ancient vikings games

Traditional Games and Pastimes of the Ancient Norse

The Vikings were known for their prowess in battle, but they were also skilled in a wide variety of games and pastimes that helped build camaraderie, sharpen their strategic thinking skills, and promote physical fitness. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the traditional games and pastimes of the ancient Norse, including board games, outdoor games, athletic contests, dice and gambling games, children’s games, music and dance, and mind games.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ancient Vikings games were an integral part of Viking culture and played an essential role in building camaraderie, promoting physical fitness, and sharpening strategic thinking skills.
  • In this article, we’ll explore traditional Norse games, including board games like Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris, outdoor games such as Kubb and Knattleikr, athletic contests like Holmgang and Stone Throwing, and mind games like riddles and chess.
  • We’ll also take a closer look at the role of dice and gambling in Viking society, the games played by Viking children, and the entertainment value of music and dance, including Skaldic competitions and Ring dances.

The Importance of Games in Viking Culture

Viking culture placed great importance on sports, games, and physical activity. These activities were not just a means of recreation but also played a crucial role in shaping the lifestyle and character of the Norse society.

Nordic games were much more than mere entertainment. They were an integral part of the community’s social fabric, a way to develop comradeship and foster a sense of competitiveness. They were also a platform to hone strategic thinking, promote physical fitness, and mental agility.

The Holmgang Duel

The Holmgang Duel was one of the most iconic Viking contests where two opponents would fight to the death on a small islet. The fighters would stand on either side of the islet, and the fight would commence as soon as the water flowed out of the islet.

The Holmgang Duel was not just about physical strength and fighting skills. It was also about choosing the right time to fight, reading one’s opponent’s movements, and striking with precision and speed. The Holmgang Duel was also an opportunity for young warriors to earn respect and reputation.

Another favorite Viking sport was Stone Throwing. Participants would throw large boulders as far as possible, and the person who threw the farthest won the contest. Stone throwing was also a way of showing strength and physical power, something highly valued in Nordic culture.

Overall, games were an intrinsic part of Viking life. They played a significant role in shaping the community’s character, fostering a sense of camaraderie, and promoting physical fitness and mental agility.

Board Games: Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris

The Vikings were known for their love of board games, with some of their favorites being Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris.

Hnefatafl, also known as the King’s Table, was a strategic game played on a board with 11×11 squares. The objective was for the defending player to move their king piece to a corner of the board, while the attacking player tried to capture the king by surrounding it on all four sides. The defending player had a greater number of pieces, but the attacking player had more mobility, making it a game of wits.

Nine Men’s Morris, on the other hand, was a simpler game played on a board with three concentric squares, connected by lines through the corners. The objective was to align three pieces in a row, while at the same time preventing the opponent from doing so. Once a player had three in a row, they could remove one of their opponent’s pieces, creating a game of skill and strategy.

Both Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris were popular games throughout the Viking Age, with evidence of their play found in archaeological digs across Scandinavia and Europe.

Outdoor Games: Kubb and Knattleikr

The Vikings were a fierce and competitive people, and their love of outdoor games reflected this. Two of the most popular Viking outdoor games were Kubb and Knattleikr.


Kubb, also known as “Viking Chess,” is a game that involves throwing wooden sticks at wooden blocks in an attempt to knock them down. The game is played on a rectangular field and requires strategy, accuracy, and a steady hand. The objective of the game is to knock down all of the opponent’s blocks and then the king block in the center of the field. Kubb was originally played as a training game for the Swedish army but has since become a beloved Viking pastime.

Equipment Used Gameplay
– 10 wooden blocks – One team throws wooden sticks at the opposing team’s blocks
– One king block – If a team successfully knocks down all of their opponent’s blocks, they get to throw at the king block in an attempt to win the game
– Six wooden throwing sticks – If a team hits the king block but fails to knock it down, their opponent may place the king block wherever they choose on their side of the field for the next round


Knattleikr, meaning “ball game,” was a Viking team sport played on a field using a leather ball. The game was brutal and required both physical prowess and strategic thinking. The objective was to score points by getting the ball into the opposing team’s goal while avoiding being tackled by the other team. There were no formal rules for the game, and it often ended in injuries or even death.

Equipment Used Gameplay
– A leather ball – Two teams face off on a field with a goal at each end
– No protective gear – The ball is thrown, kicked, and carried
– The objective is to score in the opponent’s goal while avoiding tackles and physical harm

Kubb and Knattleikr were just two examples of the many outdoor games enjoyed by the Vikings. These games not only provided entertainment but also helped the Vikings hone their skills in strategy, physical fitness, and teamwork.

Athletic Contests: Holmgang and Stone Throwing

The Vikings were known for their physical prowess, and athletic contests played a significant role in their culture. Among the most popular were Holmgang and Stone Throwing, which tested the strength, agility, and strategic thinking skills of the participants.


Holmgang, meaning “island walk,” was a Viking form of dueling where warriors fought one-on-one using weapons such as swords, spears, and axes. The fighters would agree on the rules before the contest, and they would typically fight until one of them was seriously injured or killed. However, the fight could end with both warriors agreeing to stop due to fatigue or injury. Holmgang was not only a test of physical skill but of a warrior’s bravery and honor.

Stone Throwing

Stone Throwing was another popular Viking athletic contest that tested a warrior’s strength and accuracy. Contestants would throw stones or boulders of various sizes, with the winner being the one who threw the farthest distance. The size of the stone varied depending on the location of the contest, but some stones were as large as 100 pounds. Stone Throwing contests were also held to determine the strongest warrior among the group.

Overall, athletic contests served as a way for Vikings to showcase their physical abilities and prove their worth as warriors. These contests also provided entertainment for spectators and fostered a sense of camaraderie among participants.

Dice and Gambling Games

Vikings were known for their love of games and gambling, with dice being a popular pastime. Dice games were played both for fun and as a form of gambling, and they were often played during feasts and other celebrations.

Viking dice games were simple, with players rolling a set of dice and attempting to achieve the highest possible score. Some popular Viking dice games include “liars dice” and “hoggen,” which involved predicting the outcome of a roll.

Gambling was also a common practice in Norse culture, with people placing bets on games and other events. It was not uncommon for Vikings to wager valuable items like jewelry, weapons, and even slaves.

Despite the prevalence of gambling, it was not always viewed positively in Viking society. In fact, there were laws regulating gambling, with some Viking communities banning it altogether.

Despite this, gambling remained a popular pastime among Vikings, providing entertainment and excitement in an otherwise harsh and difficult existence.

Children’s Games: Talonball and Tag

Children in Viking society were taught important skills through games and activities. Talonball and Tag were two popular games enjoyed by young Norse boys and girls.

Game Description
Talonball A ball game played by two teams where players passed a leather ball to each other to score points. The ball was caught using a small net attached to a stick, which resembled a bird’s talon.
Tag A classic game where one player was “it”, and tried to touch the other players, who had to avoid being tagged. The last player tagged became the new “it”.

These games helped children develop important skills, such as hand-eye coordination and strategic thinking. They also played a crucial role in fostering camaraderie and teamwork among young Vikings.

As children grew older, they would often participate in more complex games and athletic contests, such as Holmgang and Stone Throwing.

Music and Dance: Skaldic Competitions and Ring Dances

Music and dance were an integral part of Viking culture, and they played a significant role in various festivities and social gatherings. Skaldic competitions were a popular form of entertainment during the Viking age. These were poetry contests where poets, also known as Skalds, would recite their compositions before an audience. The most skilled poet would be judged the winner based on the originality of their work, the complexity of the language, and their ability to engage the audience.

Ring Dances, known as Hringdans in Old Norse, were another popular form of entertainment. These were communal dances where participants would form a circle, holding hands and move to the rhythm of the music. The lead dancer would often sing the verses of a song, and others would respond with the chorus, creating a vibrant and rhythmic atmosphere.

The music and dance during Viking times were often accompanied by other forms of entertainment, such as board games, gambling, and athletic contests, creating a lively and stimulating environment for all participants.

Mind Games: Riddles and Chess

Aside from physical activities, the Vikings also enjoyed challenging their minds with various mind games. Two of the most popular mind games in Viking culture were riddles and chess.

Riddles were considered an intellectual challenge and a form of entertainment. They were often told during long voyages or during feasts to test the wit and knowledge of the participants. A riddle could be about anything from nature to mythology, and the answer was often a metaphorical or symbolic interpretation of the subject matter. The Norse sagas also feature several riddle contests, highlighting their importance in Viking culture.

Chess, on the other hand, was a game of strategy that required careful planning and foresight. It was a popular pastime among Viking aristocracy and was considered a game of high intellect and cunning. The Viking version of chess, known as “hnefatafl,” was played on a board with a 13×13 grid and was similar to modern-day chess. However, hnefatafl was played with up to 37 pieces, and the objective was for the defending player to move their king to the edge of the board, while the attacking player’s objective was to capture the king.

Both riddles and chess were intellectual challenges that allowed the Vikings to showcase their mental prowess and strategic thinking skills. These mind games were not only a source of entertainment but also a way to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.


In conclusion, the ancient Vikings had a diverse range of traditional games and pastimes that played a significant role in their culture. From board games like Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris to outdoor games like Kubb and Knattleikr, the Vikings had various games that sharpened their strategic thinking and physical abilities. Athletic contests like Holmgang and Stone Throwing were popular among men, while dice and gambling games offered entertainment for both genders. Even children had their fair share of games, with Talonball and Tag helping them develop crucial skills at a young age.

Music and dance were also integral parts of Viking culture, with Skaldic competitions and Ring dances being popular forms of entertainment. For those who preferred mind games, riddles and chess were the go-to options to exercise their intellectual prowess.

Overall, the traditional games and pastimes of the ancient Vikings showcase their unique culture and way of life. These games not only offered entertainment but also served as a means to foster camaraderie, promote physical fitness, and develop crucial skills. Today, many of these games have been revived and continue to be enjoyed by people worldwide, keeping the spirit of the Viking culture alive.


Q: What were some traditional games and pastimes practiced by the ancient Vikings?

A: The ancient Vikings engaged in various traditional games and pastimes, including board games, outdoor games, athletic contests, dice games, children’s games, music and dance, and mind games.

Q: Why were games important in Viking culture?

A: Games played a significant role in Viking culture as they fostered camaraderie, promoted physical fitness, and honed strategic thinking skills.

Q: What were some popular board games played by the Vikings?

A: Two popular board games played by the Vikings were Hnefatafl and Nine Men’s Morris, each with their own unique rules, gameplay, and historical significance.

Q: What were some outdoor games enjoyed by the Vikings?

A: Vikings enjoyed playing outdoor games such as Kubb and Knattleikr. These games required physical prowess and involved gameplay with specific equipment.

Q: What were some athletic contests among Vikings?

A: Two notable athletic contests among Vikings were Holmgang (dueling) and Stone Throwing. These contests had specific rules, cultural significance, and required physical skills.

Q: What role did dice and gambling play in Viking society?

A: Dice and gambling were prevalent among the Vikings. They enjoyed various dice games and engaged in gambling practices that held significance in Norse culture.

Q: What were some games played by Viking children?

A: Viking children played games such as Talonball (ball game) and Tag. These games were not only entertaining but also had educational value and helped develop important skills.

Q: How did music and dance contribute to Viking culture?

A: Music and dance were integral parts of Viking culture. Skaldic competitions (poetry contests) and Ring dances were examples of the cultural significance and entertainment value of music and dance.

Q: What were some mind games enjoyed by the Vikings?

A: Vikings indulged in mind games such as riddles and chess. These games provided intellectual challenges and offered enjoyment to the participants.