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Homo Ludens
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St. Albert
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PLEASE NOTE: MANY OF THE PICTURES IN THIS REVIEW WERE DELETED BY THE USER WHO POSTED THEM -- SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. I WILL TRY TO REPLACE THEM WHEN I GET A CHANCE.

Introduction

Vikings has generally not had too much press. Even though it sits ranked at number 132 it's not talked about all that much. And I think it deserves a better reputation. In this review I'd like to share why I think this is a great game, and a gem that should hit your table on a regular basis.

Before I start I should direct your attention to the following review: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/198930. This is probably the most succinct and well-written (not to mention favourable) review at the moment, and I can only hope to add to its commentary.

Introduction

What you do get in my review(s), is pictures, and here is the first!



So that's what you get in the box, and it doesn't look that impressive at first sight, but when you look a little closer you notice that all the tiles are made from thick cardboard, that the Viking meeples (aka Veeples) have nice colours and neat little horned helmets (or whatever they are), that the board has a cool spinning wheel that operates quite smoothly, and that the box insert is a dream come true for people who like to stack their tiles. Here are a few pictures:

 


 




Go ahead, give these pictures some thumbs up. I'm too lazy to list the photographers, but you can give credit where credit is due.

I have no complaints about the components, except perhaps one minor gripe. Stacking all the tiles every game gets a bit fiddly and it may have been smarter just to include a second cloth bag to put them in and draw them from. Oh well, it's not really a big deal.

The Big Idea

Let me give you the condensed version first. You are a bunch of Vikings. Each of you has a clan to settle on new islands. So you auction of pieces of real estate and create yourself a nice archipelago (I've wanted to use that word for a while now!). Okay, you're probably sensing that the theme is a bit whacky, and indeed, most of the negative comments about this game are to do with the theme. We'll get to that later. Not only do you auction off real estate, but you can even buy Vikings. Surprisingly I haven't seen the kinds of complaints about slavery that one sees with Puerto Rico. But maybe it's more of a work agreement. In any case, when you've bought your land and your Viking you place them before you and build yourself a nice map. Then you keep taking turns at the auction wheel. Every so often you score points for your placements, and guess what, the person with the most points wins the game! I always love it when they explain that to you in the rules.

The Rules in More Detail

You can skip this section if you like. It's dreadfully boring, and if you're like me you buy the game based on flashy rhetoric and looks anyway. On the other hand, if you like to tell your significant other that you've "done the research" before you spend the money, read on.

Alright, have a look at this picture:



You'll notice that the auction wheel goes up to eleven. When you draw the 12 tiles to be auctioned off you'll notice that there are land pieces and there are ships. The ships represent other Vikings (bad ones) who try to come by and plunder your fertile lands. Apparently the Franks and Anglo-Saxons have no money left and the Vikings are now raiding themselves.

When you draw the tiles for the round you place the ships starting from the 11 value and going down from there, and the land tiles starting from the 0 and moving up from there. You also draw 12 Vikings from the bag. These come in a variety of colours. Lowest on the auction wheel (and thus cheapest) are the fishermen (blue); most expensive are the boatsmen (grey). The other ones are warriors (black), noblemen (red), scouts (green) and goldsmiths (yellow).

What are these Vikings good for? Well, the fishermen allow you to feed your Viking population at the end of the game (for which you gain or lose points in the final round depending on how many you have). The goldsmiths will earn you money during the game, and you need money (especially after your initial amount is gone) to buy tiles. The scouts and nobleman score victory points (we'll leave out the details). The warriors can defend your islands from other Viking ships.

Okay, now have a look at this mid-game picture:

 


Each player has one of these L-shaped starting pieces (on the left and top of the tiles) that shows his starting base. To place tiles that you've bought they need to touch the base or another tiles on at least one side. It's as simple as that. However, if you want to place the Viking that you get with it, you need to place it on that tile or on the top left corner of the base, where the boatsmen reside (check out the picture of the man and his canoe). But there's another rule: Vikings may only be placed on their tile if they match the colour of that row – so they need to match the dudes depicted on the left side of the base.

The result is that when you buy a tile you have a choice. You can put the Viking on the tile, or if it doesn't fit in the right row, or you need it elsewhere, you can place it in a different row and put the Viking with the boatsmen. If you get a boatsman with your tile you automatically place it on the top left of your base.

Okay, now if you're forced to buy a ship that's not such a bad thing, because they will earn you victory points or money, but only if you have a warrior placed right below them. In the picture above the player will earn five dollars during Big Scoring (we'll get to that) from his warrior, but the blue ship threatens everything in the row beneath all the way down to the blue row (thus the colour of the ship). This means that Vikings placed underneath are useless until a warrior can protect them.

Now, let's go back to the auction wheel for a moment. The trick is that you're never allowed to buy the 0 value tile/Viking, until all the other Vikings that share a colour have been bought. So let's say there are blue Vikings on tiles 0, 1, and 2. Only when tiles 1 and 2 are gone can tile 0 be bought. Then the wheel will move up to tile 3 (if it's still left), which would likely be a goldsmith, and then that tile has a value of 0 and the same rules apply. This is one of the neatest mechanisms of the game, and while it stinks thematically it works amazingly well.

Last thing is SCORING.

After rounds 1, 3, and 5, players collect income from how many goldsmiths they have that are not threatened by Viking ships.

After rounds 2, 4, and 6, players do BIG SCORING. First they have a chance to use their boatsmen to carry Vikings from their base to open islands in their display, provided they are placed in the right row. The rule here is that you can either use a boatsman to ferry across as many Vikings of one colour as you like (e.g., 2 warriors), or to do one of each colour (let's say, a fisherman, a goldsmith, and a nobleman). This rule reminds me a bit of Thurn and Taxis, when you complete routes in the provinces. In any case, when your boatsman has done his job he's out of the game. After that the various rows are scored, more gold is made by the goldsmiths, and so on.

After the final round a Final Scoring also takes place. Whoever has the most boatsmen left gets 10 points, whoever has the longest island gets 5 points, whoever has the most gets 7, for every 5 coins you get 1 victory point and, as mentioned you get or lose points for your fishermen depending on how well fed your population is.

You'll note by the way that there's a symbol for each of these scoring rounds printed on each of the six boxes on the board where the tiles are initially stacked:

 


That's about it for the rules, although you'll have to buy the game if you really want to get the nuts and bolts.

Strengths and Weaknesses.

Let me list the criticisms of this game and then post my response to each of them.

1. First of all, there is the problem of Theme. In this regard the picture on the front of the box can be somewhat misleading. Here it is:

 


These Vikings are donned in their finest battle gear, and so the picture may give the impression that the game is about raiding and pillaging. It is not, and the correct interpretation of the cover is probably that these Vikings are discovering new land (e.g., Greenland), thus the landing scene.

Nevertheless, the common lament of bad theming is understandable. As one of the people who rates the game a 5 suggests, the game "should be called Norse Accountants instead of Vikings." Still, when I put aside the notion of an auction for land (which to me is just a mechanism to make the game tick), I have no problem enjoying the theme of exploration. When all six rounds are done the result is really quite pleasant to look at (not to mention colourful), and the entire display presents a nice picture of newfound islands. And we often forget that this is one of the hallmarks of Viking activity. The following comment from Juan from Spain (who rates the game a 5) therefore seems a bit rash: "Mmm... This game is about vikings?? Are you sure?? Perhaps the last game I play with the most paste-theme."

In addition, I also like the little pictures of halls and buildings on the islands, some of which match what I know of Viking architecture quite nicely. We won't say anything about the portrayal of horns on Viking helmets however…

2. The second problem that is commonly mentioned is what is called "Randomness." Here's what the honourable Scott Nicholson has to say: "It seemed that a lot hinged upon what Vikings came out when. Players, simply because of where they sat, could find themselves denied of important things because of the constraining rules on the purchase of Vikings." I'm not sure what he means by "constraining" since you can buy from anywhere around the wheel (if you have enough money), and if you get the wrong Viking you can just ferry him (or her!) over with a boatsman. However, his sentiment is a common one, as a second quotation further demonstrates: "This is a typical 'you plan but luck decides' strategy game."

I guess there is some truth to the complaint. Particularly in a four player game you are only going to get 3 tiles per round. For that reason I slightly prefer the 2 and 3 player games, where you get 4 and 6 tiles respectively per round. The two player game probably gives you the most control, but I should say that I like the anxiety of wondering whether I will get the one tile that I really need to help me out in the final round. Moreover, the randomness is mitigated by the fact that you know roughly how many Vikings of each colour are left in the bag (even though there are 6 extra ones to prevent complete knowledge), and you know the turn order, so you can start planning for the last round well in advance.

And that is exactly what is so great about this game – that you need to plan ahead. You need to develop your islands in such a way that you have late-game options, so that you can incorporate beginning, middle, and end island pieces in your display. I have seen it more than once where a player only has room for pieces that start new islands and the wheel offers up mostly middle or end pieces. That is a risk YOU take, not one that the game forces on you. The other thing is that the game does not allow you to spend your money frivolously, which to me is a good thing. In that sense it has some similarities with a game like St. Petersburg, where you can spend big one turn but you may pay for it later.

So to sum up, you have a lot of control over how the randomness inherent in the game affects you (paradoxically), and this is a good kind of randomness, where you usually have some way of making the best out of the situation, where you have tough choices to make, and where there is a suspense and anxiety that pushes the game to its conclusion.

3. Analysis Paralysis. This game, the critics say, is "very prone to AP." Once again, there is some truth to that. Conversely, it's a sign that there are many difficult decisions to be made. I'm sometimes prone to AP, but what I usually do (and suggest) is to think through things quickly by making some rough calculations, and then go with what FEELS best. You don't have to consider every last detail to make a relatively informed decision. When players do this (and with more play there is less bewilderment) the game moves quite quickly and can easily be finished in an hour.

4. No Player Interaction. As one person describes the game: "A deception. Almost no player interaction, majority of decisions are trivial." This one I just don't understand. In an auction there's always interaction. Sure, you can't go off and pillage someone else's land, but you can go play another game afterwards and do that. Moreover, you can certainly screw people over by taking the exact tile they need or by forcing them to buy more expensive tiles than they might wish. On the other hand, the fact that each player does not have to worry about other players wrecking what they've created is something refreshing once in a while. It is certainly something my wife really enjoys, and is I think one of the things that makes this one of her favourite games.

Some additional thoughts.

It seems to me that some of the complaints about the game also arise from bad play or inexperience with the game. Consider for instance the following comment: "It's easy to get hosed on income when you can't get any yellow Vikings early in the game and then it's nearly impossible to dig out of that hole. You can trade VP's for gold but that's little help. I think a base level of income each round with a *bonus* for yellow Vikings would fix that problem." You only get hosed on income if you are a big spender. You start with quite a bit of money actually, so you won't need to buy a goldsmith right away. Moreover, if you invest in goldsmiths you may be missing out in points elsewhere. And then there's the fact that you can also make money by repelling ships with your warriors. In fact while I've often seen people very poor in the game, I've never seen anyone lose the game by a long shot because they lacked money.

Here's a similar complaint that suggests a lack of experience: "It was *very* brutal and unforgiving. One player was out of the running by the second round. I fell out of the running by about the fourth round." How can you be out of the running by the second round? You will hardly have scored any points by then.

Another complaint is to mention that too much of the scoring occurs in the final round. Strictly speaking, there's only some extra scoring, but even so, the fact is that the additional scoring adds some depth to the game. New players usually don't plan much for the final scoring. In a somewhat perfunctory manner they will add up the number of islands and figure out who's got the longest island, usually with an expression of gleeful surprise or a shrug of the shoulders. Experienced players will start competing for the boatsmen race, longest island, and most islands in advance. They will be watching their competitors to see if they need to invest energy in adding tiles or if they should conserve their boatsmen rather than use them to ferry people across. Determined strategies on either front will mean sacrifices (for instance playing a tile for the longest island rather than for the Viking), and that's a good thing, because it makes things more interesting.

Conclusion.

All in all, then, this game is great because there are so many interesting decisions to be made. And this is just the basic version of the game. Did I tell you that there's also an Advanced Version, and it's even included in the box itself? Yes sir, talk about getting game for your buck (no puns intended)! There are extra tiles, new rules, additional complexities...

 

(extra tiles)

We've only just starting playing with the "Progress Version" (talk about an unfortunate name in a game about Vikings!), although we skip the optional rules about auctioning off turn order. So after at least a dozen or more games, we still have new places to discover...
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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cvandyk wrote:
No Player Interaction

Whoever says this, hasn't been paying attention!
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Andrew Swan
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cvandyk wrote:
the Viking meeples (aka Veeples) have nice colours and neat little horned helmets (or whatever they are)

They're actually little Jamiroquais:
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Michael Denman
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cvandyk wrote:
1. Nevertheless, the common lament of bad theming is understandable.


Yeah, the theme doesn't work so great, but I really don't care with this game. I've yet to play with anyone who's grumbled about the theme.

Quote:
2. The second problem that is commonly mentioned is what is called "Randomness."


There is a bit of that. The game plays fast enough though that the level of randomness doesn't have time to bother me. Money overcomes any randomness and as you said, PLAN AHEAD. Don't just assume you'll be picking up all of the fishermen you need on the last turn.

Quote:
3. Analysis Paralysis. This game, the critics say, is "very prone to AP." Once again, there is some truth to that. Conversely, it's a sign that there are many difficult decisions to be made.


AP? I have seen next to none of that. Most players seem to know the island/viking pair they want before it gets to their turn.

Quote:
4. No Player Interaction. As one person describes the game: "A deception. Almost no player interaction, majority of decisions are trivial." This one I just don't understand.


What?! The fact that I can't get through a game without shaking my fist at another player and exclaiming "By Odin's blood! I wanted that set!" shows me that I'm interacting. Also, as you mentioned, the interaction is at a level my wife likes. If we were actually attacking each other, she'd never play. Beating each other to the punch is more to her liking.

Quote:
Consider for instance the following comment: "It's easy to get hosed on income when you can't get any yellow Vikings early in the game and then it's nearly impossible to dig out of that hole." You only get hosed on income if you are a big spender. You start with quite a bit of money actually, so you won't need to buy a goldsmith right away.


First-time games of Vikings can be brutal. Do you remember the first time you played St Petersberg, and you spent your money like a drunken sailor? Doom. You get more money in Vikings, but you still have to keep an eye on your expenses. Not having goldsmiths doesn't kill you. Spending money as if you have a dozen of them WILL.

Quote:
We've only just starting playing with the "Progress Version" (talk about an unfortunate name in a game about Vikings!), although we skip the optional rules about auctioning off turn order. So after at least a dozen or more games, we still have new places to discover...


Yeah, we only use the special tiles, mainly because it will bait players into buying the most expensive sets. The other suggested rule additions just clutter the game up.
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Thanks for the thoughtful response Michael. About the Progress Version - what I especially like about it is that it makes the game even tighter and more difficult. Now you can only ferry one Viking per boatsman (unless you get a special tile), so you have to be extra careful about buying the right tiles. Moreover, there is more incentive now to buy the most expensive tiles, even though you might get a ship with them. Even more decisions...
 
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Joe Geerkin
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Great review. Thanks for putting it together.

I don't mind the randomness. To me, the game is about making the best choice with the options presented to you on your turn.

I've heard complaints about the theme also. If people are looking for a sail and pillage type experience, they would better better off with a game like Fire and Axe. You make a good point about Vikings as settlers.

The "Norse Accountants" and pasted on theme comments just seem like the typical knee-jerk reaction from the Eurobash crowd. It's predictable noise, at this point IMO.
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Shane Walsh
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Excellent review of an excellent game which is one of my favourites .

You have got off your rear end and given us a great review - given enough time I would get off my posterior and post another one too ..

However severe time deprivation rules supreme in my (pitiful ??) case .
 
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Daniel Corban
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You play down the luck factor, but turn order in this game is such an insanely huge luck factor that it literally breaks the game for me with four players. I have decided this is a three-player only game, and it works rather well.
 
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Surya Van Lierde is pure Eurosnoot and proud of it!
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Huge? It can be an advantage, but in most cases it's not HUGE
 
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Quote:
You play down the luck factor, but turn order in this game is such an insanely huge luck factor that it literally breaks the game for me with four players. I have decided this is a three-player only game, and it works rather well.


I agree in part in this part of the review:

Quote:
I guess there is some truth to the complaint. Particularly in a four player game you are only going to get 3 tiles per round. For that reason I slightly prefer the 2 and 3 player games, where you get 4 and 6 tiles respectively per round. The two player game probably gives you the most control, but I should say that I like the anxiety of wondering whether I will get the one tile that I really need to help me out in the final round. Moreover, the randomness is mitigated by the fact that you know roughly how many Vikings of each colour are left in the bag (even though there are 6 extra ones to prevent complete knowledge), and you know the turn order, so you can start planning for the last round well in advance.


Thanks for responding!
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Daniel Corban
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To make matters worse, in a four-player game, the first and second player will get two chances to be start player, while the other two players only get one.
 
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