Museum on the Move – Viking Games

Games and entertainment occupied the time of Vikings between conquest, raids, trade journeys and long winters’ nights. While Vikings worked hard, they also left time to play strategic board games with friends and family, as we still do today.

From grave goods and the sagas, we learn that Vikings played board games avidly, carved wooden dolls and toys for their children, played dice and gambled, and played rough sports at their feasts and gatherings.

Find more about Viking play, childhood and games by looking at the Viking Games downloadable document below.

Evidence of play

Many activities involving children’s play do not leave archaeological traces; however, we do know of ball games and wrestling games, which were recorded in some detail in the Viking sagas. Written sources (such as the Orkneyinga Saga) describe how being good at table games impressed other people. Some games were scratched onto wood or stone, with broken pieces of pottery or bone used for counters.

One of the most popular games still played today is chess. Some of the most striking objects of the 12th Century are the chess pieces from the Scottish island of Lewis.  The Lewis Chess-pieces give us fascinating insights into the international connections of western Scotland and the growing popularity of chess in medieval Europe.

Excavations at Peel Castle

The board game enjoyed most often by Vikings was Hnefatafl, which they took with them to Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland and Great Britain. Other games such as Merels are still played today.  This hand-made Merels board was uncovered during the archaeological excavations of St. Patrick’s Isle in Peel during the 1980s. This Merels game, also called Nine Men’s Morris, was scratched into the surface of a piece of slate around the 14th Century (1300s AD).  Could this game have been played by soldiers occupying Peel Castle? We will never know, but you can still play this simple game with your friends and family today by printing out the downloadable Merels game below

Let’s find out what archaeological evidence we have of Viking games played in the Isle of Man.

Merels board archaeological picture for educational use.


Counters for games could be made from simple to highly prized materials depending on the game and the status of the player. Some counters and games pieces have been found to be made out of materials ranging from bone, fish vertebrate, walrus tusk, to very ornate glass.  These counters are made from ‘tope’ vertebrate, which is a type of shark. These vertebrate counters were found in an excavation at Castle Rushen in Castletown.

What things can you find at home to make counters from for your Merels board? Make sure that they look different to your opponent’s counters!

Shark vertebrate- Tope ' Game counters'
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