Viking Games: From Hnefatafl to Assassins Creed

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            The Vikings have remained at the forefront of entertainment. Not only were the Vikings known as big gamers, but a millennia later, they are still inspiring some of the hottest video games on the market. Sure, the sporting ground might have changed from the longhouse to the sofa in the basement of your mom’s house, but Viking games are as popular now, as the people who inspired them.

            This post is going to provide you with everything you need to know about Viking games. We are going to start way back in the Viking Age and talk about some of the popular ancient Viking games. From there we will look at which games have remained in play, and which have disappeared. Finally, we will look at modern games inspired by the Vikings.

In this photo three viking men are about to play viking games (sports) and are making competitive facial expressions.

Old Meets New: A Way to Connect Two Worlds

I actually bought Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for my nephew a few years ago so I would have something cool to talk to him about. He was into Assassin’s Creed, and I was into Viking history and Norse Mythology. I thought it was pretty cool to finally know something about the games he was playing. Likewise, he thought it was pretty cool that I knew a few things about characters, locations, weapons, puzzles, and tasks. It was a unique blend of the ancient world meeting modern day, and it was cool!

A young person is playing the Viking Game Assassin's Creed: Valhalla on a Smart Phone

Board Games

            Board games were a massive form of entertainment in many households up until roughly 25 years ago. I am old enough to remember when the internet first came out. I am also old enough to have played board games into my early twenties. Before we socialized primarily online, it was rather normal to host game nights. Friends would gather at someone’s home, drinks might be had, and lots of competitive laughter, as friends fought for the win.

            This phenomenon wasn’t new. Board games were huge during the Viking Age (and before). The Vikings liked to work hard, and they liked to play hard. Long winter nights around a fire required entertainment.

A King piece from the Lewis Chessman


            One game that was enjoyed the most often by Vikings was Hnefatafl. This was a board game that resembled chess, and maybe even Risk. It had a board, and game pieces. Like Risk, it is thought to have been a game of pure strategy. In the centre of the board there was a king and a small number of defenders. This is reminiscent of chess. However, there are four sets of attackers coming from all sides.

            The believed objective of the game is for the king to escape to the periphery of the board. The objective of the attacker is to obviously capture the king. There was never any rule book found so the rules have been theorized from similar games that survived in Europe. The pieces were thought to move orthogonally, like rooks in chess. Capture would occur when you surround a piece on two opposite sides.

            Can you imagine four Viking men sitting around a table, probably drinking mead, and playing a competitive game of Hnefatafl? The game was extremely popular, and was in use until roughly the 12th century when chess made its way to Scandinavia.

Photo of a medieval chess game, which took over as the dominant game and phased out Hnefatalf

Ancient Indoor Games

            Inside both men and women might want to take part in some ancient Viking games. Drinking often made itself into a game (some things never change!). But the Vikings would sometimes divide into teams, and engage in boasting, rhymes, or insults. Think of it like an ancient rap battle. It served a very similar purpose. These games of wit are spoken about often in the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. It was considered quite the trick to be able to come up with a witty insult. These would go back and forth until someone felt they bested their competitor.

Essentially, you would drink and insult the other team, and they would do the same to you.  One team would eventually become too drunk to come up with good rhymes or insults and the other team would be declared the winner. We literally still use “rhyme” as a category in many drinking games I played during my youth. Sometimes I feel so far removed from the Vikings, and other times, I’m like “oh yeah, same bro.”

Drinking Horns used for indoor viking games.

Ancient Outdoor Games

            When they were not sailing the open oceans in search of treasures, you could find Vikings playing outside on a nice day. Outdoor Viking games were wildly popular. They would turn skills into competitions, again, much like we do today. They enjoyed archery, wrestling (Glíma), or folk-wrestling, farm-wrestling. Vikings also tried their hand at stone throwing (we still do shot-put as a competitive sport), and of course sword fighting. Games could become dangerous at times, and it wasn’t uncommon for people to be gravely injured. It was considered unsportsmanlike, however, to purposely try to harm a competitor in these games.

            They also enjoyed running, swimming, tug-of-war, and ball games. Honestly, they were not that different than a bunch of kids in the early 80s before Nintendo came along. They entertained themselves outside, and in, with whatever they had. They enjoyed each other’s company, and occupied long winter evenings.

A father viking teaches his son some outdoor viking games.

Modern Viking Games

            I’m not much of a gamer. But when Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was released I ran out to get it for my nephew who was about 12 at the time. I was excited to see what the game looked like, and to see what the landscape and storyline looked like. I was mainly excited to know that the mainstream media was keeping the lore of the Vikings alive. We certainly see Norse mythology erupting in popularity in television, film, and I’d even say art! Viking inspired tattoos are huge! Many Viking symbols have become extremely popular in the studio, where clients who associate with a sometimes-imagined history are celebrating the culture on their body.

Top Viking Games for Modern Gamers

            Let’s look at a list of the most popular games right now that focus on the Viking world.

1. Valheim

Modern Viking Game Valheim

This game popped up right in the middle of a global lockdown. It quickly became one of the most popular games on Steam. It was developed by Iron Gate AB, and published by Coffee Stain Publishing. It’s team consisted of only five people, which speaks to its appeal. Clearly they did the work, because his roleplaying survival game skyrocketed to the top within 30 days of release.

In the game you pay as a Viking, but you are not in Valhalla. It is a sandbox experience which means you build tools, shelters, and paths with your friends as you try to evade enemies lurking about.

2. The Banner Saga

Screen shot of modern viking game The Banner Saga

            This game was released in 2014 but remains popular. The art is beautiful and is reminiscent of a Disney film at times. A decade later this is still among the top rated games in the Viking genre. A switch-port recently came out for this game (in 2018) which is pretty impessive considering its four years old and doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Skyrim, Mario, or Grand Theft Auto.

            This is a tactical role playing game with a tile-based combat system. It is all extremely well made, especially considering the project was a Kickstarter. This might be what gives it the appeal. It was made by gamers for gamers, and its popularity is a testament to how many people are looking for exactly that!

            While the playing world is inspired by the Vikings, it definitely allows more room for creative license. There are two playable characters who each have their own backstory. There are multiple choices of paths to take in the game, and each offers a unique experience.

            This is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Switch, so there are plenty of consoles on which you can experience this one.

3. Northgard

            Northgard was developed and published by Shiro Games. This one is a top-down game, which you might not have expected to be in this list. But take that as a testament to its quality. This is a progression-based RTS that has you lead a clan on an expedition to new territory (very Viking-esque). It follows the same rules as all progression-based games, but this one has a randomized map generator which means you are less likely to get bored with it.

            The game has an online co-op and has PvP. The price is a bit high for an independent game but gamers agree that it’s worth the investment.

4. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Here’s another one I’ve actually played. I had a friend who was all hot and heavy for this game back in 2018-2019. The graphics are beautiful and the storyline is kind of rad. As a therapist I remember this one being almost like a psychological break, or disassociation. All hot topics in their own right.

Senua’s Sacrifice was developed and published by Ninja Theory in 2017. It is a sequel to Hellblade, which has become one of the better-known indie-games. This is a dark-psychological fantasy. It is an action-adventure role playing game (RPG) that uses a confused mixed of Viking, Celts, and even Pictish or Pict influence.

In it the character is tasked with travelling to Helheim (Viking influence) to retrieve the soul of your lost lover. To me that’s very reminiscent of “What Dreams May Come”. The look of the character struck me more as a Pict, which the blue paint and dress. This one was more moving and involved than many of the other games, but I wouldn’t call it as historically accurate as Assassin’s Creed.

5. Bad North

This little one is more of a RTS, tower-defense game, but it has beat out plenty of multimillion-dollar AAA titles, so it is nothing to ignore. Bad North is not really modelled after the Viking world. Instead it is more so stylized off some Viking elements, but not even to an exceptional degree.

So thematically if you want to enjoy art, and the style of the Viking age you will see some of that, but do not expect any Norse mythology to be sprinkled in there.  It is the perfect game to kill some time, especially because it is available on mobile devices.

You lead your people around various islands. You are then attacked and need to fend off Viking invaders. Reminiscent of Clash of Clans which I used to play so much of back in my university says. I accidentally locked myself out of the game and am so sad about it. I had cultivated such an amazing army. My fortifications were all diamond walls which were essentially indestructible and then it all just disappeared when I switch from Samsung to iPhone and forgot how to login. It’s a simple game, but it’s a roguelite, so don’t be picky.

6. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

Game card for modern viking games

Alright, this one is cool. The graphics are awesome, and as a Viking historian, I found a lot of credible stuff in here. They play dice games, have riddles, and the landscapes and voyages to different towns via longship were pretty cool.

This was developed and published by Ubisoft. I remember hearing about it and seeing YouTube commercials for it before it was released. As far as a Viking game, this one maybe should have been number one for authenticity. But playability I suppose wins out at times. It may not be true to the original Assassin’s Creed, but if it’s Viking lore and landscape you’re after, this one will transport you to ancient realms and let you experience life much like a real Viking.

There are microtransactions, it’s a grind and it can get pretty repetitive if you’re easily bored. It has great dialogue, some Old Norse language and a cool story. If you want a gaming level history of the Vikings, this is a good place to start.

7. Jotun

Right away I see some interest in the name alone. Jotun means Giant in Old Norse. This game was developed by Paradox Development Studio and Published by Paradox Interactive. This one dives far deeper into the mythology of the Vikings. Norse mythology has what’s known as the Nine Realms, and this game takes you through all of them to defeat the jötunn (giants) themselves I what is known as Jotunheim.

I’m actually a huge advocate for young people learning certain elements from media sources. As a kid I was a big fan of the movie Braveheart. Now a lot of people used to really rag on your for its historical inaccuracy, but I stayed a true fan. I think there is a lot to be gained from becoming passionate about a subject. Even if some of the history is wrong, or misrepresented, your passion might take you into the depths of academia where you’ll someday know the truths! (Maybe, there is an awful lot of subjective truth out there).

8. Crusader Kings III

The map alone makes me a fan of this one. It’s got some good historical info on there. Crusader Kings III is right up there with Assassin’s Creed and Valheim but it isn’t as heavy on the Viking theme. It does let you play as a Viking which is important because you are playing for honor.

There isn’t a rock steady plotline like you’d find in the big strategy games. Individuals run their own self-contained story. Therefore, the way you assemble your Viking clan and deal with opposing forces will be different each time you play.

This is a relatively new game. It was released in 2020 so you haven’t missed the boat! Get out there and give it a try.

9. Ancestor’s Legacy

Another top-down game developed by Destructive Creations and published by 1C Entertainment. This one came out in 2018 and was released in 2019 for the PS4. A Switch port was released in 2020. So, this one is pretty brand new as well (considering how long games can remain in popularity).

It is old school meets modern technology. The storyline is focused on Viking Lore and mythology. It keeps the playing focused on that storyline and remains relevant. This is an appeal to some gamers. The game itself isn’t exactly impressive, and is simply structured like a infantry-based rock, paper, scissors system.

Pick it up for PS4 and Xbox. It’s for the soft at heart. If you’re looking for a rough and tumble Norse experience, then keep looking.

10. Death in Vinland

This unique game was developed by CCCP and published by Dear Villagers. This is a survival management game that’s got some role-playing mechanics tossed in there. The graphic quality isn’t super high, and is reminiscent of something you might find on a free Facebook gaming app. It’s got really high reviews though, so don’t let simplicity ruin the fun.

The story is simple and follows the same theme as many others. You are leading your family on a journey of survival. Combat, however, is really cool. It has some elements of role-playing mixed in with a row-turn-based skill system. It is very reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon, so if you are a fan then you might wanna pick this one up.

11. Volgarr the Viking

So Volgarr the Viking was developed by Crazy Viking Studios and published by Adult Swim Games. This game totally looks like it came out in the 80s. It’s got some Haggard the Horrible (was that his name?) vibes, and is styled off the pre-90s era games like Donkey Kong, and maybe even a little Mortal Kombat. It’s old-school in the sense that it’s a side-scrolling game like Mario, but that’s what we all grew up on so it’s not so bad. Wait, you’re 13 and don’t play Mario? I don’t know what to tell you then.

This one is worth checking out and is an indie sensation. Adult Swim Games published this, so it’s got some quality behind it, so don’t let the style fool you. The game has Odin task you with a quest to defeat an evil dragon. Ok, so it’s a mix of mythology and lore. The Vikings were not actually big on dragons, but whatever, this is fun right? It’s made on a budget, and offers an equivalent experience, and equivalent history. But enjoy! It’s cool.

12. Expeditions: Vikings

Developed by Logic Artists and published by THQ Nordic, this game is another top-down role-playing game that is so popular in this genre.

Expeditions: Vikings is an entry into the Viking genre, and not comprehensive, but it’s got great reviews. Game-play has some depth and that’s highlighted by its turn-based combat system. The storyline has you as a newly appointed chief (maybe Jarl would be the more authentic word here?). To make a name for yourself you’ve got to go plunder the West and acquire new riches.

Pretty typical storyline, but if you play all of these games, you’re getting some solid content and history. If you’re a fan of mid-2000s role-playing games you’ll be into this.

13. For Honor

For Honor was developed by Ubisoft and published by Ubisoft. It is a really well-known game that features Vikings. It’s not exactly marketed as a Viking game. It more or less features Vikings and does a good job of it.

It is built on a well-put-together tactical combat system. You will be attacking opponents and have fun doing it. This game doesn’t just draw on Viking lore, but brings in Ancient Mandarian and some elements from the Japanese Dynasties as well. So while not solely focused on the Vikings, they are a strong presence in it and you won’t regret checking it out.

14. Mount and Blade: Warband – Vikings Conquest

Developed by Brytenwalda and published by TaleWorlds Entertainment this one is extremely popular. Remember that Mount and Blade: Warband is over 10 years old now and is still one of the most beloved games in the community. Their Vikings conquest throws another rebrand into the mix and it’s just as popular.

This is far more in-depth than some of the other games. You’ll get a great little storyline but it’s the additions to the world space that make it really cool. You’ll get factions, cities, and characters in the 100s. This is super comprehensive and fairly affordable.

15. Vikings – Wolves of Midgard

This release is developed by Games Farm and published by Kalypso Media Digital. Wolves of Midgard is another top-down action role playing game. This seems to be the most popular genre when it comes to Viking inspired games. We want to be immersed in the culture and get to role play as an actual Viking.

If you’re familiar with Diablo you’ll see some similarities, which is not a bad thing. This game has a fairly good character creation system and is basically a completely open world. Despite the openness, you’ll notice that the progression system is pretty linear.

It’s another one of these games that is affordable and gives you a surface level experience. If you are set on having an authentic experience than you might be looking for something that dives a little deeper.


            What I like most about Viking games is that we have been able to draw inspiration from the actual Vikings and carry that forward. They really were super into sporting and games. We have adapted that to fit our current lifestyles, with videogames becoming the new way to immerse ourselves in sport. This also allows us to work with one another and compete, which are all elements of survival in the Viking world. Video games make it possible and accessible for people to access the world of Viking games.  

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