Traditional ~ 400 AD Scandinavia

The game of Tablut was discovered by Carl von Linné at Kvikkjokk, Sweden, in 1732. It is almost certainly the Old Norse board-game known as "Hnefatafl", mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. The word hnefatafl is a compound of Hnefi (meaning fist) and Tafl (ultimately from tabula and meaning board). The rules have been developed by Martin Skoglund, Historisk Form, in collaboration with Inga Lundström of the National Museum of Antiquities. [from]

The game was popular in the Viking homelands in Scandinavia as early as 400 AD and was carried by the Vikings to the lands they conquered. Over the centuries the game developed and different versions of the board have been found by archaeologists in sites from Ireland to the Ukraine. Occasionally referred to in manuscripts the game was known as Hnefatafl which means literally "king's table". Its decline began in the 11th century as chess grew in popularity. It soon lingered on only in remote country districts. [from]

The game is played on the following board with this setup:

  • MOVE - Each piece (soldier and King) slide any number of empty cells on a orthogonal straight line, i.e., like a chess Rook.
  • CAPTURE - Captures are custodian, i.e., an enemy soldier is captured when two friendly pieces are positioned one on either side of the enemy, either vertically of horizontally (but not diagonally).
    • If a piece moves to a position between two enemy counters it will not be captured.
    • It's possible to capture an enemy piece by trapping him between a piece and one of the green dots.
    • The King is only captured if it is surrounded on all sides by attacking pieces.
      • The center board (the throne) can also be used as if it was a friendly stone, to capture the King. 
  • GOAL - The King's side wins by moving his King to one of the board corners (the green dot cells). The other side wins by capturing the King.

This version has a big flaw, it is too easy to win when playing the King side. There is some mistake between the real rules (already lost?) and the written ones. You can try playing it here.

According to Mats Winther: No wonder that it is an unfair game [...] according to experts at the Historical Museum, Stockholm, the king can be captured like any other piece, by sandwiching it between *two* pieces . It is only at the center position that four pieces are needed to capture it. On the squares directly adjacent to the central square three pieces can capture the king, since the central square is used as a capture-square. Otherwise only two pieces are necessary, and one piece is enough if the king is positioned to any of the corner squares (since these are capture-squares). If four pieces are needed to capture the king, then the attacker's game is hopeless.

An example

Moving to one of the red dots, would capture the respective green piece.

Alea Evangelii was the Saxon variant and used a nineteen by nineteen board - it was apparently the only board game played by the Saxons. It takes its modern name from the opening line of the XIIth century manuscript (around 1140) it is documented by: "Incipit alea evangelii quam Dubinsi…". Some commentators suggest that this arrangement represents a sea-battle, with a King's ship defended by twenty-four white ships and a fleet of forty-eight dark attackers. [from]

From the same website, some strategy notes: The King's forces usually possess a slight advantage, despite being outnumbered. Tactically, the defender (King's men) must arrange for the King to escape the board. Therefore, the defender should try to capture as many attackers as possible to clear an escape route, while not trying too hard to protect his own men since they, too, can block the King's escape. The attacker's object is not only to prevent the King's escape, but also to capture him. The best way to do this is to avoid making captures early in the game, instead scattering the attackers to block possible escape routes.

An interesting way to play this game, is to reduce the King's power so that it can only moves to an adjacent orthogonal cell. This rule change balances things a bit more.

Much more information can be found at Traditional Games, in Games of the Viking & Anglo-Saxon Age and in this website (where it is also possible to download a playing software). There is a ZRF to play the more complex form of Hnefatafl with Zillions. It's possible to play online with human opponents at Ludoteka.

Other board layouts (by Damian Walker)

The initial game layout of a game called Ard Ri, played in Scotland. Some web sources say that in this variant the pieces move only one space at a time.

One of two proposed layouts for the game of brandubh, played in Ireland. This game is mentioned at least twice in contemporary poetry. One extract describes a brandubh board with a king and four men around him; another extract mentions five pieces of one color against eight of another. This is the layout used in the evaluation version of Zillions of Games.

This is another layout for brandubh, proposed in the periodical Eigse: a Journal of Irish Studies, in 1946.

This is a popular layout for constructions of the 11x11 game. It is used in the DOS game Viking Siege, as well some commercial game sets.

This is the layout for Tawlbwrdd, given by R. C. Bell in his book Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations (volume 2).

This is another suggested layout for the 11x11 board, put forward because of its similarity to Tablut.

There is a very similar modern game called Papillon's Escape with the following setup:

Another commercial variant for this old game is 1970's Swords & Shields from Milton Bradley publisher.