Around Thanksgiving I picked up a copy of the recently released dark ages skirmish rules, Saga. These are written by Studio Tomahawk, a French game company, in a collaboration with Gripping Beast Miniatures in the UK. After a month of reading and a bit of solo tinkering, I was able to get over to the FLGS (Your Hobby Place in Martinsburg, WV) for my first game.
As you might guess from the title, the Saga rules focus more on the ‘heroic’ version of dark ages warfare as told in the various legends and sagas rather than being a historical simulation (for what that’s worth). As you would know if you have read the accounts of the Pig Wars games here, that focus suits me fine. The game focuses on the Viking Age, with initial emphasis on England around the time of the Norman conquest.
The game has a couple of unique game mechanisms that I really like. First is the Battle Board and Saga dice, which are really the core of the game mechanisms. Each turn the player will roll a number of Saga dice, which an be allocated onto the Battle Board to activate units and invoke various special abilities. Better quality troops can be activated using more different die faces, while lesser troops require the use of less commonly appearing numbers. That becomes significant as the same pool of dice is used to activate the special abilities on the Battle Board and the better abilities require the use of the less common dice faces. This system works remarkably well, providing a simple yet vitally important orders phase where the player must make lots of really tough decisions each turn. It also serves to add fog of war and friction into a rather standard I Go, You Go turn sequence.
The second mechanism I enjoy in the game is the system of fatigue. Units in the game may be activated more than once in a turn (using a separate Saga die each time, so if you activate a unit twice, you are generally not activating some other unit), but doing so accumulates fatigue markers. Fighting in melee also accumulates fatigue. Sufficient fatigue will exhaust a unit, preventing it acting until it rests. That part is fairly standard, but the interesting part in Saga is that you can ‘spend’ your opponents fatigue, removing it from the unit to give the unit combat or movement penalties. Another relatively simple system that gives the players a bunch of decision points in the game, each of which seems really small, but can easily spell the difference between defeat and victory.
Beyond that, the rules are pretty straightforward. Units may move or shoot when activated. Units coming into contact fight immediate melees. Combat is by rolling some number of dice against the enemies armor value, followed by a defense roll to cancel the hits. The better quality troops generate more attack dice per model. These is only a little bit of weapons differentiation (e.g. dane axes get a special rule, but all other hand weapons get equal treatment), so the game definitely has feel that it’s the man, not the tool (to paraphrase Chuck Yeager).
Most of he differentiation between different forces comes from the abilities on the Battle Board. For instance, in the basic rules, being mounted has essentially no combat benefit, providing a movement bonus in exchange for greater susceptibility to missile fire. The Normans however have many abilities on their Battle Board that give combat bonuses to mounted units. There are one or two special rules for each of the factions included in the game (Welsh, Anglo-Danes, Normans, Vikings) such as Viking berserkers or Norman crossbow-armed Sergeants.
The game includes a very simple point system and six stock scenarios as well. These have a pretty good range, covering standard meeting engagements, a fight to control a river crossing, a couple of defense scenarios, and a baggage escort. The rules place their emphasis on point based games, but there is not any reason you could not use the rules for more elaborate scenarios as well. The inclusion of special rules for various Heroes of the Viking Age such as William of Normandy or Harold Godwinson may cause the grognard’s head to do an Exorcist Spin, but there is nothing saying you have to use them.
The biggest knock on the game is definitely the price. The rule book is 75 pages, softcover, full color, glossy, with plenty of pictures, but for that rulebook and four heavy cardstock Battle Boards, you shell out $40. The Battle Boards also come with symbols on them to correspond to those on the Saga dice sold for the game. The Saga dice (when available – there have been supply issues) are silly expensive at $20 for 8, but the publishers have made a PDF available with the dice symbols and there is a conversion chart in the rules to use regular d6′s. I like the symbol dice as they add a bit of atmosphere, so I picked up some blank dice on EBay (enough for three sets of Saga dice for only $14 or so) and have made my own Viking Saga dice using the symbols available.
So how did that first game turn out? Well, I really enjoyed the game and it was very engaging from start to finish. So much so that I forgot to even take out my phone for some cruddy phone photos. I took on another new player using my Vikings against Dave’s Normans. My warlord brought a dozen thralls with bows, 16 bondi in two units of 8, 8 hirdmen, and 4 berserkers. The Normans lord brought a unit of 12 levy bowmen, a large unit of a dozen sergeants on foot with crossbows, a dozen mounted sergeants, and two small units of 4 knights. Both of us screened off the center with our archers. I had my Hirdmen and berserkers behind mine, with a unit of bondi on each flank. He had his knights behind the archers on my left with the crossbows on my right and the mounted sergeants behind them.
Being less mobile (i.e. on foot) and out-gunned in shooting, I needed to get into contact as soon as possible. I pushed a unit of bondi on my right forward, using some of my Battle Board abilities to negate some of his shooting, losing only a single model. That unit then loaded up with Battle Board abilities and hurled themselves against the crossbowmen. My seven Vikings died, but took down 9 Norman infantry with them, allowing me to invoke another of my Battle Board abilities a couple of turns later and cause the remainder to scatter in fear from the Viking menace. On the other flank, the other unit of bondi charged forward against the levy archers, only to roll miserably and bounce off, defeated in melee by a bunch of French farmers. The Norman knights then charged the group, which fought tenaciously, destroying three knights before being overrun. Only another miserable roll prevented the total destruction of the knight unit, which proved costly. The number of Saga dice rolled is based on the number of units in the field and this one escapee allowed him an extra die over me for several turns, giving him greater flexibility and access to more abilities. The hirdmen began to press forward behind the screen of thralls, which was slowly whittle away by the Norman archers. The berserkers swung around to my left where they eventually met his other unit of knights and the two units annihilated each other. The main event in the center came as the large unit of mounted sergeants and the hirdmen, personally led by the warlord, clashed. The Vikings eventually prevailed, but not before losing most of the hirdmen. The Norman archers then shot down the remaining hirdmen and the last valient charge of the Viking warlord ended ignominiously as he fell short and died in a hail of arrows.
I’m sure that there was some scenario end that was supposed to occur before my Viking band was wiped out to the last man, but Dave and I were having so much fun exploring the Saga system that we just kept fighting. Saga has also inspired another burst of dark ages painting. I have now finished every Viking figure I own, which is a bit of a unique occurrence. Can’t call the Vikings “done” though yet, as I think I need about 8 or so more various models to fill out some units. Crusader has recently started selling single figures in their Dark Ages ranges, so that looks like a good route to go to pick up those few odds and ends. I’m now going full-steam on the Irish to bring them up to strength for use in Saga. There is not Irish force list or Battle Board yet, but the Welsh fighting style is very close to that of the Irish, so I can use that one in the mean time. Saga will probably be making more appearances, as it will fit nicely with my spring gaming time. I’ve got a busy work load for the spring, so most gaming I get in will probably be of the low maintenance variety, so the ability to show up at the FLGS with my figures and get in a game of Saga with minimal planning will push that game to the front.