: Throwing a five, a four or a natural one may be considered rolling ‘doubles’, allowing the player to throw again.

Each player may move only one piece per throw, except when leaving the board. In that case, any ‘extra’ moves other than the number required to leave the board must be used up by another piece. A player must move all of their pieces from row one before exiting the board.

Any piece may jump over any other piece or pieces, regardless of colour. If a player lands on a space occupied by an opposing ship, the two ships exchange places. A player cannot land on a space occupied by one of their own ships. Players must move their ships forward unless no forward moves are possible - in that case, they must move backward.

Once the pieces reach the third row, blockades may be formed by an even number of adjacent ships. In other words, any two or four adjacent pieces of the same colour cannot be attacked or moved by opposing ships. Groups of three are not protected.

Valhalla BoardSome positions are special spaces marked by runes:

Positions 29, 32 and 34 are safe harbours. Any ship docked in one of these spaces is protected and cannot be attacked by an opponent.

Position 30 is a rocky shoal. Landing here will severely damage your ship, and you must immediately move it to the ship repair yard.

Position 19 is the ship repair yard. After being forced here by running aground on the rocky shoal, a player may only exit by throwing a natural one (this does not apply unless they are actually there for repairs). They may move other pieces while waiting to throw a one. If the repair yard space is occupied by another ship of any colour, the player must move their ship back to home port at position 1. It is not necessary to throw a 1 to leave this position.

Position 36 is the last space on the board, and provides safe passage to Valhalla. A ship landing here is removed from the board. The first player to remove all of their ships is the winner.


Nine Man's Morris

Also called Merels , versions of Nine Man's Morris have been found dating back to ancient Egypt. The game was very popular in Scandinavia and the British Isles, and is still played today in many parts of the world.

Each player alternates placing their nine pegs on the board. If a player places three pieces in a row (called 'forming a mill'), one of their opponant's pieces is removed. Once all the pieces have been placed, players take turns moving any one peg to a vacant adjacent hole. If a player gets three pieces in a row, again, one of their opponant's pieces is removed.

A player wins when only two of their opponant's pieces is left, or when their opponant is blocked from further moves.


Fox and Geese

Fox and Geese seems to have originated in northern Europe some time during the Viking Age. It may be the game called Halatafl mentioned in Grettis Saga.

The game is a contest between one Fox and 13 Geese. Play begins with the pieces in the positions shown. Players may move a piece to any vacant adjacent spot on the board, either vertically, horizontally or diagonally along the marked lines. Only the Fox may jump another piece. When a piece is jumped, it is removed from the board. The object for the Geese is to capture the Fox by surrounding him so he cannot move or jump. The Fox must try to remove all the Geese, or at least enough of them so that there are not enough left for a capture (5).


Sailor's Solitaire

A simple yet challenging form of solitaire may be played on the same board as 'Fox and Geese'. This game has been popular with sailors for centuries, often played with ship's nails for pieces. Place pieces on every space on the board except for the centre. Jump one piece over another, always moving along the horizontal or vertical (not diagonal) lines, and remove the jumped piece. The object is to remove all the pieces from the board except the last one. Ideally, this last piece should end up in the centre of the board.