Vikings were the Scandinavian peoples who lived in northeast Europe in the medieval ages. Vikings routinely engaged in warfare and were a warlike people. This was also reflected in the games they played. Indoor Viking games included many board games, used to imitate the war strategies.
Outdoor Viking games were mostly physical, a celebration of the physical strength. Players would try to outdo each other in physical feats. Many Viking games were incredibly rough and were meant only for the toughest players. Some players would get seriously injured and even die during some of these games.
Hnefatafl was a popular board game played by the Vikings. It was essentially a war game in which there were two groups of pieces – one group was centered at the middle of the board and was the defender. The other group’s pieces were placed at all four sides of the board – these were the attackers.
The goal of the game was for the attackers to capture the defender’s king, and the defender to save the king from being captured. The game became immensely popular among the Vikings at a time when warfare, conflict and battles were a regular affair.
The exact rules about how the pieces were moved and how the game was played are unknown. It is also speculated that the Vikings may have used a dice in playing this game.
Nine Men’s Morris
Although Nine Men’s Morris is a game that originated in the Roman Empire, it was popularly played by the Vikings. Also a board game, the Nine Men’s Morris comprises of a board with grid with several intersections.
Two players place white and black checkers on the board in a bid to prevent the other players from forming a mill, which is three pieces of the same color in a row. The game was popular among the Vikings as a strategy game who also created different variations of the game.
Wrestling or Glima
Wrestling was another popular game among the Vikings. As the name suggests, the contest comprised of two men wrestling each other. Typically, the main contest was for one man to put down the other man.
If one of the fighters was thrown to the ground, the other was declared the winner. Wrestling matches were fairly common and took place on many major occasions.
In some rare cases, a wrestling match was fought to the death. Kings and other dignitaries would especially attend such unusual wrestling matches. The sagas mention may grappling and tackling moves that were used by the wrestlers.
Weight lifting was a sport that the Vikings commonly indulged in. Apart from being a form of entertainment, the game also placed an emphasis on the physical prowess and strength of the players. As part of the sport, the players lifted large stones. Whoever could lift the largest stone was regarded as the winner.
Toga Honk, or Tug of War
Most Viking games celebrated physical strength. The players were challenged to display their prowess and outdo their opponents. Another example of this is the toga honk, or the tug of war. In the Viking tug of war, two opponents sat down on a mat with their knees bent and the soles of their feet pressed against each other’s.
Both opponents held on to a rope and pulled at it. A mark in the middle determined the center of the rope. The opponent who was able to pull the mark to his side won the game.
In some cases, a strong opponent would pull the entire rope and his opponent to his side. A legend has it that a Danish king was so strong that he played against eight opponents and was still not outdone.
It was common for Vikings to drink a lot at feasts and parties. During such drinking binges, several games were played to add to the fun. A common drinking game was to drink beer or mead and then compose poetry.
People would divide up into pairs and then start drinking. Each couple was then to create a verse of poetry after each drink. The one who could compose the best verses as the drinking progressed and showed alacrity of mind despite all the drinking, was considered the winner.
Verbal sparring during drinking was a common form of entertainment.
Knattleikr, the Ball Game
Knattleikr was a kind of ball game that was fairly popular among the Vikings. A number of mentions of the game exist in the Norse sagas. The exact rules of the game are unknown although the sagas do give a glimpse of how the game was played.
Two teams of players stood in line facing each other. The players were evenly matched in strength. One player would catch the ball and then run with it. A bat was also used to hit the ball with.
Playing was rough and players would tackle each other freely. This is why playing Knattleikr was meant as one of the most rigorous and daring activities.
Skin Throwing Game
A skin throwing game, also called skinnleikr, was played by the Vikings. This game was usually played indoors in large halls. The game involved a bearskin which was rolled up into a kind of a ball.
A number of players tossed the bearskin towards each other while a single middleman was to try and intercept the skin. This game, like many other Viking games, involved a lot of pushing, tripping, shoving and shouting.
Vikings played both indoor and outdoor games.
Popular board games played by the Vikings included Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris.
Outdoor games included wrestling, tug of war, weight lifting and ball game.
Skin throwing game was a game played by Vikings indoors. It comprised of throwing a bearskin.
Vikings played a ball game which had two teams on opposite sides. The players also used a bat in this game.
Viking games were not for the fainthearted. Injuries were common and some would even die from the injuries in the game.