Halatafl~A Viking Age Game
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The game Halatafl is known from at least as early as the 14th century, and it is mentioned in Grettis saga. The saga is categorized as one of the Sagas of Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) all of which were written in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and are fairly realistic accounts of events taking place between the ninth and the eleventh century in Iceland. The mention of Halatafl within the text places it in the Viking period. It is a mixture of Arabic Alquerque and the Viking game Hnefatafl. Perhaps the game found its way north into Scandinavia from the east in the baggage of a returning Varangian, or merchant.
At Ballinderry in Ireland a little game board has been found with holes in place of squares and with the center 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. A peg board such as this would be more easy to use aboard a boat where the rolling seas would cause the game pieces from a normal game board to slide off onto the deck.
After reading up on Viking period table games I decided on Halatafl for many reasons. The top two of which is the fact that it would be simple to construct and not very difficult to learn how to play. When I took a look on the open market for a plausible historical and rustic looking example of the game I quickly realized that my options were limited. I wanted a set made from simple organic materials and most sets that are offered today contain plastic. Most of the examples of game boards from the time period that have been unearthed are simple pieces of carved wood, or a flat piece of stone with lines and squares scratched onto their surface. For my game board I chose a piece of white pine for the board and decided to use natural clay for making my game pieces.
Here is the finished game board. I stained it using natural walnut leather dye mixed with water and then protected and sealed the surface by rubing beeswax onto it and into the crevises.between each of the squares
This is what the game pieces looked like after they were hand-formed. Game pieces that have been found in archeological digs were identified as made from polished and simple stone, clay, porcelain,bone,wood, and glass.
After the pieces were fully dried I painted 22 of each a separate color. The two colors that I chose; brick red, and earth Brown. I believe that these colors would have been available in the Viking age. Shields painted red are mentioned in the sagas and brown toned dyes were very common.
Above we can see both Rauður Bjørn, and Rørik in deep concentration. They were both surprisingly quick studies of the game. These two are life-long friends which made for some good solid and very competitive game play. This dynamic also provided us with some very funny moments. A round of Halatafl moves quickly if both players play aggressively and as it is on the battle field one small mistake can spell disaster. The consumption of mead, and ale increases the odds of making a mistake and for those who have emptied one horn too many the name of the game can quickly change to “Helatafl”.
In the end we all laugh and shake hands no matter who is victorious. I am very pleased with the results of this project and I look forward to many hours of skillful game play, laughter, and Kameradschaft.