There’s a new game I love. It’s a Dark Ages skirmish miniatures game. Wait, wait, don’t walk away! SAGA isn’t just for lead-heads: there’s a lot here for fantasy gamers and maybe even Euro boardgamers.
I wouldn’t say that about 95% of the miniatures games I’ve tried, but SAGA is a cunning hybrid. It sells itself in the miniatures gaming community as a straightforward historical game. But SAGA sets itself apart with elegant core mechanics, an exceptions-based approach to the fighting styles of four different Dark Ages cultures, and its willingness to draft elements of heroic myth.
If you’ve played historical wargames, you’ve encountered the practice of giving your units orders before the turn. SAGA brilliantly reinterprets this convention. The core mechanic is that each of the four cultures in the base game (Viking, Anglo-Danish, Norman, Welsh) has its own battle board and set of six-sided dice featuring symbols associated with that culture. At the start of your turn you roll as many SAGA dice as your warband deserves, then assign the different die results to your battleboard, giving orders to your warriors for the turn (and possibly for the enemy’s turn) to come. Some orders only require one die; others require a combination of two specific dice. Your best warriors can be activated with most any die; your worst warriors can only be activated by one of the rarer symbols.
Trading card gamers will be right at home with the ability to exploit combos and synergies while generating SAGA dice and assigning abilities. Eurogamers should recognize the tension of planning a turn of action with limited resources while choosing between direct action and abilities that can only be used during an enemy turn.
The core game statistics are dead simple. Instead of offering charts of slightly different stats for warriors who were armed and armored quite similarly, the game gives almost identical attack and defense stats to four different classes of warrior (Warlord, Hearthguard, Warrior, Levy). But the orders on the battle board, especially the culturally unique abilities that you can only use once per turn, make each of the factions fight entirely differently.
The Norman battle board is a great example. Reading the rules, I was surprised that mounted units function almost exactly like units on foot. They move faster, they have lower armor against enemy shooting and they can’t enter buildings. The abilities of mounted units don’t live in the basic rules; they live on the Norman battle board: Charge!, Terrified, Gallop and Stamping are all abilities that can only be used by the Norman’s mounted warriors, and the most powerful of them have devastating effects when they’re used against non-mounted enemies. It’s not just good game design, it’s also delightful reinforcement of the Norman’s unique advantages.
Each of the four factions play differently thanks to the interaction between their SAGA dice and their battle board. The Normans move quickly, fire crossbows well, and stomp non-mounted enemies into the dust, but they also tire quickly. The Anglo-Danish start slow but gradually wear their enemies down before making the decisive push. The Welsh use every terrain advantage to escape most direct confrontation and pepper the foe with missiles. The Vikings seek melee early and often, don’t want to fight extended battles, and most especially don’t want to have to chase lightly armored Welsh around the bogs.
The Viking battle board introduces another aspect of the game that should appeal to fantasy gamers: abilities named after the Norse pantheon. Using the Thor ability lets you fight a melee twice, using Valhalla lets use eliminate a few of your own warriors to gain immense numbers of melee attack dice that fight. Use Loki and an enemy unit of lower-grade warriors that has taken some casualties will simply melt away from the battlefield, confused or frightened or slain by the trickster god, you decide, one way or another they’re gone.
Evocative use of myth continues with the special Warlord abilities assigned to Heroes of the Viking Age. A Viking warband can spend one of its six points to have Harald Hardrada (King of Norway) or Ragnar Lothbrok (King of Sweden and Norway) as its Warlord. The other factions have their own heroes. The Hero of the Viking Age abilities are extremely powerful and different, exactly the type of thing you can build an entire warband around. But it’s only one warrior so the power balances out. SAGA’s willingness to emphasize the fun of its setting instead of getting bogged down in simulation sets it apart.
Ordinarily I look at great games and consider the ways they can be adapted for other game worlds I enjoy. Pieces of Sartarite Glorantha are the obvious choice here, and I might end up using some Orlanthi minis for SAGA. But I don’t feel the need to complicate SAGA with magic rules and the other elements it would need to mesh with Glorantha/Dragon Pass. If I use Orlanthi in SAGA, I’m more likely to draft Orlanthi into our world’s physics, to treat the Gloranthan gods similar to the way that designer Alex Buchel treated the Viking gods.