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The Rune RPG In-depth Report

Fields, Goats, and Games:

What Vikings really did to pass the time
by Tiffany Cory

What comes to mind when thinking of Vikings? Why, images of men steadily plowing their fields, of course. Or perhaps playing with their pet goats, and sitting down with friends for a leisurely game of backgammon.

Did I just hear a resounding "What?!? Weren't vikings out exploring, pillaging and carousing most of the time? And what's this about playing with goats? (Wait, I don't want to know...)"

In all honesty, the Norse really only went out to explore and kill people when they weren't needed at home to care for their crops. Yes folks, the Vikings actually did do more than just rape, burn, and pillage! The term "Viking" refers solely to the handful of Norsemen who went off to pirate goods and conquer other lands in their free time. Most of the Norse actually preferred farming and trading to blood and destruction (a fortunate thing for their descendants, or there wouldn't be any). As a matter of fact, when they weren't working in the fields or adventuring, the Vikings were big gamers. Ah, a culture after my own heart...

Whenever Norsemen gathered for a feast, festival, wedding, or other celebration, great gaming and sporting events would take place. Some of these occasions would entail your typical barbaric wrestling or racing, but often, stimulating board, dice, and mind games were played to relax and pass the time, or even prove superiority. When not doing something physical, the Vikings would spend their time singing, telling tales of glory and conquest, and gaming.

Let the Games Begin!
Viking sporting events were quite brutal, often resulting in injury or even death. However, these events were held in high regard by all; so high, in fact, that many managed to work themselves into the great epics which remain from this era. Popular sports included wrestling, swimming, and racing, with or without heavy armor. To add excitement to these somewhat monotonous sports, it wasn't uncommon for the athletes to gain personal advantage by killing their opponents, which made results of matches much less uncertain. A less violent version of the Viking wrestling game Glima, which involved two wrestlers wearing leather bands around their waists for a handhold and fighting until one was incapacitated, has evolved into the national sport of modern Iceland. Daring tests of agility included jumping from oar to oar along the outside of a moving boat, rock climbing, and skin pulling (like tug-of-war, only with animal skins and over fire pits). The Vikings displayed their physical strength by lifting large boulders, and practiced fighting abilities with friends by engaging them in combat with swords, bows and arrows, slings, and spears. They would occasionally spend a crisp, snowy weekend skiing or ice skating, or hunting with hounds and hawks. Other activities included jumping contests, horse racing, sailing, horse fighting, and bear baiting (!).

Several ball games were played by the Vikings, the rules of most of which have been lost over the ages. The balls for these games were made of wood or leather, and no, the players didn't wear horned helmets for protection. The best known of these games was Knatteleik, which seems to have been a variant of baseball, since the players were divided into two teams and one player had to hit a hard ball with a bat. Notably different are that it was played from dawn until dusk, tournaments could last for weeks, teams could consist of as few as two players, and physical contact was encouraged (players were actually allowed to fight over possession of the ball). There are also rumors of a game in which a player was to bat a ball at the other players, hoping to connect with a Norseman that wasn't quick enough. Another ball game that we only have sketchy details about was sköfuleik, which may have been some form of hockey and was played with a "scraper."

You Up For a Game, Sigbjorn?
To further break up the stereotype of death and destruction that the Vikings have forged, let's delve into the Norse obsession with board games. Boards, often simply referred to as "tafl" (table), were created out of many different surfaces, from carved wood to scratches on stone. The pieces, when needed in a hurry, could have been stones or pieces of wood, but the Vikings seemed to be quite fond of carrying their own game pieces along with them. Known sometimes as toflur or hunn, very intricate game pieces have been found among structural ruins, along pathways, and most often in graves. These pieces have been made of clay, glass, stone, antler, amber, bone, or animal teeth, and are shaped in a multitude of ways, from simple hemispheres or cones to interesting representations of different animals and monsters.

Some of the games played by Vikings have survived to be played today. One of the most popular Viking games that currently exists is called Hnefatafl. The game may have sprung from the Roman game Latrunculi, or "soldiers." It's an abstract strategy game that was held in similar regard to chess. The name of the game is literally translated as "King's Table" and is also known as Tawlbwrdd or Tablut (you can try Tablut for yourself with OgreCave's downloadable Tablut game, complete with our own board and pieces), though there is some debate as to whether the references in Norse literature are actually the same game. The game focuses on the task of escorting a king to safety, while your opponent attempts to surround and capture him. In some communities, particularly those conquered by Vikings, it was the only board game known. Hnefatafl died out with the introduction of chess to the region. Despite a half-dozen centuries or so, the fascination with the older Hnefatafl has reemerged and is becoming increasingly popular with classic game enthusiasts around the world.

There were several other games that Vikings whiled away the hours with. Nine Men's Morris, also known as Merels and other similar names, is one of those games that can be found in travel game multi-packs these days. Its origins are debatable, but it was a common game among the Norse. Known as "the game on the other side of the board," it was often on the back of the even more popular Hnefatafl board. Tabula, or Kvátrutafl, was derived from the Roman game Duodecim Scripta and was an ancestor of Backgammon. An interesting spin on our game of Jacks, called Knucklebones or Fivestones, was played using pig or sheep knuckles. In some versions, players would toss a bone into the air, grab a handful of bones lying on the ground, and then catch the airborne bone before it hit the ground. In others, players place the bones in the palms of their hands, toss them into the air, and try to catch as many as possible on the back of the same hand. More fun with bones could have been found in a form of our Pass the Pigs, in which players would gamble on which position the bones from a sheep's foot would land when thrown to the ground. Gruesome fun for all.

Along with the many board game components found in Nordic civilizations have been a number of six-sided dice. Dice were often made of antler or bone, ivory, and sometimes jet. Two shapes of dice were found, one rectangular with 1 and 2 on the square ends, and one cubic, like the dice we're familiar with. A cubic die has also been found to have the number combination 3-4-4-5-5-6. And perhaps serving as proof that the Vikings were just as human as we are (or vice versa), some dice have been found to contain weights on one face, favoring a particular number! Once again, historians have no way of knowing what the dice were actually used for. They could have been components of one of the games previously mentioned or games unto themselves, much like Craps or Yahtzee.

Dispelling the Viking Myth
Naturally, a culture as rich and intriguing as the Norsemen did many things in their free time. They told incredible epic stories, sang, danced and played music, and of course, feasted and drank. They were wonderful crafters, creating elaborate and beautiful pieces in various trades, from tapestries to pots to very large boats. They juggled, trained dogs, and told elaborate riddles. The myth created by the Vikings -- that of horned-helmet hellfire bursting upon any unsuspecting neighboring village -- is somewhat invalidated by their evident respect for order and logic, a quality reflected in their few but timeless games that are still played and celebrated today.

Ironically, a respect for order is what led to the gradual descent of the Viking legacy. Flourishing mercantilism, successful farming practices, and the introduction of Christianity all contributed to the mellowing of the Norse culture into some of the Scandinavian societies we know today. Many of the Viking gaming traditions simply slipped from prominent everyday activities into folklore of an era remembered not for its strategic, thoughtful minds but for barbarians trained in nothing but conquest and domination.

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