Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Ancient Viking Game Every Intelligence Professional Should Play

On August 3rd, the village of Fetlar, Scotland (go ahead, try to find it - I'll wait), will hold the Hnefatafl World Championships.  With a population of 86, Fetlar might seem an unlikely place to hold the world championships of one of the world's oldest games.  The truth is Hnefatafl, or "King's Table", is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the days of the Vikings.  In fact, for the 250 or so years that make up the Viking Age, Hnefatafl (or games very similar to it) was the chess, the checkers, the go, and the Nintendo for the Norse.   

A modern version of Hnefatafl.  Traditional boards are simpler and pieces were often stones or marbles.  The layout and the rules are, however, the same.
Today, only dedicated tabletop gamers have ever heard of it and many of them have never had a chance to play the game.  That is a shame for it's an extraordinary game with a number of lessons embedded in it for the curious intelligence professional.  For example:
  • It is an asymmetric game.  As you can see from the board above, one side starts in the center and the other side surrounds it on all four sides.  One side outnumbers the other by about 2:1.  The sides even have different victory conditions (the player with the pieces in the center need to get the "King", the large playing piece in the middle of the board, to one of the corners.  The other player is trying to capture the King).  It is not too hard to see a game such as this one incorporated into courses, classes or discussions of asymmetric warfare.
  • It is a conflict simulation.  Most historians agree that there were relatively few large scale battles involving Vikings. Instead, most of the time, combat resulted from raiding activities.  Hnefatafl seems to reflect the worst case scenario for a Viking raider:  Cut off from your boats and outnumbered 2:1. 
  • It provides a deep lesson in strategic thinking.  Lessons in both the strategy of the central position (hundred of years before Napoleon made it famous) and in the relative value of interior vs. exterior lines of communication are embedded in this game. 
What makes this game even more fascinating for me is what it teaches implicitly - that is, what are the lessons it teaches the players without the players knowing that they are learning?  Furthermore, what does this tell us about the Viking culture?  For example:
  • It takes two soldiers to kill another soldier.  This is one of the few games where it takes more than one piece to capture another piece.  Basically, one pins and the other piece comes up and deals the killing blow.  
  • It is good to be King.  The only piece that really matters is the King.  If the King escapes and loses 90% of his soldiers in the process, it is still a victory.  Likewise, if the King is captured but at a horrific cost to the enemy, it is still a loss.
  • It is easier for the player in the center to win.  You heard that right, because of the value of interior lines and because of the difficulty of capturing the King, the player who is surrounded, cut-off and outnumbered 2:1 has the advantage.  In fact, in games with novices a simple, "fight through the ambush" strategy almost always wins.
Now, imagine this game being played night after night in the langhĂșs of some Viking Jarl.  What lessons are being implicitly conveyed to the young Viking warriors?  Work together, protect the King, and don't worry about how bad it looks - we can win!  All in all, not a bad way to teach important lessons in a barely literate society.  More importantly, understanding this game provides yet another insight into Viking culture and strategic thinking. 

The value of this particular game to intelligence professionals and others is one of the reasons I decided to offer a version of it as the second game from my new company, Sources and Methods Games.  It has historical significance as well as providing deep lessons in asymmetric warfare, strategy and cultural intelligence.  It is an excellent addition to the intelligence studies classroom.