A Viking Style Oak Game board and its pieces

Why did I make this project?

One of the joys of living in Drachenwald is the ability to participate in the twice yearly A&S exchanges. I love making beautiful things for other people and never put the same effort into things for myself, so these exchanges allow me to both stretch my creative muscles and add to my kit with something beautiful that somebody else has made for me.

My recipient, Robyn, has a viking persona. I had originally started work on a viking chest to store her valuables in but I ran into so many difficulties as the deadline approached that I had to come up with a plan B. I still made and delivered the chest, but this game board was what she received during the official time span of the exchange.

What is it?

This is a two sided game board, one side has a Tablut grid and the other has a 9 men’s morris board.

I tried to create a gameboard that pays homage to remains of one found in the Gokstad burial. The boat and everything in it was built around 850 AD and buried sometime around 890 AD at the Gokstad farm in Sandefjord, Vestfold, Norway. ( Source 1)

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This is a double sided board with 9 men’s morris on one side and a 13 square grid on the other which is assumed to be a Tablut style game board since it is the right size and shape and no other known games from that era match.

The game pieces that have been found from this time period are typically made of horn, bone, or glass. The Gokstad board had playing pieces made of horn.

My version of this board is made of oak with wooden playing pieces.

Construction.

In period, these kinds of game boards were often made of oak. They were cut and carved using nothing but the hand tools of the time. Saws, chisels, rasps and gauges have all been found in archeological discoveries from the period so it is safe to assume that those were the types of tools used.

The carving on the Gokstad board is quite intricate, most likely done by fine carving knives.

I used power tools to cut and sand my board. The game board is made of a piece of artisanally cut lumber so the playing surfaces are not entirely flat. I chose to leave these imperfections rather than sand them out as I felt that they gave the board more character.

I am not very experienced at woodcarving and the proper tools to recreate the Gokstad board are quite a ways out of my budget so I had to find an alternative method to decorate the wood.

I attempted to carve the wood with a dremel powertool but I was horribly dissatisfied with the results.

Finally I decided to buy myself a pyrography iron and carve the wood with fire. Pyrography is a decorative art form which exists since the day when ancient mankind realized that the charred wood in their fire could be made decorative.

I have yet to find evidence of pyrography from ancient Norse culture but this is to be expected. The majority of wooden finds from that ancient time have lost all varnish and paint over the ages. The carving remains, but it is quite possible that the soot from woodburning could have worn away with the varnish. From my experience of making this game board, I know just how challenging it is to keep the soot on the project and off of my hands or workspace.

Given the skill and artistry of the ancient Norse woodcarvers, I decided to take artistic license and do my carving with pyrography as I, personally, feel that it is such an obvious choice that my Scandinavian ancestors must have used it from time to time to add color as well as depth to their fantastic carvings.

I made the decision to change the grid for the Tablut side of the board. There are many versions of Tablut that people have researched over the years but the rules of play for the 13 square board found in the Gokstad burial have yet to be fully understood. I wanted to make a game that my recipient could play right away.

The basic version of Tablut is played on a 9×9 grid, and I felt that I could more comfortably fit 9 squares on my board than 13.

As for the decoration of the board, I attempted to include Viking style knotwork wherever possible, including my recipient’s sigil of Odin’s wolves chasing one another around the edge of the board and Robyn’s name in viking runes at the center of the 9 men’s morris board.

Here are some pictures of the process:

Right after I'd finished burning the throne and defender squares, the Muskovite base camps are sketched in for burning.

Right after I’d finished burning the throne and defender squares, the Muskovite base camps are sketched in for burning.

The 9 men's Morris side, with Robyn's name in the center and one edge sketched in.

The 9 men’s Morris side, with Robyn’s name in the center and one edge sketched in.

The finished Tablut side of the board and two edges after having been coated in varnish to keep the soot in place.

The finished Tablut side of the board and two edges after having been coated in varnish to keep the soot in place.

The game board required three types of pieces: 1 Swedish king, 8 blonde Swedes and 16 dark Muskovite attackers. I made 9 Swede style pieces so that they can be used for the 9 men's morris side of the board as well.

The game board required three types of pieces: 1 Swedish king, 8 blonde Swedes and 16 dark Muskovite attackers. I made 9 Swede style pieces so that they can be used for the 9 men’s morris side of the board as well.

What did I learn over the course of this project?

I learned a lot about viking woodworking throughout the course of this project. I have been a fan of celtic knotwork for a long time and I found that I quite enjoy the more casual forms of viking knotwork as well. It was quite pleasant to be able to freehand the knots onto the board rather than having to work with a strict grid pattern as in celtic knotwork.

What would I do differently next time?

I would like to have made the board a little bit bigger and the playing pieces a bit more uniform in size. However, the board was made from scraps leftover from the chest and the pieces were the best solution I could find in such a short amount of time.

On the whole, I am thrilled with how the board turned out and Robyn certainly seemed happy to receive it, so I couldn’t have asked for more.

Sources:

Author, Title, publication date. ISBN (optional.)

  1. The Gokstad viking ship, Vestfold, Norwayhttp://home.online.no/~joeolavl/viking/gokstadskipet.htm
  2. The Viking Answer Ladyhttp://www.vikinganswerlady.com/games.shtml
  3. Hnefatafl – The Strategic board game of the Vikingshttp://hem.bredband.net/b512479/

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