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Review: Saga of the Northmen

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You were born for the sea.  Waves crashing against the rocks beckon you to adventure as naturally as if saltwater ran through your veins.  The glorious legends and deeds of your fathers, and their fathers before them, challenge you to make an even greater name for yourself and prouder life for your people.  That story awaits to the south, throughout three continents ripe for plunder.  That’s where your glory and riches lie, and so that is where you go.  Besides, the winters in Scandinavia are too stinking long and you can’t grow a thing.

How To Play

In true Viking fashion, the goal in Saga of the Northmen is to vie for control of Norse kingdoms throughout Dark Ages Europe (and a little bit of Africa and Asia) and then launch raids from your holdings to capture plunder and establish trade routes.

This saga is an unadulterated area majority design resolved through two phases.  In the first, players contest influence in the seven major Viking kingdoms through back-and-forth card play.  Afterwards, you’ll use any realms you control as bases to march and sail your armies into vulnerable neutral territories.  Along the way you’ll earn infamy, or cash it in as a sort of Machiavellian currency.  After three rounds the Viking Era ends.  But will your story endure?

The Norse are after your land, as well as your gold, food, cattle, etc…

During each round’s Rally Phase you attempt to exert control over the Vikings’ seven established realms strategically located throughout Europe.  Jarls alternate playing influence cards which convey three bits of important information.  It designates a Norse country and a number determining how many influence cubes you place in the region.  You may optionally spend three infamy points to include a hero token.  The influence card may also identify a neutral kingdom to which you add one plunder token.  After selecting and resolving a card, place it in front of you and stack them.  As the Rally Phase progresses, only the top card is visible (although you may look through the pile any time).  Draw another card from the face up display or draw deck to complete your turn.  This continues until fifteen plunder tokens have be seeded to the board – much to the continentals’ consternation.

At that point the Marching Phase begins.  But before you sally forth, you must determine which Jarl controls which jarldoms.  Visit each kingdom separately.  Whoever owns the most influence cubes retains them in the region, instantly transforming into vicious Viking raiders.  Hero tokens count as two and break ties.  Those without majorities recall their cubes and place them on their infamy cards, which become infamy points.

How influential will you prove?

Once players have wrested complete control of their fiefdoms, the raiding begins.  After all, that’s why you play a Viking game, right?  The Norse holdings are resolved in the same order each round.  Beginning with the Normans and concluding with the Norwegians, the player who controls the region in turn marches (moves cubes into adjacent land spaces) or sails (moves cubes to any other coastal target) armies into one or more neutral territories based on the influence cards they played to win the kingdom from where they’re launching raids.  They may opt to skip their normal turn order by expending five infamy points.

After all kingdoms have conducted their voyages, battles ensue in those countries where more than one Jarl is present, thus enacting a second area majority showdown.  Players who fail to achieve a majority must remove their cubes from those areas, again adding them to their infamy cards.  Most of the neutral countries will contain plunder which the player who achieved superiority captures – lock, stock and barrel.  Plunder equals points.

Ah, plunder! That’s why we came, amirite?

Proving that the Norse are more than just bloodthirsty barbarians, you can also earn points by establishing trade.  If you managed control of both the Viking and Neutral kingdoms listed on a trade card in your possession, you may reveal it and earn the specified points at the end of the game.

After marching, pillaging and trading all cubes on the board are returned to each players’ supply.  Every influence card – played or not – is reshuffled to be dealt anew.  And a new round begins.  After three, the player with the most unused infamy earns a bonus based on his/her established trade routes.  The Jarl with the most points between plunder and trade wins.  Forget Valhalla.  You’re living in the now!

Don’t just be famous. Be IN-famous!

A Norse is a Norse, Of Course, Of Course

The purest area control game I know of is China (née Web of Power).  In that Michael Schacht classic, players simply use cards to place houses and emissaries in various regions with the aim of having the most pieces.  Saga of the Northmen plays similarly, is nearly as streamlined and, really, offers little new to the category.  El Grande perhaps made the mechanic most famous, while other titles in the last two decades have incorporated it in varying levels, layers and combinations with other elements to great effect.  But while not unique, this iteration eschews anything else for a minimalist approach which has its benefits.  Indeed, it’s even a stripped down version of the author’s previous freshman design Colonialism, utilizing the same dual majority resolution.

That double count is what Saga of the Northmen contributes to the genre and it’s the game’s heart.  In essence, it involves a rare long game – by which I mean a design where early actions don’t pay off until later – for such a short investment of time.  The entire rally phase is played solely to set up the genuine points rush in the marching phase.  There is literally no immediate benefit to actions in what amounts to half the game!

Rallying all these troops was a lot of work. But now it’s time to get down to the REAL task at hand!

Both parts are equally refreshing in their simplicity, and surprisingly rife with angst and confrontation.  On the surface, resolving influence cards seems dull and numbing.  Place the amount of cubes indicated in the specified region.  Add a plunder token, if necessary.  Draw a new one.  Indeed it would be tedious and repetitive, but for the design’s clever brevity.

Beneath that rote facade swirl a number of considerations: location, number and type of armies, proximity to plunder and trade opportunities – not to mention a standoff with your adversaries.  Gathering lots of troops in Rus with few cards is attractive, but they march very early it the second phase and are thus vulnerable to counter-marches from other kingdoms. Perhaps marshaling fewer forces with the Byzantines, who pillage later, would prove a wiser, more lucrative choice, when you can react to your opponents’ moves with the benefit of hindsight?

The random distribution of plunder will inform most of your choices during the rally phase, although such considerations evolve as play progresses and more are seeded to the board.  After all, these are the primary source of points and if you’re not in position to pillage them, it’s hard to be very Viking-like.  Coordinated with that is the type of influence cards you select to position your troops.  Mustering multiple armies of Normans to raid the Holy Roman Empire are worthless if most of the cards to get them there were ships.  You need soldiers to march into the landlocked empire.

This order of battles is quietly the most important thing on the board!

Then there are trade routes to weigh.  You can purchase more with infamy after each of the first two rounds.  Oftentimes, these may happily fall in line with your other aims – and not coincidentally the cards in your hand.  More often than not, you may need to target one or more regions solely for establishing that link.  This becomes a delicate balance as you can easily succumb to tunnel vision and over-commit in one area, leaving you sorely underrepresented elsewhere.  Or it might mean dedicating one or more troops to a neutral region with no value aside from what that trade route bestows.

Still, and finally, another matter is the marching order of each Viking kingdom.  This hierarchy impacts where and how you influence regions during the rally phase.  Again, amassing large formations in the early going jarldoms looks impressive as they invade the surrounding countryside, and even beyond.  However, later Jarls’ movements might quickly undo any leverage you managed to secure – or thought you had secured.  You can use infamy to delay one of your kindgom’s marching orders, but that tactic doesn’t always succeed as even that can be superseded by another with a similar stalling effort.

Rather than the standard placements, some influence cards add fun wrinkles.

All of those decision-bearing elements generate a surprisingly layered strategy game for it’s skeletally straight-forward rule-set, small footprint and snappy pace.  All worthy of its Euro label.  Interestingly, though, there are a couple of characteristics running starkly counter to at least the modern conception of the style.

First is randomness.  As the rally phase is wholly conducted to position yourself in the marching phase, card play is paramount.  So when your hand is invariably hampered by luck of the draw, it is glaring.  That might mean seeing very few cards representing regions you want to marshal the strongest majority.  Or perhaps one matching a lucrative trade route you possess.  Or it could be more subtle in that your influence cards just don’t allow you to place enough cubes.  Even more, maybe those troops are the wrong kind and you’re stacked with soldier cards, but really need some ships.  Often you will need to simply work with what you’ve got.  And while there are always options, to be sure, it’s not uncommon to settle for a sub-optimal move for the longer play.

Saga of the Northmen, true to its thematic adoption, also includes some sharp confrontation.  It’s certainly not a solitary affair of peaceful building.  The back-and-forth rally phase involves bluffing, misdirection and deduction.  It’s extremely calculating and just as tense, usually leaving you fuming when another Jarl one-ups you somewhere.  The marching phase is a hard-nosed, poker-style showdown of vying and brinkmanship.  It’s particularly nasty, because if you miscalculate, you lose the whole pot.  Here the pecking order can prove a considerable advantage for the later kingdoms, and hence the importance of accounting for that aspect during the previous phase.

Trading with Italy means acquiring their most lucrative of exports. Like spaghetti and meatballs!

In short, unlike many other area majority titles, second place is just first loser, which exacerbates the interaction’s consequences.  That said, you do get a little helpful something for your losses – infamy.  That currency can be used to add strength to your influence in the form of heroes, delay your kingdom’s normal marching order in hopes to gauge the lay of the land before committing forces, drawing new trade routes or keeping influence cards for the next round.  Used in the right situation, these can make a big difference.

You can dial down the astringent interaction by limiting a session to two.  However, the design hits its stride with three or four players very much because of that contentious personality.  In doing so, it suits its Viking setting admirably.  You certainly won’t feel the seawater misting your face, but it captures the Norse diaspora, recognizing the culture was neither monolithic nor always united, as well as bent on settling and trade just as much as raiding and pillaging.  Well, maybe not just as much.

Glad we brought Olaf along. He’ll break this tie!

If you like area control games, there are none more pure than Saga of the Northmen.  It proves you can stand out just a little by stressing the basics.  Because while it doesn’t add anything to area influence as a mechanism, its dual majority resolution does provide a unique experience that creates an anxious tautness and adds a layer of planning.  You must manipulate control of the first phase in order to press for real gains in the second.  All while deducing where your opponents are likely to build up in the former, in order to lay claim to plunder in the latter.  It moves briskly, with an overall length that’s just right, and really satiates an appetite for a quick, down-and-dirty, accessible area majority experience.  But fair warning.  All of those elements can lead to some stringent confrontation for a Euro.  So while you may not feel the Berserker rage rushing hot through your blood, you’ll be screaming, “Cube wall,” soon enough!

 

Minion Games provided a review copy of Saga of the Northmen for this review.

  • Rating 8.0
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Summary

Pros

Stripped down and streamlined
Brisk play really satisfies
Dual majority resolution creates depth
Trade routes add further planning
Infamy awards currency for losses

Cons

Luck of the draw can hamper moves
Biting interaction for a Euro

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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