Varjazi & Basileus represents the last of the current Dark Age supplements to be released by Gripping Beast at the current time. Whilst they are no doubt due to visit the Arthurian period at some time in the future, for now, these are the last factions. As such, this book not only comes with battleboards, but a rather nice folder which, when assembled, should be able to hold the original Saga rulebook and all of the Dark Age supplements and battleboards in one place. It’s a nice touch, and appeals to the completionist in me.
This supplement for Saga has three factions in it. Two of these are new: the Pagan Rus and the Rus Princes. The third is the Byzantines, which are a reprint of a faction that was only previously available in an issue of Wargames Illustrated magazine.
The Pagan Rus are an all-foot faction, whose Levy use javelins. The faction has no special rules, and has a single Hero of the Viking Age; Sviatoslav I of Kiev.
Whilst the special rules of the Pagan Rus at first look somewhat limited, as only three may be used in melee, the others, especially when used in combination, can proved just as deadly to any foe. Most of the Pagan Rus abilities are named after the great expanses in which they live, and are all about limiting your opponent’s movement, inflicting extra fatigue, using fatigue to inflict wounds or reducing armour (which is especially effective against mounted opponents).
The other new faction is the Rus Princes. This faction’s levy can use bows, and the Warlord and Hearthguard can be mounted. The special abilities of the Rus Princes seem to revolve around increasing your unit defence (with one ability, to the point of indestructibility), or limit your opponents attacking options. There are a couple of abilities that give bonus in melee or shooting, and one ability which will allow you activate your entire warband to do as much as you like…for a price.
The final faction we have seen before – the Byzantines. The Byzantines appear on the surface to be a very powerful faction. Their Warlord and Hearthguard can be mounted, and both their Hearthguard and Warriors may be armed with bows. Their Levy units are armed with Javelins.
The Byzantines are all about operating as a combined force. Many of their abilities revolve around units supporting each other, and thus receiving bonuses, and are designed to especially take advantage of the extra number of bow-armed troops that the Byzantine player will likely deploy. Also, the Byzantine faction is the first where it is highly likely (due to the ‘Scouting’ ability) to deploy three Levy units – 36 javelin armed soldiers activated together is like to ruin anyone’s day.
Finally, the book details a new ‘Swords for Hire’ unit – the Steppe Nomads, who as you might expect as expert mounted archers. This mercenary unit can be used with any of the factions presented in this book.
At first glance these new factions do seem a little more challenging to play well, but will reward those who play them to their strengths. I know many Saga players believe that the Byzantines are possibly a little too powerful, but I suspect that this is yet again the simple issue of learning how to fight a new opponent – some new opponents mean you having to change your own tactics.
Varjazi & Basileus is a nice conclusion to Saga’s Dark Age factions. It provides new challenges, and also ensures that a really interesting army in the shape of the Byzantines is not limited in use to those who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this game