Kubb setpiece: the ‘King’

Scandinavia is home to a few entertaining indoor and outdoor games: here follows a review of the most popular nowadays. Let’s begin with the outdoor games Kubb and Mölkky. Swedish lawn game Kubb, is possibly a combination of bowling and horseshoes, where the objective is to knock over wooden blocks (kubbs) by throwing wooden batons (kastpinnar) at them. Kubb is played on a small rectangular playing field (its surface can be grass, sand, concrete, snow, or even ice): kubbs are placed at both ends of the pitch, and the “king” (a larger wooden block) is placed in the middle of the pitch. The ultimate objective of the game is to knock over the kubbs on the opposing side of the pitch, and then to knock over the king, before the opponent does. Games can last from five minutes to well over an hour.

Mölkky woodpins set

Let’s move to Finland, home to Mölkky (also known as Finska), a throwing game invented by Lahden Paikka company and reminiscent of kyykkä, a centuries-old throwing game with Karelian roots. Mölkky is suitable for everyone, regardless of age and condition, requires no special equipment (except for the wooden pins), and success is based on a combination of chance and skill. The players use a wooden pin to try to knock over other wooden pins (also called “skittles”) initially placed in a tight group and marked with numbers from 1 to 12. Knocking over one pin scores the number of points marked on the pin, and the first player to reach exactly 50 points wins the game (scoring more than 50 sets the player’s score back to 25 points).

The traditional Scandinavian “fox game”

We now move indoors, with a couple of ancient Viking games: ‘Halatafl’ (or ‘Fox and Geese’) and ‘Hnefatafl’ (or Tablut). The game Halatafl, commonly known as ‘Fox and Geese’, dates back to the 14th century (it is mentioned in the Grettis saga), and is probably a variant of the Scandinavian Tafl. Halatafl means “tail board” in Old Norse (“tail” presumably refers to a fox’s tail). As in Grettis saga, rävspelet (modern Swedish for “the Fox game”) is still played with holes and pegs. There are two fox pegs and twenty sheep pegs: the objective is for the defender (sheep) to reach a certain destination on the board, and it is the attacker’s (foxes) objective to stop the defender from reaching it. The sheep may only move forward or sideways, while the foxes may move in any direction, even backwards. In a simplified version, known as Fox and Geese, the objective all comes down to capturing each other’s pieces. The fox is placed in the middle of the board, and 13 geese are placed on one side of the board: the geese win if they surround the fox so that it cannot move. The fox wins if it captures enough geese so that the remaining geese cannot surround it.

A modern Hnefatafl set

Finally we get to the Viking Chess, or Hnefatafl (which literally translates to “fist table” from the Old Norse hnef, ‘fist’, and tafl, ‘table’), a popular game in medieval Scandinavia, mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas and found in places as far as Ireland and Ukraine. Only playing pieces and fragmentary boards are extant, and unfortunately the rules of the game were never explicitly recorded, therefore they were forgotten when chess became a popular game during the Middle Ages, and it is not known for sure how the game was played. Attempts to reconstruct the game, based on the rules for the Sámi tafl game tablut, were made in the 1900s. The rules for tablut had been written down by Carl Linnaeus during his 1732 “Expedition to Lapland”, and translated from Latin to English in the 1800s.

Linneus’s Tablut drawings (1732)

The game may have been called something other than tablut by the Sámi, since the word tablut simply means “to play boardgames”, but Linnaeus likely misunderstood the word describing the general activity as the name of the game. The translation of the tablut rules in English was done in 1811 by Carl Troilius, a Swedish merchant based in London, and carried many errors which would become an issue not only for playing tablut, but also for the subsequent attempts to reconstruct other historic tafl games. Today, many different versions of modern hnefatafl are in play — both online and on physical boards that are sold commercially. One variant used in tournaments is Copenhagen Hnefatafl, which also features a “shield wall” mechanism to capture several soldiers at once, and an “exit fort” rule that enables the king to escape on the edge while otherwise being limited to escape in the corners.