Wednesday, March 21, 2012

SAGA - A Gripping Miniatures Game

Ho-HO! Enjoy that pun in the title? No? What if I told you that the name of the company that produces SAGA is Gripping Beast; get it? Still no? To Niflhel with you!

SAGA rulebook
SAGA is a historical miniatures game wherein you play one of the various factions vying for glory and conquest in Dark Ages Britain: Vikings, Anglo-Danes, Normans, and Welsh. It's produced by Gripping Beast, but it's being written by this firm called Tomahawk Studios, which, I believe, is French. They've announced a supplement called Northern Fury, which will introduce the Anglo-Saxons, the Breton, the Scots, and the Jomsvikings.

Historical wargames are something I've just recently started playing. I started with Flames of War, and have been peeking at the Warlord Games games: Hail Caesar, and Black Powder. Previously my problem with historical wargames had been the disassociation with any regulation in scale, rules, or miniatures ranges. If I wanted to play a Viking skirmish game, I'd have to first decide on a scale, then find a ruleset (these two steps could also be reversed), then I'd have to find a miniatures range, and get people to play with me. Flames of War was the first to introduce me to a very Games Workshop model of marketing a hobby involving historical wargames. I had my miniatures, my rules, and they worked perfectly together. I know very little about the specific details of militaria (in any era/war), but with these games I don't have to. Now, thankfully, SAGA has joined these ranks.

To any heavy metal fan, SAGA seems like a no-brainer. A miniatures game involving Dark Age warriors slamming into each other with spear and shield, and performing heroic feats, all while retaining an (albeit slightly abstracted) historical authenticity should bring forth the legions of Amon Amarth-clad longhairs gripping paint brushes and fistfuls of dice. Though my hair be short, I too jumped at the chance to command heathen Vikings o'er the soggy moors of pre-Blighty Blighty.

Enough exposition, let's row our long ships to the game itself.

SAGA is super-easy to learn, and it's got one of the most unique mechanics I've seen in wargaming: the Battle Board. At the beginning of your turn, you roll a number of dice equal to the number of groups (or units) of warriors, or hearthguard (elite warriors) you have. Then you add two more for your Warlord, up to a total of 6. These dice are pip less, and instead contain certain symbols depending on the faction you're commanding. My vikings have Fehu as the 1, 2, & 3; Berkana as the 4 & 5; and Eihwaz as the 6. These symbols are then placed on the Battle Board corresponding to the various actions and abilities you can do.  For instance any of the symbols can be expended to activate a Hirdmen (hearthguard), Bondi (warriors), or Thrall (levy) unit, or even the Warlord (who gets one free activation a turn). They can also be expended to do things like roll extra dice, add attack dice at the cost of armor reduction (Heimdal), or reduce all enemy's armor values by one for the whole turn (an umlaut less Ragnarok). Most abilities can only be used once per turn, but others can be used as many times as you have dice to activate them with.

Viking Dice showing all three different symbols.
Though I'm in love with massive, large-scale, wargames, SAGA uses as few as 25 or as many as 73 models for a 6-point warband (your average warband). The majority of my gaming group have been playing with just the pre-built starter kits, which total up to 4 points, but we've taken to this game so hard that we're already looking to expand. You buy your army in 1-point increments. Spending 1 point on your army will buy you 4 Hearthguard, or 8 Warriors, or 12 Levies (your Warlord is free). Now, just because you buy 12 Levies does not mean that these commoners have to run around in a big mob (though it might be better if they did), units can be as small as 4 models or as big as 12. You only get a maximum of 6 SAGA dice (the activation dice I mentioned in the last paragraph), so it might still be a good idea to throw your units into bigger mobs to make sure that all your units (or most of them) are moving and activating in a turn.

4-point Viking warband
To talk a bit about the troop designations themselves: Your Warlord is a big boss; he's you. You command your warband, you get five dice in close combat, you need two wounds in one attack to die, and there's only one of you. Your Hearthguard are your elite units. The Vikings may call them Hirdmen, the Danes may refer to them as Huscarls, the Welsh name them Teulu, but the Normans dub thee Knights. They get two dice in combat, they're harder to kill, and they can be mounted (Normans), or become fur-clad bezerkers (Vikings). The Warriors are known as Bondi by Vikings, Ceorls by Danes, Priodaur by the Welsh, and Sergeants by the Normans. They are your basic warrior. They're easier to kill, only have one die each in combat, but are the mainstay of your forces. The Levies are the commoners; the Peasants (Normans) if you will, or the Thralls (Vikings), Geburs (Danes), or Bonnedig (Welsh). They never generate SAGA dice, they're the easiest to kill, and they only get one combat die for every three models you have in base contact with an enemy. However, there's a ton of 'em, and they are often armed with missile weapons. In fact, unless you're a Norman Warlord and you've given your Sergeants crossbows, they're the only missile weapons you can have in the army.

Combat is also very well-done, representing the defense and push of a group of warriors, while not worrying about what every soldier is armed with, or what each individual one is doing. You total up your dice, and then decide if you're going to stick any of these in defense. Defense pretty much gives you extra dice to throw to resist wounds. You throw a number of dice equal to the number of wounds your opponent caused plus any you stuck in defense in order to "save" and avoid damage. Every success negates a wound. If you decide to play cautiously, you must reduce your attack pool by half (rounding up). For every two dice removed in this manner you get one extra "save" (again, rounding up). This led to a bit of confusion amongst my math-ignored group of gamers, but once you get the hang of it, you're golden!

Game in progress... Though not from my group.

The score required to hit your opponent is determined by their rank in the army, and the saving value is just a 5+, regardless of what you are. Each wound received removes a figure, unless you're a Warlord in which case you need to suffer 2 wounds before you're gone. 1 does nothing (isn't even carried over), and 0 is worse than 1. 3 is pretty good, though.

Alright, enough of that. How did the game actually play out? Excitingly. The Battle Boards give the game a tactical nuance that many "skirmish" games lack. Often, you'll find your skirmish games becoming big scrums in the middle of the board, but with the Battle Boards, your maneuvering becomes more important. You can activate units more than once (though at the cost of adding fatigue counters to the units (which suck)) so how do you position your units to maximize the kerrunch the enemy will feel? Far from creating a boring jockey for position, the Battle Board also gives you special abilities that will help your defenses or your attacks. Each Battle Board is vastly different from each other, as well. The Viking one is very aggressive, giving you extra rounds of combat, or more attacks at the cost of armor, while the Anglo-Danish give you some great maneuverability and versatility in terms of how to use some extra dice you may get.

The game also contains mercenaries and special characters, like the Flemish, pictured here.
Combat is also not a sure thing. The nature of the game is to get into face-smashing range, and hail axes upon your enemies like the frozen rain of the north, but you can't just run in there with no dice on your board. Your enemies might stick their attack dice into their defense and reduce your Valhalla-sending abilities, or they might still have dice on their Battle Board that could activate a reactive special ability, thus luring you into a trap.

Like the aforementioned Flames of War, SAGA comes complete with a pretty big range of figures from Gripping Beast. Because the units are so generic, you can organize almost anything into the various types of the game. Only having to worry about levies, warriors, and hearthguard make it so that you don't have to worry about what type of Hearthguard-looking models you'll need (unless you want to, which is totally cool, and historically nerdy!), just that they look beefy, and are well-armored.

Viking SAGA Battle Board
Now, of course, every game has its bugbears (or j├Âtnar), and this one is no exception. Though my only complaints come from the learning curve of the game, and the speed at which the game travels if you haven't reached the apex of that learning curve. There are a lot of abilities, and you really have to study your Battle Board to get a hang of things. My first game involved me (already with some models) picking up the book, giving it a skim, and throwing down. My first couple turns had longer than average Orders Phase, and at that, I probably only used a quarter of the 15 different spaces on my board. There are also a lot of numbers flying around (though no real math like in games of Warmachine, which is real nice), and a few of those numbers are halved. And why can't gamers remember if halved numbers should be rounded up or down? I think every game designer should have a conference in Geneva and determine whether games (of any kind) will forever round their numbers up or down! In this one they're rounded up, but still...

There you have it! My complaints become null once you get the hang of the game, but even then, this game was ridiculously fun. It's historical in the bigger picture, but it doesn't weigh the game down with pedantry. After only a few skirmishes, this game has placed in my top 10 miniatures games (as you can see to your right), and with good reason. I can't wait to see what kind of campaign material comes out of this system, or even if they go ahead and do a mass-combat variation or (dare I say it?) add fantasy elements. Oh boy! My ax hand quivers with excitement!

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1 comment:

R.S. Tilton said...

Agreed, I got to play it at Gateway 2013, and had a blast, it was my first time playing it, Welsh pin-cushioned the Anglo-Dane Warlord!!! Cymru!!!