Mention the name “Wolfgang Kramer” and you immediately have my attention. Many of my favorite games are designed by Herr Kramer, and his predilection for “meatier” games fits my tastes rather closely. Thus, I made it a point to seek out his new titles while at the Gathering. Although I found Saga initially confusing, I saw enough there to warrant another playing.
Set in a fantasy world (like about 1000 other games … ), Saga relives the struggle for power to control the kingdom. The Queen was forced to flee, and princes from various regions attempt to reclaim the lands of the Empire. Greed sets in, however, and each prince opts to pursue the throne for themselves. The struggle for power begins.
Each player represents one of the princes and possesses a deck of 12 cards representing their knights. Although each deck possesses different value and color combinations, they are apparently well balanced. Knights have values ranging from 1 – 4, and are color-coded to correspond with the six different kingdoms.
The six kingdom cards are displayed on the table, and two knights are dealt beside each one. These knights serve as the initial defensive forces of the castles. In order to seize control of a kingdom, a player must assemble a force of knights greater than the value of the corresponding kingdom’s defensive value.
A word about the kingdom cards is in order. Each kingdom provides one or two fame points to the player who controls it. In addition, several kingdoms provide additional powers, including the ability to retrieve a previously played card, laying an additional card into a defensive force or adding “1” to the kingdom’s defense. Finally, several kingdoms provide end-of-game bonuses to the player who currently controls it. Choosing which kingdoms to pursue and at what times during the game are vital decisions.
Several steps are followed by a player each turn:
1) Receive Fame Points. This is equal to the amount listed on each kingdom currently under his control.
2) Play a Knight card. The player MUST play a night card into one of his attacking forces, or begin a new force. These are the forces that will be attacking kingdoms, whether neutral or owned by an opponent.
To play a knight card, certain rules must be observed:
a) To begin assaulting a particular kingdom, the first card in a force must be a knight of the matching color. So, if a player is planning to attack the purple kingdom, the first knight he lays for that force must be a purple knight.
b) If a player adds a knight to an existing force, it must be of a DIFFERENT color than every other knight currently in that force.
3) Conquer a Kingdom. If a player builds a force that is of greater value than the defending force of the corresponding kingdom, the player takes that kingdom from the center of the table, or from the current owner. He places that kingdom above the conquering force, and that force now becomes its defenders. If the conquered kingdom was owned by an opponent, any knights he had defending that castle are returned to that player’s hand. If the kingdom was in the center of the table, the defending knights become available to be recruited by the players.
4) Enlist a Free Knight. If there are knights in the center of the table that are not defending a kingdom, the player MAY take one into his hand. Although this is tempting, this is not always a wise thing to do. You see, the game ends as soon as one player plays his last knight card. The value of any cards remaining in each player’s hands are subtracted from his total at the end of the game. This can be devastating. So, one must carefully weigh the potential consequences when deciding on whether to enlist a new knight or not.
Play continues in this fashion until one player depletes his hand of knights. Players then tally points, earning them as follows:
· The total value of fame chips possessed
· Each owned kingdom is worth an amount of points equal to its defending force
· Bonuses derived from owning certain kingdoms
· Each knight card remaining in a player’s hand is worth negative points equal to its value
The player with the most overall fame points seizes the throne and rules the kingdom.
Kingdoms will usually change hands several times during the course of the game. However, with each subsequent seizure, the new defending force is stronger than the previous one. This makes it more difficult to conquer. Eventually, it will become impossible for a kingdom to fall, as players will have numerous cards already committed to other attack forces and/or the combination of cards required is impossible to assemble. This makes the proper timing of conquests a critical aspect of the game.
Players need to conquer kingdoms reasonably early in order to enjoy the fame point income, but also have to make sure they don’t over-commit their knights in numerous attack forces lest they be unable to grab a strongly defended kingdom. Keeping one’s options open is important. Further, a player should try to be in a position to grab the more valuable kingdoms late in the game when it is possible to hold on to them at the game’s conclusion.
Further, one should guard against losing a kingdom late in the game. This forces all the knights defending that kingdom back into the player’s hand. If another player depletes his hand of knights quickly thereafter, you will be stuck with a handful of knights, devastating your final score. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.
Another common mistake seems to be playing several knights into a force in an attempt to conquer a kingdom, only to discover that it is impossible to assemble a strong enough force to succeed. Thus, all of those knights are wasted for the remainder of the game. Ouch.
So, is the game a good one? Hmmm … I haven’t really decided just yet. After two playings, I’m still interested and trying hard to learn the proper timing required to play it well. I feel I performed better in my second playing, but was still caught with my castle doors open and was slammed at the end of the game, losing a kingdom on the final turn and suffering tremendous amounts of negative points.
There certainly can be a high level of frustration, as there is little you can do to protect a kingdom once you conquer it. The only real defense is conquering it late with a strong attacking force so that it will be formidably defended. Again, though, proper planning and timing are the keys.
The game hasn’t filled me with excitement, but I continue to think about it and want to try it again, feeling that I need to learn more about it and try to get better. So, for now, it will continue to get played. I’m hoping that I do get better, but not so good that the game will lose its appeal. Of course, the idea of me getting that good at a game is quite ludicrous!