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A 1,600-Year-Old Viking War Game (medium.com)
246 points by justinzollars 1375 days ago | hide | past | web | 56 comments | favorite

The article is interesting in everything except using the word "Viking" inappropriately. As someone who once was fascinated by the topic, I found that bit frustrating.

In 400 AD, germanic people were known by names like "Goths". The viking period started several hundred years later. The relationship of Germanic people with England was that three groups of them, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, were settling there. A few hundred years later those people united in response to the Viking threat, then were conquered by the French duke of Normandy (which, interestingly, had nobility of Viking descent) and country became known as England and the people there became known as anglosaxon.

Just to give a sense of the timeline, stories of a legendary Celtic folk hero that was part of resisting the Germanic invasion later got carried to France in medieval times, mutated beyond belief, then reentered English as King Arthur.

The Goths (actually two separate peoples, the Ostrogoths and later the Visigoths) , as with the Huns moved into central and southern Europe from the Steppe - not Germany - towards the end of the Roman Empire (the Visigoths sacked Rome on 24 August 410). They weren't Germanic, unlike the Angles, Saxons and Jutes that moved to / invaded the land of the Britons, and even tribes like the Francs who moved into Gaul as the Western Roman Empire lost influence.

I think you're right about the use of Viking being early, but some of the other elements differ from my understanding.

Two awesome sidebars from that period - another Germanic tribe, the Vandals, wrought havoc moving through what would become France and Spain. And a tribe of Scots were forced from their ancestral home ... in modern day Ireland. They replaced the earlier Picts in the land ultimately named after them.

[Edit: Corrected the Sacking of Rome date - I was out by 2 weeks. So worth clarifying that this is from my memory of university history courses, not a fact-checked review.]

The Goths were a germanic tribe http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goths, speaking a germanic language http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_language, and unlike the huns, they did not move out of the steppe into Europe, but out of Götaland http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6taland

The founding myth of the Scots: Fergus Mór and his brothers Angus and Lorn sailed from Ireland with the Lia Fáil (the Stone of Destiny[1]) and established his kingdom of Dál Riata in the 6th century that eventually conquered the Picts in the 9th century to form the basis for Scotland.

However, the idea of a simple Irish "invasion" seems to be out of favour with archaeologists:


NB I've stood with my (booted) foot in the footprint on Dunadd where the first Kings of Scots, and maybe Fergus Mor were crowned ~1600 years ago - it's quite an interesting spot!

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stone_of_Scone

Edit: The idea that Scotland was founded by an invasion from Ireland is rather ironic given (much) later history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantation_of_Ulster

Funny that the first I heard of Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths was in an Asterix comic. I now wonder how much of the Asterix universe is historically accurate.

I now wonder how much of the Asterix universe is historically accurate.

Most of it! That is what makes it so funny!

It is chock full of references to actual historical stuff, and in jokes that you have to know a lot to get. You can enjoy it as slapstick, but there is tremendous depth to the series.

I'm always amazed that it never caught on in the USA. Certainly everyone I've introduced it to has liked it!

> And a tribe of Scots were forced from their ancestral home ... in modern day Ireland. They replaced the earlier Picts in the land ultimately named after them.

Don't forget the Welsh-speakers who, for example, founded Edinburgh: I see arethuza has already mentioned http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Y_Gododdin .

Is the origin of the Goths new research?

The sources I've seen (Jordanes, the Silver Bible's language) said that the Goths were Germanic. Around a decade ago, I know an archeologist that got research money for the Goth's origin, it wasn't known then.

Edit: As a Swede, this is important. I like to tell people that after the Mongols, most everything bad that happened to Europe came from Scandinavia... Goths, Vikings, 30 year war, Ikea, slimy pop... :-)

My studies, and ergo my memory, go back 10-12 years so no new research, and alas none of my sources to hand. Some quick Googling points to Gothic origins on the Black Sea, but also sources that refer to them as East Germanic.

In that regard, I have to point out btilly's original description of Goths as an example of a Germanic tribe may be correct, though it still differs from my understanding (pending some refreshers on my behalf).

The Goths settled in the Black Sea region until the late 18th century, but they certainly did not originate there: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goths#Migration_to_the_Black_Se...

You forgot an important episode of Viking rulership in Britain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cnut_the_Great

[Edit:] Actually, that should be England, not Britain in the previous sentence, Cnut already had "king of all England" in his title, so it was know as such before the Norman conquest (not surprisingly, the name derives from the Angles that settled there some centuries earlier, first written use of the name was in the late 9th century, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/England#Toponymy).

Ha, this is quite a coincidence — I was just reading up on the Mabinogion [0] (I think that's what you meant?) Really pretty interesting stuff! My younger brother used to be really into King Arthur so I grabbed him a translation for Christmas, he says it's pretty interesting to read through and realize what parts were "stolen".

[0]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabinogion

That is connected, but in a different direction than any I particularly looked into.

> A few hundred years later those people united in response to the Viking threat, then were conquered by the French duke of Normandy (which, interestingly, had nobility of Viking descent) and country became known as England and the people there became known as anglosaxon.

Isn't that out of order? England was Ango-Saxon for five hundred years before the Norman invasion.

No, it is in order. I just didn't give much detail.

In the 4th century, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded and formed multiple kingdoms.

In the late 8th century the Viking raids began and got worse.

In the late 9th century, Alfred The Great combined the surviving Germanic kingdoms and was the first to style himself "King of the Anglo-Saxons". That kingdom grew from there.

In 1066, one of the claimants to the throne of England was William of Normandy. He conquered, and began centuries of England being ruled by French speaking people.

William in turn was a descendant of a famous viking named Rollo, who was granted a dutchy in return for defending the French against vikings (particularly including himself) instead of continuing to attack at will. Said dutchy became known as Normandy because Rollo was a Norse man.

were conquered by the French duke of Normandy (which, interestingly, had nobility of Viking descent)

It's in the name. Norman → North men.

Also, iirc no-one ever referred to Norsemen as 'Vikings' until the nineteenth-century, anyhow.

'Celtic' is similarly inaccurate though. In all probability no-one in Ireland or Britain was ever Celtic, and no-one ever described them as 'Celtic' until the C18. (see http://www.amazon.com/dp/0299166740/ ).

It was used occasionally before that, for example the old English poem "Widsith" (~10th century) refers to Scandinavian raiders as "wicinga cynn" or Viking kin. But it wasn't a common appellation and may have referred more to their status as sea raiders or pirates.

> In all probability no-one in Ireland or Britain was ever Celtic

Eh, no, that's ridiculously overstated.

They Y Gododdin may have included a reference to Arthur from the 7th-11th centuries:

   He fed black ravens on the rampart of a fortress
   Though he was no Arthur
   Among the powerful ones in battle
   In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade

What's wrong with the idea that a game played by the Vikings might have predated the Vikings?

They got the time wrong on the vikings, but isn't Hnefatafl the Norse version of the game?

Replacing the word 'Viking' with 'Norse' would make the page much more appropriate (and accurate).

So the duke of Normandy is of Viking descent, but you said Vikings didn't exist before

Tafl games are indeed cool. This is just one variant of many, and we actually don't even know what exactly the original rules were. Best guesses are constructed largely from off-hand references made in unrelated literary works. Lots of good info in the wikipedia page (as always): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafl_games

Indeed. I have played a good number of them (although there aren't enough people around to play with to get really good at more than one or two), and all the variations require slightly different strategy. Changing the board size by one unit, or the number or arrangement of starting pieces, can totally shift the balance of the game, explaining the complementary changes to things like who moves first, whether the king can participate in captures, and whether the corners or the whole sides are winning spaces.

A serious omission from the article (although I suppose understandable, given how the article is focused) is how the inherent asymmetry is accounted for; usually, games are played either in two rounds, switching sides (so you have to learn to be good at both halves to win the full game), or by first betting on how many moves you think it will take you to win- lowest bet plays white and loses if they run out of moves.

I object to the casual description of Hnefatafl being similar to chess- it's a two-player strategy game played on a board, but it's no more similar to chess than checkers is. Chess players (while they might have an advantage in strategic thinking over the average person) in my experience have usually found that their chess skills don't transfer at all.

This is pretty obviously where terry pratchett got his idea for, and subsequent implementation for his (ostensibly fictional) game "thud" or "Hnaflbaflwhiflsnifltafl" in pratchett's dwarvish.

Looks like it's wikia page needs an update.


I do like the idea of games/culture research. I've always wondered if the somewhat notorious board game tradition in Germany was related to the post WW2 mindset. Especially the Prussian military tradition with a strong focus on strategy and tactics being faded out by a general anti war sentiment and maybe channelled into other areas. Maybe there's some transfer to business strategy as well but I always thought the relations were a little far fetched (Clausewitz or Art of War for business strategy etc.).

Random remark: It's often mathematically correct to go for it on 4th and 10.

Modern German games are not heads-on competitive. Definitely not war games. (On board game geek, I heard the term `parasitic conflict'. Ie you are trying to benefit from other people's actions and make yours as unbeneficial as possible, but you can attack them directly.)

Boardgaming does seem to help with basic arithmetic, and understanding and playing within a set of rules seems to be the essence of programming. (Especially once you realize that if you want to play to win, only the letter of the rules count, not the spirit. There's no meaning.)

This game looks really interesting. It reminds me a board game I invented when I was a child, based on the Star Wars 1th death stars attack. There was similarities, like the non-symmetric start positions : empire tie-fighters were divided in four groups and rebels x-wings and y-wings where grouped altogether in the center with Luke Skywalker as the king who had to go on a special square. But there was a lot of complications (different speeds for different type of star-fighters, automatic turrets which shoot only on the rebels, the attacks were based on a dice probability depending on the type of star-fighters, and a lot more...). The whole thing was so complicated that nobody wanted to play more than once with me...

Simplest games are often the bests.

But I don't care, I still believe my "Death Star Attack" was one of my best (yeah, I have invented tens of board games that nobody wanted to play with me :) )

Somebody who's good at this sort of thing want to make a webgame out of this? It looks pretty amazing.

Just bought one. :) This dude is going to cash in tonight

All android versions I found were different rules and/or bad.

Okay Kings Table is pretty bad. no AI.

My version: http://www.gamegardens.com/gardens/view_game.wm?gameid=68 And the source: http://hg.ericw.ca/high-king

Building this game (back in 2007!) landed me my first job in the US and set me on the path to developing my first commercial games.

nice but sadly no AI and no other players :(


Uses webrtc, implemented mainly as a learning exercise for webrtc.

this is buggy on my computer. only white moves and white moves everywhere, killing stones like in chess, no matter which color.

Thanks! I was wondering where I could play around with this game.

Does anyone have an idea if there's a mathematical solution to this game? Is there an inherent advantage that one or the other should win?

I'm sure there is, even Chess has White winning by ~.5%.

Tablut is a variant which:

'The interface lets you rearrange the fleets from the standard position before the play starts. You can also change four optional rules. First gold, then silver can rearrange, add or remove ships, and alter the rule options. Then, gold can either make his first move, or elect to swap and play silver. This option assures that the forces will be evenly balanced.'

Bit offtopic, but I liked this game a lot, and am looking for a decently priced (< $50 with shipping) board game version of this. Anyone have any leads?

All I can see right now are sets imported from English gift shops, or handmade versions, both of which exceed the $50 price point.

make your own from bits of paper? coins? 3D printing a bunch of stylised chess pieces? honestly, they're just symbols with a rule set...

Thank you for posting this. My aunt bought a variation of this game for me (under the name "King's Table") when I was about 10 and it was one of my favorites. One summer when a few of my friends and me spent the summer at our college campus, we had a tradition of playing this game over breakfast. I haven't played in many years, but I highly recommend trying it out if you have the chance. Though I am not very well versed in old/ancient board games, but I found this one somewhat unique since you needed a different way of thinking depending on which side you were playing as.

There has recently been a version of this game made for the Oric-1/Atmos computer (an ancient 80's 8-bit machine which has a devoted community these days).

You can read about it here:


If you want to play it, get yourself the emulator - Oriculator:


.. or load it up on your own real Oric. ;)

Anyway, point is, its an interesting game indeed ..

A version of the game came with the NeXT pizza box.

I tried it for a few games with friends and I'm not sure at all that with the standard rules defenders can win. With many rule sets you can lock the board pretty easily and make it a draw or lose situation for defenders. I'm not aware of any demonstration of attackers winning every time or not but it's my strong suspicion.

The game pieces in the picture are stone, right? Any idea what material/technique is used to make the dark lines on the pieces? (And how I could learn to make pieces like this?)

Has anybody found a decent single player web version?

thanks for this, i found a couple of versions of this on iOS. won my first two games against a simple AI!

love learning about new games like this. great find.

We call that "Thud" where I come from.

Semi off topic, but that blog that this article is from is fantastic.

Warfare is a disgusting, embarrassing and outdated aspect of our culture.

At first glance, it seems very similar to chess.

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