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Subject: Review: SAGA: Dark Age Skirmishes rss

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Adriano Trancoso
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With the beginning of the year, I’ve found a new, interesting wargame and I want to share my impressions on it with you guys. That’s the SAGA: Dark Age Skirmishes, a small, historical skirmsh-level wargame, that as the name says, is set in the Dark Ages period.

Well, for starters, the term “Dark Age” isn’t that much correct, historically speaking, especially when used to describe the Middle Ages as a whole. So, actually, it’s use is being generally restricted to describe the times between 500-1000 AD, following the vacuum of power left by the fall of the Roman Empire, until the Crusades. In the case of SAGA (and the wargaming community as a whole), the Dark Ages name sets not only the game in time, but in space as well – SAGA is Anglo-centric, covering the “Viking Age”, when the Vikings went down from the Nordic lands to pillage what is the actual England, Scotland and Ireland.

First thing I’ve noticed, is that the game book (a gorgeous book, I must say), isn’t much clear about the time of the setting – it starting describing that the Viking Age started in 793 AD, and finished at 1066 AD, with the Norman Conquest, the starting point of the Norman Era. It generates some confusion (specially for a non-European, or a non-Englishman), since the book covers the Normans as well, that are a people formed by the amalgamation of the Viking settlers with the Franks in the continent. As much as I like history, and I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages, studying the Crusades in depth, I must confess that I’m not that well versed in the history of England, so bear with me.

Anyway, being a flaw of the book, or just a flaw of my poor knowledge, let’s finish this and go ahead with the review of the book. It starts with The Age of the Vikings chapter, that is just a page long, talking about the first incursions of the Vikings on England, and finish by talking about the Battle of Hastings and the start of the Norman Era. It clearly shows that the book is oriented for people with some previous knowledge of English story, or English citizens for that matter (most of the worldwide wargaming community is in England, anyway). As a Brazilian, I can’t say for sure how much of this is common knowledge of the average European, so I personally think that this chapter is a bit lacking, considering that the game supposedly only covers that period in history, so more information would be welcome – or maybe I’m just spoiled by the Warhammer Ancient Battles and GURPS RPG supplements

After that, there’s an overview of the game, with the mandatory “What is SAGA?”, “What You will Need” chapters, terminology and the goal of the game. I must say that’s where the rulebook starts to show its best, with clear, short and concise text. Here as well you start to see what makes SAGA special and original compared to the other historical wargames in the market these days: SAGA, despite being able to be played with a measure tape, it only uses 4 bands of movement and range. They are: Very Short (VS, that equals to 2″), Short (S, that equals to 4″), Medium (M, that equals to 6″) and Long (L, that equals to 12″), and stick to it for everything – the distance between miniatures for unit cohesion is VS, while bows can shot arrows with a L range, for example, keeping it simple and elegant.

But the real innovation isn’t the measuring mechanics, but main game mechanic, called the SAGA Dice. Each army presented in the book (there are four, more on this later) have a sheet called “battleboard”, that is a page filled with 3 columns of boxes, where are described the unique abilities of that army. Each ability requires a certain die (or combination of dice) to be activated. That’s where there SAGA Dice enters.

SAGA Dice

Besides the battleboard, each army have an exclusive set of eight 6-sided dice, with 3 different symbols on their faces, instead of numbers. At each turn, the player rolls a number of SAGA Dice equal to the number of units the have on the table (to a maximum of six dice). Then he must allocated these dice to the boxes on his battleboard, to be capable of execute his actions on that turn. In the battleboard, the first column of abilities can be used as many times the player wishes in each turn, and that’s where the unit activation slots are.

Usually the more trained, “top tier” units can be activated with any SAGA die, while less trained units (like the levies – peasant conscripts) requires more specific dice – since they are less trained, it’s more difficult to make them follow orders.

The abilities in the other two columns describe special actions that your army can perform, on your turn or the opponents turn (the game is IGOUGO, like 40k). Those actions can give you a boost on your attack or make the opponent’s attack against you more difficult. These abilities really vary between the different armies, giving a lot of flavor for each faction. Several of these abilities can also be used together, in devastating combos, making the management of your SAGA Dice one of the main strategies in the game. While by the first look seems that SAGA is much based on luck that strategy, it’s simply not true – you can keep unused dice on your battleboard between turns, hoping to roll better dice in the next turn to complement you selection, allowing you to get the best of your army. As the rulebook says a lot, thinking ahead is essential.

Another cool thing is that you can still play SAGA even if you don’t buy the exclusive SAGA Dice. At the end of the book there’s a table that you can use in tandem with common six-sided dice to simulate the SAGA Dice.

Army Building

Building your SAGA force is quite simple, and no specific software of crazy mathematics are involved. The game uses a simple point system, with units are grouped by quality. There are four types of units in the army:

- Hearthguard: those are the elite troops on your army, usually comprised by the better trained warriors, and the most loyal retainers of the Warlord. A group of 4 hearthguard miniatures costs 1 point;
- Warriors: those are the common soldiers of your army. A group of 8 warrior miniatures costs 1 point;;
- Levies: those are the peasants and farmers recruited to bolster your forces. They lack training, but they can fight with ranged weapons, like bows, slings and throwing spears. A group of 12 levies costs 1 point. A levies unit doesn’t contribute with a SAGA die.
- Warlord: this is the general of your army – if he dies, the battle is lost! He comes for free with your army, unless you prefer to have him replaced by an Hero of the Viking Age. The Warlord adds 2 SAGA dice, instead of the normal 1.

An SAGA army (called warband) is usually 6-point strong, with starter armies having 4 points of miniatures. Units in the game can be 4 to 12 miniatures strong, while the Warlord is always an independent character and cannot join any unit. While the book suggests a 6-point limit, it still presents some guidelines to play with forces of even 12 points per side – well, the historical wargaming crowd loves big battles, and SAGA doesn’t disappoint, even being just an skirmish game at the core

You can also add Swords For Hire, that are some special units that can be added to any army, as mercenaries. The rulebook only presents Jarl Sigvaldi and the Jomvikings, a 4-man strong unit.

The Game

The game itself is quite simple regarding movement and combat resolution. All infantry have a M movement, while cavalry have a L movement. The melee combat itself isn’t much different from 40K, but it’s more streamlined and elegant, so I’ll not get into much detail here. What is important to note is that I’m not comparing it to Warhammer Fantasy Battles (or Warhammer Ancient Battles) because it’s a round-based game, where miniatures must follow cohesion, just like 40K.

The game is also scenario driven. The rulebook offers seven different scenarios, with more being present in the supplements and in the official SAGA forum.

Fatigue

Other of the most unique features of the game is a mechanic called Fatigue. When an unit is activated for more than one time per turn, engages on prolonged combat, or even under some other specific situations, it can accumulate fatigue tokens. Your Fatigue tokens can be spent by your opponent to make any attempt done by that unit more difficult, like making it harder for an Fatigued enemy archer unit to hit your infantry, for example. If an unit accumulates more Fatigue than it is allowed, it becomes Exhausted, and cannot do anything on that turn besides resting. You can get rid of Fatigue tokens by spending actions to make your units rest as well.

Some abilities can add Fatigue to your opponent, or remove fatigue from your units as well. See? Thinking ahead is important!

The Factions

Presented in the rulebook are four factions: the Vikings, the Anglo-Danish, the Normans and the Welsh.

- The Vikings fight with swords and axes, usually by foot, and their levies use bows and slings.
- The Anglo-Danish (the English kingdom of Denmark) fight with the famous Dane Axes (2-Handed Axes).
- The Normans, as expected, have access to horses, so the Warlord, Hearthgard and the Warriors can be mounted, which adds to movement, but makes more vulnerable to ranged weapons. Their warriors can use crossbows as well.
- The Welsh, that have access to horses as well, and their Warlords, Hearthguards and Warriors can use javelins.

As you can see, while the rulebook doesn’t cover all the possible factions of the setting, it still offers a good variety in gameplay.

The Supplements

So far, SAGA have 2 supplements:

Northern Fury, that as the name says, have the main focus on the peoples of the north. The books presents four new factions. They are:

- The Anglo-Saxons, that use the same SAGA Dice as the Anglo-Danish. They have access to horses, and their levies have the option to be armed with spears and shields instead of slings and bows, if you prefer.
- The Bretons, that use the same SAGA Dice as the Normans. They are horse-based as the Normans as well, but all their mounted units have access to javelins, preferring ranged combat than charging against the enemies.
- The Jomsvikings are a Viking sub-faction, and they have a “Wrath” exclusive rule, that is a meter used by some of their exclusive abilities – a type of rule completely new to the game. As expected, they use the same SAGA Dice as the Vikings.
- The Scots are the only new faction in the book that have its own new set of SAGA Dice. The Scot Warlord and Hearthguards can be mounted, and the army is mostly based on spearmen.

This book also brings a new scenario, called Wooden Oaths.

The Raven’s Shadow is the second supplement, having the main focus on Ireland. I don’t have this book, so there is just the list of factions present on it: Irish, Norse-Gaels, Franks (that can be Merovingian, Carolingian or Capetian, each one which their own special rules) and the Strathclyde Welsh.

But there’s more to SAGA than these supplements. Three other factions (two of them official) are present as well:

- The Arabs: a non-official faction made by Martin Gibbins, the author of the second edition of Warhammer Ancient Battles, that was presented at the edition #300 of the Wargames Illustrated magazine.
- The Byzantines: a official faction, presented by the SAGA author Alex Buchel and published at the edition #301 of the Wargames Illustrated magazine.
- The Skraelings: another official faction, which rules come together with their starter set, that can be bought from Gripping Beast.

While the Arabs and Byzantines doesn’t really tie with the English Dark Ages, they are from the same period. And you can say that the Varangian Guard is more than enough reason to add the Byzantines to the game. The Skraelings are the Dark Age indians from the New World, described in the Viking Sagas.

Gripping Beast also sells some packs of Sword For Hire units, that accompanies a double-sided card with their rules. So far the available units are: Flemish Mercenaries, Egil and Gall-Gaedhill.

Important to say, that while SAGA is the brainchild of the Studio Tomahawk, it is being published by Gripping Beast, an well-known and recognized manufacturer of historical wargaming miniatures. They even sell tailored starter kits for all SAGA factions so far (official and non-official), and packs with 1-point worth of miniaures, and miniatures for several of the Heroes of Viking Age already presented as well.

The Future

Studio Tomahawk don’t make secret about the future of the game. They don’t intend to have SAGA restricted to the English Dark Ages, and there’s some speculation about the game reaching other historical periods as well. It’s being said that now in 2013 we should see a Crusades supplement (something very welcome, since no historical wargame covered the period in detail so far), with some hints that maybe we well see the Feudal Japan and Roman Empire being covered somewhere down in the pipeline.

Another very positive aspect, especially in the historical wargaming market, is how open the Studio Tomahawk is, regarding fan-made material, supplying blank battleboards for download and encouraging discussion of all kinds of variations of SAGA, including Napoleonics and Sci-Fi – considering how nice the SAGA system is, there’s no reason it should be confined to one historical period, or just to the historical settings.

Conclusion

SAGA is awesome! It’s the perfect opening game to introduce people to wargaming, and to get veteran wargame players to try historical games. The game is small, ranging from 17 to 73 miniatures per side, and historical miniatures are usually cheaper, making the game very accessible.

The system, being nice and elegant, keeps the crazy mathematics and book-keeping to a minimum, so you don’t even need an army list. While most of the units behave the same from army to army, the game is far from being bland because of the SAGA Dice, that add a layer of strategy and flavor for the armies, keeping the game fresh. Well, SAGA isn’t really the game for the historical wargamer that want a battlefield simulation, but I believe it’s a perfect mix of wargaming mechanics and boardgame abstraction, keeping it simple but without losing so much depth.

(Original version of this review was published at the Can You Dig It? Blog)
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Gary
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Hi Adriano

Thank you doing this review - excellent stuff.

Speaking from a Britain-centric viewpoint - The choice of factions in the rule book does place the conflict in the British Isles any time between 793 AD and the 12th Century (the date of 1066AD was only the start of the Norman conquest, resistance to the Normans carried on for many years after). This would be within what might be called the 'Dark Age' for Britain, i.e. anywhere between 400 to 1200AD.

The expansions do move the action to elsewhere in Northern Europe and some of the places these people travelled to. I'm sure if Gripping Beast made a range of 9th century Brazilians there would be a battle board for them by now.

I agree entirely Saga is an awesome game - and the system is versatile enough to be made to work for lots of other factions and periods;
(oh well, back to designing my space-monster-saga hybrid. )



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Charlie Theel
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If you really dig the battle-board mechanic and are ever in search of a Dungeon Crawl board game, check out Claustrophobia. It uses a very similar mechanic for the Demon player.
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Dale Hurtt
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jellynut wrote:
I'm sure if Gripping Beast made a range of 9th century Brazilians there would be a battle board for them by now.
As it happens, I am working on "A Mesoamerican Saga" with Aztecs and Tlaxcaltecs to start. I have started a small discussion forum and I have drafts of faction rules and Aztec and Tlaxcaltec battle boards.

I think some of the fan-made stuff looks pretty good. Our club has tried the French and English in the Hundred Years War and I can see us trying the Napoleonic variant at some point.
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Giles Pritchard
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There is also news of Gripping Beast working on a version of the game for the early dark ages - around the time of any 'historical Arthur' - as well as some other periods (can't recall which).

Love the look of this game - though I might wait for the Arthur version before jumping in (I have Dux Britanniarum, Dux Bellorum and Song of Arthur and Merlin waiting to get played!).

Great review!

Cheers,
Giles.
 
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Erik Nicely
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I just bought the rules, Northern Fury, and a Viking starter and will get to work on the miniatures next week. Looking forward to playing.
 
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Charles Stampley
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Another great review for a great game(I just read your Warmachine/Hordes review.)

Another aspect I like about SAGA is several companies make inexpensive plastic models from this time period so a person looking to "buy in" doesn't need much money. Plus you don't need to paint many figures to try different factions. A viking wearing leather armor carrying a sword looks like a Saxon wearing leather armor carrying a sword. Some of the later factions push the boundaries of the game even further with the addition of off-board units, mounted units, champion challenges, and even wardogs all without making the game unbalanced.
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Adriano Trancoso
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stampdog316 wrote:
Another great review for a great game(I just read your Warmachine/Hordes review.)

Another aspect I like about SAGA is several companies make inexpensive plastic models from this time period so a person looking to "buy in" doesn't need much money. Plus you don't need to paint many figures to try different factions. A viking wearing leather armor carrying a sword looks like a Saxon wearing leather armor carrying a sword. Some of the later factions push the boundaries of the game even further with the addition of off-board units, mounted units, champion challenges, and even wardogs all without making the game unbalanced.

I completely agree. I have an article on playing SAGA on a budget, take a look:

http://canyoudigit.blog.com/2013/01/08/playing-saga-on-a-bud...
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