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IMHO: Games without frontiers

By Ron Scopelliti

It was the night before the Super Bowl, and I was completely preoccupied thinking about the game. When I say “the game,” though, I’m not referring to the Super Bowl. I’m talking about hnefatafl.

Earlier that day I’d stumbled upon an “Atlas Obscura” article about hnefatafl, a board game that was apparently popular among Vikings. So popular, in fact, that many hnefatafl boards and pieces have been discovered in Viking burials.

On the one hand, the game didn’t look all that interesting. A board full of squares with pawn-like pieces, except for one that represents a king. As games go, it’s probably not going to be up there with the “Elder Scrolls” series. On the other hand, I immediately wanted to play it. I not only started looking up web sites about the history and rules of the game, I also spent an inordinate amount of time watching YouTube videos of hnefatafl tournaments.

Though it was interesting trying to decipher the strategy in the videos, I was haunted by a recurring thought – “What if I die from a sudden, unexpected heart attack? Do I really want my lifeless body discovered in front of a Lenovo laptop running a playlist of hnefatafl videos?”

It makes no sense for me to learn this game, particularly since there are probably very few potential opponents in the area for me to play against. If I want to learn a game where I move feudal pieces across a grid of squares, I should probably look into a game called “chess,” which I’m told is quite popular. But no. I had to become obsessed with hnefatafl. Why?

I think the main reason is because I’d never heard of it before. One of my favorite feelings is finding something that I didn’t know about. Few things give me more comfort than being reminded of the infinite number of things that are still available for me to learn about. When I was a kid, I remember looking at a globe, and being horribly disappointed that all the continents had been discovered, and there were none left for me to discover.

But later on, I learned the joy of personal discoveries – finding stuff that’s new to me, even if everybody else already knows about it. I still remember the night I discovered the Internet, and spent hours using a text-based browser read reports from a Japanese university’s physics department, just because I could. And I remember discovering Blue Oyster Cult’s “Imaginos” album, which has such an elaborate backstory that it wouldn’t surprise me to find some hidden reference to hnefatafl if I dug deep enough.

In addition to the thrill of discovery, finding out about hnefatafl makes me feel more in touch with the world, and connected to its history. And I’ve always had a fascination with the Viking era, and the Norse legends. As a Tolkien fan, I’m fascinated by the roots of his stories in Norse mythology, which has also inspired so many other works. You can’t help but see the connections between Odin and Gandalf, between Loki and the Joker, between Norse runes and Dana Andrews… maybe that last one’s not so easy to see.

I’m not sure if I would have made a good Viking. Though I’d love the exploration involved in their lifestyle, there are other aspects I find less appealing. For instance, I’ve only been seasick once in my life, but it made enough of an impression that I would have been reluctant to take a small wooden boat out to the North Sea. I would have limited my Viking journeys to rivers, possibly inspiring a future cruise line.

I probably wouldn’t be good with the violence, either. And any pillaging I did would most likely be minimal. I’d be the Viking who was known for getting breakfast at a diner and slipping two packets of Smucker’s jam into my pocket before leaving, then feeling guilty and putting one back.

But I think hnefatafl is an aspect of Viking life that I could embrace, so don’t be surprised if you start seeing fliers around town for a new hnefatafl league. Who knows? As the state continues to expand the allowable forms of gambling, maybe I can even turn it into a business. And when it comes time to play, contestants will have to prove their Viking nature by anteing up some plunder. The buy-in is one packet of jam – mixed fruit or better to open.