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The Genius of Blood Rage (It’s Not What You Think)

Anthony Faber
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No one would deny that Blood Rage has been one of the most successful strategy games of the last few years.

From being nominated and winning countless awards, including winning the Dice Tower Strategy Game of the Year, and becoming the first ‘dudes on a map’ style game to be a Kennerspiel recommended game, to reaching the #18 game of all time on Boardgamegeek, the highest rated of any game designed by the acclaimed Eric Lang, it’s becoming clear that Blood Rage is one of the most outstanding and acclaimed multiplayer conflict games ever released.

I’m here to say that while many different reasons have been given for the success of Blood Rage, most of them have nothing to with what makes Blood Rage a major step forward in conflict board gaming.

Supporters of Blood Rage point to the seamless marriage of euro mechanics to an Ameritrash theme – the innovative, three round card draft, which leads to diceless card combat, the open play experience, with asymmetry provided by player chosen upgrades rather than fixed, asymmetrical factions, and the smooth, well tested gameplay which leads to short turns and an easy to jump into game.

They will of course also tell you that the game looks fantastic.

While all of these things are true, none of these things are revolutionary. Cyclades and Kemet have innovative euro mechanics, such as Cyclades god auction or Kemet’s card combat and upgrades, and both of those games have a cool theme and look great too.

Cynics and detractors, while relatively few in number, focus on the superficial: fantastic miniatures + popular Viking theme + popular star designer = win!

And while these things have helped Blood Rage be a commercial success, obviously none of them point to any innovation or genius. In fact, even most of those who love Blood Rage point to it being an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary game. I’m here to argue otherwise.

Blood Rage is a revolutionary multiplayer conflict game because it deliberately sets out to solve all the common issues that these kinds of games usually have, and does so in each and every case.

Let’s look at the things that often happen in multiplayer conflict games which can lead to less than ideal play experiences.

The Issues:

Ganging Up

This is the biggest core issue that these games face. Two or more players can simply decide to destroy or cripple another player, and because they will have double or more the resources of the other player, there is little that player can do to be eliminated or (worse) effectively eliminated. Most of the other issues I’ll mention below either are related to ganging up, or represent a particular form of it.
Note: some players fully enjoy the negotiations, backstabbing, etc. which can lead to gang-ups – my point here isn’t to argue that this is bad, but that it leads to a different sort of game (Cosmic Encounter, say) – one decided by negotiation rather than tactical and strategic skill. And when you are playing a game of battles and killing, many people would rather the outcome be decided by the latter (tactics and strategy) rather than the former (diplomacy).

Player Elimination

Having a player removed from the game long before its ending is rightly considered bad modern game design. Although we can look back fondly on those games of Risk that went on for 8 hours where many people were destroyed in the first couple of hours, those 6 hours of downtime for the early loser can fairly be called a terrible play experience.
While modern conflict games don’t generally last 8 hours, and while complete player elimination is now thankfully rare in these games, effective player elimination still happens, which I define as being put in a position of knowing you have no shot to win long before the game ends. This is generally not fun, and can be the result of an early gang-up by other players.

Bash the Leader

This is a particular form of gang up that happens when players see that one person is going to win the game unless they game up on them. That player is then smashed down by the other players. In certain games, this can happen multiple times as one player looks to fulfill the one condition and everyone else smacks them down, until one person manages to sneak across the finish line before everyone has time to stop them. This can be an unsatisfying play experience for a few different reasons.

For the player who got out in the lead, it feels like their good play was completely wasted – in fact, they might end up thinking they should have intentionally played worse, lurked in second place, and then jumped forward when everyone bashed the first player.

For everyone involved, it can make the first part of the game seem trivial – all that effort expended wasn’t that important since the players bash outliers into relative equality, and that what really matters is to be the one who lucks across the finish line unnoticed – I use the word ‘luck’ deliberately, since the overall problem with ‘bash the leader’ games is that it can make the winner of the game seem arbitrary rather a matter of skill or strategy.

In Cyclades, that arbitrary luck can take the form of getting the Pegasus – whoever gets that card often can’t be stopped from getting their last objective, while others who are close before them are bashed down.

In Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Trachery, players about to win will be the subject of vicious cardplay that knocks the leader down until someone can move forward when others don’t have the cards to stop them.

Runaway Leaders

The opposite of the ‘bash the leader’ issue is the 'runaway leader' problem. Here, the person who gets out to an early lead can’t be stopped, and while you could say that the best player usually wins, it’s very dull for all involved if the winner is effectively decided early on – you could say it actually represents a form of the player elimination problem if all but one of the players are effectively eliminated from contention long before the end.

The One Who Doesn’t Fight Wins

Sometimes the winner in a multiplayer conflict game is the person who avoids conflict most of the game, lets the other players weaken each other in battles, and then triumphs anti-climatically by walking in with an unstoppable force at the end.

I consider this to be the worst issue of all that I have mentioned when it occurs, since it rewards the player who does the least of what the game is about, fighting, and encourages people to play the game in exactly the opposite way from the reason they want to play in the first place (to battle).

This would often happen in older games like Risk or Samurai Swords, where the winner just stayed out of the way until the endgame. It can also lead to ridiculously long games where no one wants to attack someone else and weaken themselves.

One Path to Victory

While the tactics and strategy of multiplayer conflict games can be very fun, most of them have more limited goals than a typical eurogame: you are attempting to destroy and conquer, and that’s mostly it. While this isn’t inherently a problem, it can exacerbate some of the issues above, since the path to victory is so direct and it’s so clear who’s winning or losing.

Mechanisms that Solve the Problems

Let’s examine the specific game mechanisms which reduce these issues in Blood Rage.

The Loki Strategy

The Loki strategy and its associated mechanisms – actually getting rewarded for losing troops and battles – is the most revolutionary piece of the game, and the one that subverts the traditional problems with multiplayer conflict games.

Let’s look at how this happens. Obviously, it’s hard to gang up on someone if beating them might be exactly what they want to have happen. The word ‘might’ is critical here – often you don’t know whether the other player is using a Loki strategy overall or in a particular battle, as most of the Loki cards get played after the fact.

For instance, the savvy player won’t play their upgrade getting rewards for troops getting killed until after they already have a bunch of troops in Valhalla, and they won’t play the Valhalla quest until late in the round as well. You won’t know if the player is using a Loki battle card that steals rage or battle cards or what have you until it’s actually played. You will see a player use a ship upgrade that grants them points, since that needs to be on the table before they can benefit from it, and you will see players move into the next province to be destroyed during Ragnarok, although a smart player won’t play the double points for Ragnarok upgrade until late in a round.

So by often not being clear on whether another player wants to be beaten or not, it’s hard to determine how to beat them, which makes team-ups very difficult.

Another effect of potential Loki strategies is to have more players be interested in fighting. In most conflict games, the person interested in fighting is the person who thinks they will win. In Blood Rage, the outcome of the battle may not be in doubt, but both players want it to occur because they both benefit – one from winning and one from losing. This helps deal with the ‘one who fights least wins’ issue – Loki strategies add battle incentives where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

Finally, Loki strategies hugely expand the possible paths to victory usually found in such a game. Players can mix and match wanting to win and lose certain battles – wanting to win territories but die in Ragnarok, for instance, and add wild complications to the big epic battles in Yggdrasil. Not only is the giant battle in center with many players more likely to happen with Loki strategies involved, leading to more fun for everyone, but the outcome of it won’t be as clearcut as it would otherwise be, as there may be multiple winners and losers in such a contest, which again helps reduce runaway leaders and the clear need to bash someone down.

Losing a Combat Card Only When You Win

This is an often overlooked bit of cleverness in the game, one that drastically reduces the ability of one player to run away with the game militarily in a given round. Sooner or later, a victor runs out of cards and is likely to be beaten. This adds balance, makes it harder for a runaway leader to run away, and yet harder to severely bash a person down as well.

Bountiful Rewards for Fighting

In addition to the Loki rewards for losing, there are tons of incentives to battle in Blood Rage. Winning battles gives you points, pillaging areas gives you vital upgrades and endgame points, and preventing pillaging denies the same to your opponents. Finally, combat gives you control of areas for quests or denies the same to your opponents.

All of this makes it very hard to be the person who wins by avoiding combat – if that’s happened, then the players have usually let it happen.

Combat Only Happens Through Pillaging

This is another overlooked reason for the game’s greatness. By disallowing direct attack on other player’s pieces, it removes much of the leader bashing and team-ups which can reduce the fun in other conflict games. At the same time, the game greatly encourages combats for the rewards mentioned above, so there will be plenty of fighting, since that what players are there for, but you can’t do it in such a directed way that it becomes a negotiation game rather than a strategy game.

Escalating Rewards and Powers from Round to Round

One thing that’s obvious to players in their first game of Blood Rage is that everything is more powerful and is worth more points in each round. The points per quest doubles by the end of the game; the Ragnarok rewards and Loki rewards are multiplied, battle rewards are multiplied as you go up your track; powerful point scoring combos (see below) like Odin’s Throne and destroying your troops to raise your clan stats appear, the monsters get better, etc., etc.

This not only helps in the dramatic arc of the game, but it also reduces the runaway leader potential in that the points scored in the later rounds tends to be much greater than those scored in the first round. There’s a lot of catchup potential in the huge last age scoring.

Victory Point Scoring with No Set Goal

What I mean by this is that the game ends at the end of the third age, not when a player reaches a set number of victory points or objectives.
Winning by reaching a set number of points or objectives helps trigger bash the leader discussions in games like Cyclades, Spartacus and Kemet, when someone says ‘Hey! So and so needs only one more point to win!’ and then everyone is trying to figure out how to prevent that. By having the game end with a round timer rather than a set point total, this is greatly reduced.

Degenerate Point Scoring Combos

This may be a controversial claim, as there are people who don’t like some of the degenerate card combination possibilities, particularly in the third age, but I see this as an intentional brilliancy which helps stop runaway leader problems.

Whether it’s Odin’s Throne combined with four quests, or getting 12 points per destroyed per ship, destroying them to raise your clan stats and get the points, reinvading your ships from Valhalla, and then doing it all over again, or leaders repillaging Yggdrasil again and again, there are quite a few ways to make an impressive comeback in Blood Rage, which I see as almost entirely a good thing. None of these combos are that easy – they all require certain cards and a certain freedom on the board to do your thing – they at least give the potential of winning to a player who is far down on points going into the last age.

The Card Draft Itself

The card draft and the all the quests and upgrades contained therein help give the players the freedom to pursue a variety of different paths to victory. As we’ve seen, it’s the existence of only one path to victory which often funnels players into the gang ups or runaways which make these kinds of games less fun.

In Conclusion

I hope I’ve been able to make a strong case for why almost every key mechanism in Blood Rage serves to reduce the problems that can crop up in multi-player conflict games, most of which revolve around combat and/or rewards that are arbitrary or unfair.

The mechanics of Blood Rage encourage a ton of combat, but they do it in a ‘fair’ way, in that multiple players tend to benefit, and there are future opportunities to recover.

Before I finish I’ll address one possible objection to my thesis which I’ve seen expressed from time to time – that Blood Rage often has people win or lose by large numbers, and that can come from the board control players carry over from age to age.

While it can happen that players multiply advantages through the course of the game, part of the issue I’ve seen is that the game is so skill based that players who are winning win even more in the late rounds because they simply know exactly what they are doing – there are a lot of skill plays in the late rounds that new players won’t be able to make that can lead to crushing victories. This is definitely a game where experienced players will often demolish newer ones until they figure out the cards and the game.

And even when one player has a strong board advantage and point lead going into the last age, it rarely prevents a player from pursuing their own strategy for a lot of points to go for. Unlike some games where when you are losing late there’s almost nothing to do, there’s almost always something to do, a battle you can fight, a combo you can go for, in the last age of Blood Rage.

Thanks for reading!

Tony

Final note: I'm aware that serious fans of the game might consider much of what I wrote to be obvious - this is intended more as a rebuttal to those who see the game as successful for mostly superficial reasons, or who see the game as simply a well-refined evolution of previous games.
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