The Dark Ages as a gaming genre has been under something of a revival ever since Saga appeared on the scene a couple of years ago. Longships is Peter Pig’s addition to this growing catalogue. The rules concentrate, as you may well gather from the title, on the Vikings as the main protagonists. With the game you can depict raids on villages or pitched battles, where the Vikings fought such opponents as the Saxons, Irish, Welsh, Scots and Carolingians, as well as other Vikings.
In order to play the game, you will require a 5’ x 3’ cloth, on which a grid of 6” squares has been marked in some way. Each player will need an army (more of which shortly) plus seven pieces of scenery (each of which measures 6” x 12”). If you are playing the ‘raid’ game, three of these must be buildings. You’ll also need a number of markers and 20 six-sided dice (this is the first rule set I have read in which it is stipulated that all dice need to of the same colour and size!)
Armies are designed around points, with an army costing 400 points. Each army consists of a single general, five major units and a number of skirmishing units (depending upon the army). Each unit is made up of a number of bases – usually between six and eight, although some armies allow more. There are various types of bases available, depicting different troop types. These include leaders, armoured, unarmoured, levy and berserkers. Different troop types can be mixed in the same unit, but restrictions apply, based on the army you are building.
The game is designed to be used with Peter Pig’s range of 15mm Dark Age figures, hence why you split units into bases – each base is an element of troops. However, the rules also stipulate that you can substitute a 15mm base for a single 28mm figure, thus making the game accessible to all those players out there with ready built warbands from playing games of Saga. It’s also worth noting that units, at least in the Viking army, are meant to depict the crew of a single longship.
Once you have chosen your army, you then chose whether you will be fighting a battle game or a raid game; there are several pages for each different game, which take you through a pre-game sequence and table set-up. Initiative is determined by the type of game you are about to play.
The turn sequence is I-go-U-go, with something of a push-your-luck variation. You first move your general, and all your skirmishing units may then take three actions. Then you choose a main unit and declare what action you wish to take. Actions include movement, change of formation, assaulting or searching a building. Actions can be easy, medium, difficult or very difficult. For example, moving into an adjacent empty square is deemed to be an easy action, but assaulting a unit in an adjacent square is deemed a difficult action. Each unit starts with a dice pool of six dice, although this can be amended by the type of unit. Each time you declare an action, you roll all the dice in the dice pool, looking to roll a single ‘success’. A ‘success’ is 3+ for an easy action, 4+ for a medium action etc. If you roll at least one success, you may carry out the proposed action. You remove a dice from the dice pool, and then may declare another action. You may stop at any point and move onto activating another unit, or you may continue taking actions with a single unit as long as you have dice to roll. However, should you fail to roll any successes, your turn ends immediately and play passes to the opposing player.
Movement in the game is simply carried out by moving from one square to the next – no measuring is involved. The majority of movement must be done orthogonally, only skirmishing units and units in line formation may move diagonally at all.
Combat happens when you attempt to assault a unit in an adjacent square (each square can only hold a single unit). It’s a bucket-o-dice affair, with each player rolling a number of dice equal to the number of bases in the unit, plus several additional dice on either side dependent upon modifiers. You hit on a 5 or 6. The outcome of the combat is dependent upon the number of hits you inflict, not the casualties that you cause. The difference in the number of hits between attacker and defender determine whether the combat is drawn, the loser is pushed back or even routed.
The game has a maximum of twelve turns, but any time after turn five the attacker can declare ‘end of game’. The defender can prolong the game by up to a further five turns, but it costs victory points to do so.
Once the game have finished, victory points are allocated depending upon several different factors, including land occupied (or defended), casualties inflicted, leaders killed and units routed. Several of these factors are random, and so the margin of victory (or even defeat in a close run battle) could well be at the whim of the dice gods.
Further rules in the game cover fatigue, morale, searching for plunder and fighting a challenge.
Overall, Longships is a perfectly fine wargame. The use of the grid system certainly speeds the game up from a movement point-of-view, and the combat system works pretty well, although navigating the application of all the different markers and their various modifiers is a bit of a challenge at first. The game also works well substituting 28mm figures for 15mm bases, although it looks much more like a skirmish than a battle, and a Viking Longship turns into something akin to a large canoe, given the games premise for force composition.
The rules are, however, not without issue. This may sound a little daft, coming from a wargamer, but it seems that this game asks you to roll dice for everything. I can understand it for most circumstances, but I do fail to see why even the allocation of victory points (and potentially the winner of the game) is random. The difference of 3D6 victory points for the loss of a general is potentially an awfully big swing, especially when a spread of 15 points covers 3 potential outcomes.
The biggest problem, at least for me, is the rulebook itself. As you can imagine, I read an awful lot of rulebooks in the space of a year, and this is the first for a while that I found difficult to read, indeed, it took me three sittings to get through it. I think part of the reason is that the rules appear to be written ‘back to front’. Whilst it starts describing what you need to play the game, it quickly starts talking about army lists and campaign game and table set-up. Indeed, you do not come across the first rule about how a turn works until page 64. And yet there is almost a full page on notes on player behaviour (however tongue in cheek) on page 6.
I realise this is a style thing, but as I read the rules I couldn’t help thinking “this is all well and good, but how do you play the game?!” OK, you may ask why I simply didn’t look at the index or the table of contents and turn to the relevant page? (At least this rulebook has both!) Well, I do believe that a rulebook is put together in the order it is for a reason, and I normally read rulebooks front-to-back on the first couple of readings, before I start using them more as a reference.
And then something else struck me. I found the rulebook difficult to read because I found it bland, and maybe worse, just a bit boring. It’s the first rulebook I’ve read for a while where everything, including the pictures, are in black and white. Pages of text and gridlines and greyscale photos, which would be great in colour, but lose something in monochrome; especially the photos. It’s amazing how quickly things change in the world of publishing, even in wargaming. We are now surrounded by a multicolour media world, and colour rules production would seem to be the norm.
My wife doesn’t very often engage me in conversation about my hobby (at least, not unless she is mentioning the latest purchase taking up vital household space) but as I read these rules, she leaned over and asked me how much they where. When told, she quickly retorted that she wouldn’t pay anywhere near that much. Not a comment on the contents, simply on the presentation.
The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still holds true, and indeed inside Longships there is a perfectly good game waiting to be discovered. However, it hides behind production values that are swiftly being left behind.