Last year, Blue Orange Games, a company known mostly for children’s games, made a big splash with the release of their first “gamer’s game,” New York 1901. That game got a lot of critical praise and set the bar pretty high for future efforts in Blue Orange’s “Europe Collection.”
Now Blue Orange is back with their second big box effort, Vikings on Board. In this one, you are trying to ensure that your viking clan gains control of the ships carrying the most valuable supplies before they leave port. You want the good stuff all for yourself! Not one to place all your hopes on one or two ships, you’re also placing side bets on which clan will control each ship when it sails. After all, if you fail to control the ship, you might as well win the bet so you don’t go away totally empty handed.
The question is: Does Blue Orange have another hit on its hands, or does Vikings on Board sink before ever leaving port?
How It Plays
Vikings on board combines elements of worker placement, area control, and action selection to create a game in which the object is to earn points by controlling valuable ships when they set sail, and placing bets on which clan will control a ship when it sails.
Control of a ship is gained by having the most shields of your player color onboard that ship. In the case of a tie, the player who has the first boat piece directly behind the bow controls the ship. Several of the actions you may choose from during the game involve moving ship pieces around so that you can try to gain the majority of shields on a ship. You can change the order of pieces on one ship, or move parts from one ship to another. Some actions only let you move pieces of your color, while others allow you to move pieces of any color.
The value of a ship is determined by the number and type of goods onboard when it sails. Goods are added to ships during the action phase, if a player chooses that action. You can also take an action to increase the market value of the various goods. When the ship sails, goods are divvied up among the players onboard that ship according to control order, with the controlling player getting first pick of the goods, the person with secondary control getting second pick, and so on until the goods are all gone. The goods you choose are placed on your scoring disk and are worth victory points equal to their value at the end of the game.
The game is played over seven or more rounds. At the beginning of a round, the player whose viking is closest to the start player action takes the first turn, with other players following in turn order. On your turn, you will choose an action to perform by moving your viking across the village to any open action space. You will perform your chosen action and then the next player will take her turn.
The most valuable and lucrative actions are all available every round, but if you take them, you will choose your action later in turn order the next round. If you take some of the lesser actions, you will set yourself up to go earlier in the turn or, if you choose the first player action, you can guarantee that you will go first next round.
Besides taking the goods off of a sailed ship, the other way to earn points in the game is through betting. To bet, place one gambling token facedown on a free circle in front of a ship in the harbor on the clan color that you think will have primary control over that ship when it sails. If the ship sails and you have the winning bet, take your token and place it facedown on your scoring disk. Incorrect bets stay where they are but can be moved to another ship during subsequent rounds if you take the Bet/Move a Bet action again.
The round ends when all of the vikings have moved across the village and onto action spots. The next round begins and actions are again taken in turn order (determined by who is now closest to the first player action). Players simply move their vikings back across the village to the now open action spots on the other side.
The game ends immediately after the seventh ship sets sail. Players calculate their final score by adding together the value of their supply tokens and combining it with the value of their gambling tokens from winning bets. The player with the most points wins.
Get On Board or Abandon Ship?
The first thing I noticed about this game when I opened the box that got me on its side was the insert. Now, I know an insert does not make a great game. However, in a world where first impressions are important, let me say that this one totally won me over. Everything has a place and stores neatly and securely. It’s a masterclass in insert design.
But the best part? The best part was that all of those lovely ships did not have to be punched and assembled. (I still have flashbacks from assembling the trains in Colt Express and was dreading that this would be a similar experience.) In fact, there was nothing at all to punch. Just plop the box on the table, read the rules, and start playing. I know some people who love punching components will find this sacrilegious, but those of you who hate punching will appreciate Vikings on Board.
I hear you asking, “But what do you think of the game?” I enjoyed the game. It’s one of those rare games that is family-weight but in which luck (whether through dice or card draws) does not play a significant part. This is lovely for those who value strategy and tactics, but it’s not so great if your group likes luck-heavy games that level the playing field a bit.
Don’t get me wrong… Vikings on Board is not the sort of game where the wrong move on your first turn will leave you out of the running for the rest of the game. It’s not that heavy or punishing. However, there is no built in catch up mechanism and you can’t hope that a bad draw or dice roll by your opponent will level things up for you. You are responsible for choosing which actions to play and when in order to maximize (and protect) your scoring opportunities and mess up the opportunities for your opponents. If you don’t do it well, there isn’t anyone to blame but yourself.
Wait, did I say mess up your opponents? Oh, yes I did. This game can get mean. Vikings on Board isn’t any meaner than most area control games but area control, by its very nature, gets mean. When you have multiple players vying for the most lucrative spots, someone’s going to lose out. It’s no different in Vikings on Board. When you’ve spent a lot of time building up majority on a specific ship and adding lots of goods to said ship, it’s going to get ugly when your opponent swoops in just before you were about to set sail and claims the majority on that ship and sails it away without you. An astute player can overcome this by sailing sooner, preemptively moving your opponents’s ship parts off of your ship, or taking other protective actions, but there will be times where you still lose out. Players who cannot handle this sort of thing without flipping the table should stay away from Vikings on Board.
Vikings on Board is a great introduction to area control and worker placement for those who’ve never played with those mechanics before, or who aren’t looking for a heavy-duty game. The notion of controlling ships by having the most shields on the ship is very easy to understand. It’s also very easy to understand how the pricing of goods, loading of goods on ships, and distribution of goods on ships that have sailed all work together. Thematically it all makes sense, which makes for easy understanding.
It’s also very easy to understand how the actions work. To choose an action, you simply move your viking from one action spot on one side of the village to a spot on the other side. And then in the next round, you go back again. There’s no map to make sense of and, since you only perform one action at a time, nothing is overwhelming.
It takes a little experience for newbies to understand how the actions all work together and how to set yourself up to score while thwarting your opponents but, again, things make sense within the theme of loading ships. (Okay, maybe the idea of moving whole ship sections doesn’t make a lot of sense because when was the last time you saw someone cut up a ship and move pieces of it across the harbor? However, it does make for an easy to understand visual representation of gaining control of a ship without having to move lots of fiddly viking meeples from ship to ship, which is nice.) Once you understand the game, there’s a lot of tension in waiting to see if your plans will pan out, or if your plans are going to sink to the bottom of the sea.
The neatest thing about the actions is how turn order is decided round to round. Taking the best/most productive actions this turn means that you will go later in turn order in the next round. You have to decide which you want more: To do this awesome action right now, or get first choice of actions next turn. Which you choose will depend on how badly you need to get your ship out of the harbor, whether you need to wait to try to load more goods, or whether you need to make an emergency swap of ship parts to protect your interests on a ship. It provides an extra level of thought to the game that would be lacking if turn order were fixed or always ran in a predictable order.
So how does Vikings on Board stack up to last year’s New York 1901, Blue Orange’s first big box effort? The honest truth is that you may love it, or you may not. On the one hand, it shares the same gorgeous production values, streamlined ruleset, and family-friendly gameplay as its predecessor. On the other hand, Vikings is a lighter game than New York 1901. While I would place both into the “gateway” category, New York does have a bit more going on and, I suspect, is the game with more longevity. New York 1901 offers more options for scaling the game, increasing the difficulty, and variable setup that means it can reach a wider audience and offer more replay value. If you expect Vikings to be exactly on par with New York 1901 simply because it’s from the same publisher and line of games, you might be disappointed. If, however, you liked 1901 and hoped for something a little lighter, then this may be perfect for you.
Speaking of scaling… There are some special rules for the two and three player games that attempt to replicate the experience of playing with four. With two (or three) players, all of the ship pieces are in play and act as neutral pieces. You can still move them around and use them to take control of a ship (or take control away from another player), and you can still bet on them. If a neutral color controls the ship, a good token is removed from the ship by the player to the left of the player who would next take a token from the ship. The neutral ships and more democratic way of distributing goods mimics the experience of having more people fairly well.
Also, when a ship sets sail in the two player game, the player who did not choose the Set Sail action places one of the neutral color vikings onto any body piece of their color on the ship. It counts as one of your color for the purposes of determining control. This is an interesting mechanic because it’s very easy for someone to forget this rule when planning for control of a ship. You think you’ve got control and get ready to sail off, but then the other player swoops in and drops their viking, sometimes giving them control or putting control into a tie situation where they win out.
It’s frustrating, but it does create a little more thought and tension in the two player game than there would otherwise be. It gives a player one last hail-Mary chance to mess you up that, in a four player game, might have been carried out by another opponent. All in all, Vikings on Board plays well at the lower player counts and is certainly enjoyable. However, as with many area control games, there is no denying that more players (and more brains plotting ways to wrest control of ships and manipulate the goods) makes things more interesting. I wouldn’t recommend it if you were only ever going to play with just two players. However, if you occasionally play with more, you’ll probably get enough out of it to warrant the purchase.
I recommend Vikings on Board for anyone seeking a family-weight game to teach basic area control and worker placement. Gamers with a lot of experience with these mechanisms likely won’t find enough here to hold their interest for long because it is very light. It is, however, great for gamers who want to play a family-level game that doesn’t involve luck. I don’t recommend it for someone seeking a heavy game, or for anyone who does not like meanness in their games. On the whole, Vikings on Board is a solid, fun game that’s gorgeous to look at on the table and should fit well with most families and gamers who prefer lighter fare.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Blue Orange Games for giving us a copy of Vikings on Board to review.
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