Review: Saga

Saga
Studio Tomahawk & Gripping Beast
Softback
74 Pages
Full Colour

Saga is the long-awaited and much-anticipated Dark Age skirmish wargaming rules from Studio Tomahawk & Gripping Beast.

The rules are aimed at being played in 28mm scale, on a 4’ x 3’ table (designed so that it could be played on the author’s kitchen table!) with warbands consisting of between 25 and 73 figures.

The basics of the rules are actually very simple – being designed to be easy and intuitive to learn.

Each player has a warband which consists of a number of units. A unit consists of between 4 and 12 models. Models can be based either individually or as an element, but if you base your units as elements, you will need to have some way of identifying casualties, as casualty removal is on an individual model basis.

Each figure has a class, and there are 4 in Saga:

  • Warlord: The leader of your warband.
  • Heathguard: A warband’s most powerful retainers: Think Viking Hirdmen or Norman Knights.
  • Warriors: The bulk of the warband: Thengs, ceorls or bondi are types or warriors.
  • Levies or peasants: Making up the numbers, these troops tend to be armed with bows, slings or javelins.

Each class has two different characteristics: Movement and Armour. Movement is usually defined as M for foot troops and L for mounted troops, whilst Armour is defined as a number between 2 and 6.

Although you can use a tape measure, the game is designed to use measuring sticks for distances. There are four distances defined:

  • VS – Very Short – 2 inches or 5cms
  • S – Short – 4 inches or 10cms
  • M – Medium – 6 inches or 15cms
  • L – Long – 12 inches or 30cms

A player’s warband is usually made up of a number of figures, worth the equivalent of 6 points. Each point will give you a number of figures; 4 Hearthguard, 8 Warriors or 12 Levies. These troops are then divided into units of between 4 and 12 model, all of the same class. (All Warriors, all Hearthguard etc)

In addition to your troops, you also get a Warlord for free to lead your Warband. You can, however, choose a special hero to lead your warband instead – these powerful individuals are not free and cost a point each.

We will come back to orders and activation shortly, but suffice it to say that the game is turn based, and on your turn, you may activate your units, one at a time. Your unit may take one of 4 actions: Move, Shoot, Engage in Melee or Rest.

Move – Your figure may move up to their maximum movement distance. Usually, difficult terrain reduce your movement by one measurement distance (M becomes S etc)

Shoot – Your figures may fire missile weapons at an enemy who is in line of sight. Typical missile range is L.

Melee – Your figures may move and engage in combat with the enemy. Unless in exceptional circumstances (Warlord with his retinue) you may only engage in combat with a single unit against a single unit.

Rest – Resting removes fatigue. Fatigue is recorded against units who have been in combat, or have moved/shot more than once in a turn.

Combat uses a ‘buckets of dice’ approach. Whether in shooting or melee, you work out how many attack dice your unit generates (dependent upon the class of the models in the unit). You roll these dice, attempting to roll equal or higher than the armour value of the target. Any success roll is a ‘hit’ The target unit then roll a number of dice equal to the number ‘hits’, these its are cancelled on a roll of 4+ against shooting attacks, or 5+ against melee. Any ‘hit’ that is not cancelled causes a model from the target unit to be removed.

Modifiers for troop types (mounted troops, double-handed weapons etc) affect the armour value of troops – thus changing your chance to hit, whilst cover modifiers affect your ‘saving throw’.

If units have fatigue markers, these can be used to modify how they fight in combat, or even how they move.

So far, these rules are not too different from several other available skirmish games – most notably Song of Blades and Heroes. However, it is in the orders and activation of units that this game differs, and indeed excels.

Each unit in your warband (with the exception of Levies) generate Saga Dice. These dice are rolled at the start of your turn in order to determine what actions your warband can perform. Saga Dice can take the form of standard D6, but the game is designed so that you use custom dice, which have 3 different icons on their sides. Furthermore, these icons are faction-specific, so Saga Dice for a Welsh warband have different icons from those of a Norman Warband – just to add some flavour to the proceedings…

Home made Saga Dice on a Battle Board

These Saga Dice are used in conjunction with a Battle Board. Again, each different faction has its own unique Battle Board.

A Battle Board has 15 different boxes – 5 are the same for each faction (allowing you to order units of Hearthguard, Warriors or Levy, gain an extra attack dice or generate extra Saga Dice) whilst 10 have faction specific abilities.

At the start of your turn, you roll your Saga Dice, and then allocate the dice to various boxes on the battle board, dependent upon what symbols you have rolled. Different symbols, or combinations of symbols, are required to activate various abilities. At the start of each of your turns, you have to choose what abilities you want to perform and allocate the dice accordingly. This immediately gives you, the player, various decisions that you need to make – do you allocate all your dice to unit activation, so that all your units can take actions in a turn (or even, single units take multiple actions) or do you use some dice to activate special abilities.

It is worth noting that the special abilities of each faction are different, and are what really give each warband its own feel, asymmetry and ‘flavour’. Foe example, the abilities of a Norman warband are very much geared to the use of Knights or bow-armed troops, whilst Vikings have abilities which reflect their brutal and aggressive tendencies.

This use of Dice as resources will be familiar to anyone who has played boardgames like Kingsburg, Alien Frontiers or Quarriors, and is really what makes Saga stand apart from all the other skirmish games that I have played.

I have mentioned factions on several occasions, and indeed, these factions are what differentiate your warbands from each other. There are four factions in the basic Saga rulebook:Normans, Vikings, Anglo-Danes and Welsh.

A  further four (Bretons, Saxons, JomsVikings & Scots) being released in an expansion (Northern Fury) due in the first quarter of 2012.

Each faction, as well as having a unique Battle Board (and therefore, a unique set of abilities) also has unique classes and/or weapons:

  • Anglo-Dane Hearthguard can be equipped with two-handed axes
  • Viking Hearthguard can be converted to Berserkers with extra attack dice
  • Norman Hearthguard and Warrior Units can be mounted and Warriors can be given crossbows.
  • Welsh units can be mounted, and all units can be armed with javelins which give a free shooting attack at the end of a movement activation.

In addition, each faction also has its own set of Heroes available to use – whether it is William the Conqueror, Harold Hadrada or several others – each of these Heroes of the Viking Age can be used instead of your normal Warlord, and give extra abilities to your warband.

The Saga rulebook, as well as containing all the game rules, details of Factions, Heroes and abilities, also has a section which covers scenario generation. There are 7 scenarios included in the book (6 two-player, plus a single 3 or 4 player scenario) as well as rules for randomly determining terrain, and also a victory point system.

At their simplest, a scenario’s objective can be to kill the opponents Warlord. However, not every scenario has this objective – you can defend your village from invaders, occupy sacred ground or even try and protect a caravan from raiders.

The rulebook is rounded off with a set of cut-out markers and a Quick Reference Sheet.

Saga manages to perform that most complex of synergies: It takes a set of basic games mechanics that are simple and intuitive to learn, combines it with an innovative activation mechanic which gives both flavour and tactical depth, and produces a game which is fast playing, tactically challenging, varied and fun.

Every turn, you are forced into making choices dependent upon your available resources, governed by your Saga Dice: Do you move all your troops? What abilities do you use? Do you save some abilities so that you can use them to react on your opponents turn? You constantly need to be thinking of what you need to do next – this, in conjunction with the fact that  turns are quickly played, means that you actually have very little down-time in the game.

There are a couple of drawbacks which surround the basic ethos that ‘realism’ (whatever that means in a skirmish wargame) has sometimes been sacrificed for the sake of simplicity.

For example, combat is very bloody, almost overly so, as the rules contain nothing about Morale. This means that units will normally have to be completely destroyed in combat before they become ineffective – fun, but not necessarily representative of may have happened in reality.

The mechanics of combat and engagement is also kept simple. Combat rules can often quickly break down into a complex set of factors regarding who may engage who and who strikes first etc. Whilst the complex factors are added in an effort to make things seem more realistic, the authors of Saga have decided that their preference is to keep gameplay simple. It’s an approach that works well, but could possibly cause frustration to players who may be used to (or feel that they require) a more in-depth approach.

Another potential drawback is cost. At time of writing, the Saga rules cost £25 from Gripping Beast. I think this is at the top end of what you would expect to pay for a set of soft cover rules. Compare this to I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, which is of a similar quality, full colour, has 29 more pages and yet costs £5 less. Having said that, the cost does include 4 separately printed full-colour card Battle Boards, so this could well reflect the difference in price.

In addition, sets of etched Saga dice are available for £12 for a set of 8 (although it is perfectly possible to use standard D6, or indeed make your own Saga Dice).

These drawbacks are, in truth, only minor. Saga is, in my opinion, one of those games that only come along once in a while. It takes a familiar set of mechanics, adds its own twists and produces a result which is innovative and exciting. It leaves you with the questions “Why hasn’t this been done before?” and “Why didn’t I think of that?

Saga captures that perfect blend of gaming ingredients – it is easy to learn, has gameplay which is both compelling and challenging and yet remains, in essence, a fun and entertaining experience.

In a hobby which is producing an increasing number of high quality publications, Saga stands out as being a truly wonderful set of rules. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

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