There have been some phenomenal beards throughout history. Sophocles, Galileo, Blackbeard, Marx, Chuck Norris. Barbarians, mountain men, Victorians, and have you seen old photos of American Civil War generals! All of these men have been admired for their glorious facial bushes. Yet when you think of Truly. Epic. Beards. Only one culture’s consistency in conspicuous cosmetology comes to mind – the beautifully braided and fiercely fearsome whiskers of the Vikings!
How it Plays
In Villainous Vikings, players are legendary, or mythical, Norse captains – with or without beards – plying the seas of Europe trying to earn Valhalla points to win Odin’s favor and the best mead on tap in the afterlife. You earn boasting rights by conquering lands through raids and/or winning people’s loyalty through trade, culminating in a final battle of all Vikings at Ragnarök – the end of the world, not to mention your career.
At the beginning of your seafaring voyages, you assume the role of a particular captain with unique powers and receive one longship. Your longboat is depicted by three ship’s section cards which correspond to your crew’s strength. These lay in your player area while your vessel’s actual location and movement are marked by a cardboard longship standee. The map of Europe, North Africa, and an ever-so-wafer-thin slice of Asia is divided into eight regions. The Northlands (aka Scandinavia) is everyone’s home-sweet-home, and the only region you cannot raid or trade with. The seven other regions are fair game, unfortunately for them!
Game play revolves primarily around Map cards, a deck of cards depicting individual settlements amongst the seven different regions. Map cards are divided into three different eras and are identified with an icon and color-coordinated with their corresponding region on the board. Each map card denotes several different things about that settlement including the gold won from conquering it, the cost to buy its loyalty outright, its strength in battle, how many points it’s worth, whether a hero resides there, and a special ability earned when sacrificing it in a future battle. In addition to Map cards, there are a few Asgard cards in each age. These are special events that affect play as written and maybe worth points if kept at the end of the game.
One session’s Map deck consists of 26 cards pulled randomly from the three different ages (8, 8, and 10 respectively). You’ll also shuffle a Ragnarök card in the bottom 5 cards of the deck. To start, reveal the first 5 Map cards and lay them out in a row. If any lists a hero, retrieve that leader’s card from the Hero deck and lay it with its corresponding Map card. All boats begin in the Northlands.
On your turn, you may choose one card from the row of Map cards to interact with. If you don’t like the five choices, you may pay some gold to draw up to thee more, increasing the odds of revealing juicier prey. If it’s an Asgard card, simply follow the text. If it’s a Map card, sail to its region. As only one Norse captain at a time may be plying an area’s waters, any player previously there has the option to contest the region or return home. If she stays, you must defeat her, or sail back with your oars between your legs. If they leave you to your own business, or if no one is tethered there in the first place, you have two choices.
You can raid the settlement, which unsurprisingly leads to a battle. If victorious, you win some loot and may add the card to your conquests. Or you can raze the settlement, earn double the loot, and replenish crew losses in a section of your longboat with some of the captives.
If your crew is weak, or the settlements too strong, or you’ve otherwise no stomach for a fight, you can trade with the settlement, instead. This can involve one or more of the following actions. You can recruit fighters by replenishing your losses at 2 gold per longship section. You can hire a mercenary hero to join your crew if one is present. You can bribe the locals, if possible, so that they’ll roll one less die in future raids. Or you can buy the people’s loyalty outright – again, if possible – in which case you add that map card to your conquests, as well.
While Viking life doesn’t seem to have lent itself to frequent union breaks, you may alternately return home for a little R&R, rather than interact with a Map card. Essentially, you’re passing your turn. However, you may replenish one attrited longship section for free. Additionally, you can pay 5 gold to refill other depleted sections.
Battles against settlements and other captains are resolved relatively similar. There are three, colored custom dice – well, six with two dice each in white, grey, and red. Die faces show swords, shields, a combination of both, or a Heathen Hammer. Yes, heathen. These dice correspond to ship sections. So in any battle, you roll the corresponding die for each of your fully-manned crews. Map cards indicate which dice a defending settlement rolls.
These custom dice resolve two things: losses and victor. Losses are determined by adding up your defense strength, or number of shields, and subtracting it from your opponent’s attack strength, or number of swords. If the result is a positive number, start counting off those losses on your longship, beginning with the red boat section. As sections sustain enough losses, they are depleted and you turn that section over to indicate its status. However, any leftover losses are ignored for the next round.
Interestingly, you may sustain the most losses, but still win the battle. Victory is simply determined by attack strength. So whoever rolled the most swords – player or settlement – is victorious. If you’re defeated as the aggressor, then you must slink back home to the Northlands. If triumphant, you’re opponent flees or you gain the Map card, either adding it to your collection of conquests or razing it to the ground.
Heathen Hammer results provide unique abilities depending on the captain. Some add attack and defense bonuses, while others have various special actions. Just reference the captain’s card to resolve them. Heroes also afford bonuses to you, or the settlements they champion. There are three types of heroes. Mercenaries only fight for money. If you pay their wages, they’ll join your crew. Converts fight for the locals, but will defect to your services when defeated. You may only have one hero per longship section. If you lose that section, and cannot reassign the hero, it’s off to Valhalla for him. Bosses, however, are stubbornly powerful leaders that will fiercely defend their lands and never join your cause. Instead, you capture Bosses when conquering their Map card and they’re worth points at the end of the game.
As soon as the Ragnarök card appears, the game enters its final phase – an all-out, epic throw-down amongst every captain! Everybody has a chance to replenish their crews for 2 gold apiece. And trust me; you’ll want to do this. That’s because each player rolls combat dice per the normal rules of battle, applying applicable bonuses and abilities from heroes and captains. However, in Ragnarök, losses are ignored. Instead, whoever rolls the lowest attack strength is knocked out of the conflict. Then players resume the confrontation until one beard remains standing. He – or possibly she – wins the Ragnarök card and its 6 points.
After Ragnarök, captains count up their Valhalla points from Map and Asgard cards, captured Bosses, and hoarded gold. Don’t forget the Ragnarök card itself. Also, there are two territory bonuses awarded – actually earned during the game – for the Norse leader with the most conquered settlements from the same region (minimum of 3) and the widest variety of settlements collected from unique regions (minimum of 4). He or she with the most points shares a pint of mead with Odin. The losers must shamefully shave their beards.
The Valhalla Fame?
Epic beards aside, the Norsemen of the so-called “Viking Age” are an interesting lot. Their history and stories have been imagined, re-imagined, misrepresented, misunderstood, stereotyped, vilified, and finally revised in recent historiography. Sure, they were more complex and sophisticated, than the blood-thirsty, dirty, ignorant barbarians they were early portrayed as. They engaged in intricate trade networks and astute politics, just as much as they relished a good fight, or an unfair one. Yet still, they weren’t peaceful by any stretch. Battle was intertwined with their culture and mythology. And they were decidedly conquerors – which makes them a weighty choice for theme in a board game.
Villainous Vikings adroitly navigates the subject. It very much feels like a “Viking” game, even though it isn’t complex enough to truly immerse you in the theme. The design is historically grounded enough to portray the Norse expansion as one of economics and diplomacy, as well as one of conquest. And it mixes in some mythology to build literary narrative. This avoids glorifying the sensitive matter of pillaging and murder, no matter how abstractly the mechanics might handle it. At the same time, it’s not patronizingly light-hearted.
Now most gamers will likely not get too wrapped up in the theme or care about its broader implications. It’s just a game. So then, how does it play? If I had to use one word to describe most of Villainous Vikings’ moving parts, I’d likely choose “balanced.”
First, there’s a great balance, or mixture, of Euro and Ameritrash elements. I know these two terms can be polarizing. Some gamers insist the differences are meaningless, while others note that the lines are blurring together more and more these days. But there is a helpful distinction in them, nonetheless, and Villainous Vikings melds some of these disparate aspects well. The set collection and trading are more akin to the controlled actions favored by Euros. Also, choices tend to be limited, the rules are pretty tight and straight-forward, and downtime is fairly minimal while the game moves quickly overall. However, the dice-based combat means there is going to be randomness and some chaos. There is a fair amount of direct player interaction. And there are some fiddly bits with resolving all of the variable abilities and bonuses – and some captain powers are better than others.
There’s also a delicate balance in choices. You’re not inundated with decisions, but there are important ones hidden in the minor details. To raze or not to raze? When is it worth foregoing a Map card’s points in exchange for some extra gold and captives to replenish your losses? To sacrifice or not to sacrifice? Again, is it more beneficial to trash one of your territories, in order to gain its bonus in a particularly important battle? To fight or not to fight? Does the risk of a busted turn and burnt longship section against a strong, but lucrative territory outweigh that of a move against an easier, but less profitable settlement? If you don’t like the selection of Map cards, should you spend a little gold hoping to flip a more attractive option? These types of calculations will often prove tricky, but are critical. Because small decisions can lead to winning – or losing – just enough points to make the difference between victory and defeat.
Finally – a characteristic that rates highly on my chart – there is a good balance between strategy and luck. You get to decide generally which direction to pursue; raiding, trading, gold hoarding, set collecting, and/or aggressively going after others. Yet the rate at which Map cards come out, and the luck of the dice rolls, could throw a wrench in your works. Maybe you need a certain regional card to complete a set for the bonus, but it’s revealed too early and another captain nabs it. Perhaps you’d like to strong arm your way into territory already occupied by another, but find yourself too weak. Or you could just outright roll poorly in a battle, even against the natives. Randomness may frustrate your purposes now and then, but it won’t do so routinely. Instead, it’s a nice element that keeps everyone on an even playing field, while providing tension and excitement.
The combat system itself is a lot of fun, very quick, and somewhat unique. To put it best, combat does not hijack the game. It’s always clear which dice will be thrown. Toss what you’re allowed, figure up your attack and defense strengths, and apply modifiers. Generally, the whole affair lasts one round as you resolve losses and determine the victor. Again, a handful of special abilities require some mental fiddling. And a draw may lead to a renewed round of fighting. However, it still moves along at a brisk clip.
While you’ll wage the majority of battles against settlements, clashes with other players can also prove fun and rewarding, without putting you at substantial risk. Will it hurt you? Well, it may likely set you back somewhat. However, combat losses are easily recoverable, and usually cheaply. Although I admit losing a hero definitely stinks. By and large, though, direct player interaction is another of the design’s well-balanced features. It certainly influences the game’s progress, yet it’s not crippling, and never involves player elimination.
The strongest critique I have with the design’s mechanics is in the efficacy of trading overall, and buying a settlement’s loyalty in particular. In theory, buying loyalty adds another avenue to victory. The problem is you loose points while doing so. In raiding a settlement you win the Map card and its VP, plus some looted gold which also counts towards points at the end. In buying loyalty, you collect the Map card and its VP, but you’re loosing points towards the end of the game in the form of spending gold. About the only time that purchasing a settlement outright would be more favorable is when a territory is available to win one of the set collection bonuses, but you’re perhaps too weak to take advantage of it at the time. Yet that scenario is so particular as to rarely be an issue.
Other trade options aren’t so glaringly questionable, but they’re not overly attractive, either. Except for Mercenaries. Those heroes are pretty beneficial with some nifty abilities and the only way you can recruit them is with the trade action. I can’t say they’re automatic buys for everyone, but each will likely be courted as quickly as the prettiest girl in school for a date to prom.
If you’re really hard up to replace losses, then the 2 gold per longboat section may be a cheap option. However, if you raze a conquered settlement, you can do that for free and make a little gold, aka points, at the same time. As for bribing guards, we’ve never even done that in our plays. All in all, I’m not saying that trading is totally worthless. However, I believe you’ll find players raiding a lot more. Perhaps that’s the “Viking” way, just the same?
[Note: I’ve read that the second edition, currently in production, will nerf the amount of points that gold is worth, which might likely address my concerns with the trade action.]
Ragnarök can be a bit chaotic. Yes, obviously Ragnarök, the real thing, would definitely be mass mayhem. That goes without saying. However, Ragnarök, the game phase in Villainous Vikings, is more awkward. Two-player games do not pose as much of an issue, as the main problem is there aren’t enough dice to go around. So the first player to roll must remember his/her results and how to apply abilities and sacrifices, as the whole battle is technically simultaneous. It can end up being a bit fiddly and convoluted. Especially as ties for lowest attack strength are rolled again to settle draws. And then your rinse and repeat – twice in a four-player session.
The components are nice, overall. The mounted, puzzle-locking board is drawn well with a medieval look. A couple of color shades are very close and could be confused, but the regions are identified by easily distinguishable icons, as well. The card quality is below average, but the design layout is clean, understandable, and the artwork is good, if often repeated. You also will need to sticker the generic dice, but the game includes an extra sheet, which was nice of them. However, the best components by far are the longship standees. They’re not particularly sturdy, but they are distinctive looking and well cut. When moving about the game map, the 3D effect does enhance the theme and experience.
I like Villainous Vikings a lot. Just to be up front as to why; it has most of the elements that put a game right in my wheelhouse. It’s not difficult to teach and learn. It has a popular theme, with some history and adventure behind it, and enhanced by smooth mechanics. It offers choices, but not a paralyzing array of them. Collecting victory points is intuitive with a recognizable set collection aspect. It doesn’t shy away from player interaction, yet there’s no elimination and it’s never severely crippling. There are lots of variable powers. And luck is not out of control, but rather keeps everyone engaged and on equal terms. Villainous Vikings offers a great mix of Euro and Ameritrash elements with mechanics that blend well with its theme. It is eminently playable and plenty of fun. Alas, it does not include any beards.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Villainous Vikings.