Saga “Age of the Wolf” Campaign Supplement Review

Tomahawk Studios’ Saga has captured my imagination and attention lately. Last summer I finished a six-point Anglo-Dane warband before we moved to a new state in hopes of finding gaming partners through the popular system. I recently connected with a few other new players. When Age of the Wolf (AotW) released, we bought up a copy as quick as possible. While we have had a great time playing one-off Saga games, AotW‘s campaign system adds a whole new layer of enjoyment. Now my Anglo-Danes have names and histories! Their heroic deeds and unfortunate failures echo from game to game, and my collection is starting to grow again. With our first campaign season complete, it is time to deliver a short review of AotW.

Campaign Mechanics

AotW‘s system is highly abstract and asynchronous. There are no meta-maps to track, no wonky points values to move around, and no need to have every player in the room at once. While campaigning on a big map where territories grow and shrink is a lot of fun, my experience is that complex campaigns peter out quickly. I have very little time available for my hobby these days, so I appreciate the flexibility of AotW. Armies don’t march across maps in AotW, but the campaign adds some extra meaning to game outcomes, a little character to your warband, and a lot of motivation to keep building and playing. The system’s flexibility is also a major asset. Players can easily jump in to the campaign, drop out, or temporarily withdraw without disrupting play.

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Anglo-Danes catch a Norman supply convoy in a classic hammer-and-anvil ambush

In short, the campaign plays out over six “seasons.” In each season, each player chooses one action (raid, campaign, defend) and one target. Everybody’s actions are compared together on a simple chart that generates the types of games to be played in the season. The whole process takes just a couple minutes. Players are then free to schedule their own games at their convenience within the realtime limits agreed to by the group. Can’t play a game this month? No worries…just pay the Danegeld in money or land and move on to the next season.

The campaign is built around the saga of your warlord. A few die rolls at the beginning of the campaign generate unique skills and traits for your warlord that turn him into something akin to a “Hero of the Viking Age” character. For instance, Tostig Bloodeaxe (my Anglo-Dane warlord) his favored by the gods (and so may roll twice on the post-battle fate table and choose his preferred result) and has a blood feud with another player’s Viking warlord. Tostig also has a “Conqueror” ability that adds attacks to units within M distance if Tostig himself is not in combat. Your warlord’s warband will grow and shrink each season depending upon casualties taken in combat and the result of fate rolls between games.

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Anglo-Dane hearthguard clear the woods of pesky Norman crossbowmen

Campaign scores are based on your warlord’s accumulation of land, wealth, reputation, and campaign victory points. The first three are usually earned as a result of successful campaigns, raids, and defenses respectively, though there are other options too. For instance, Tostig can gain reputation and wealth if he slays his blood feud target in combat. Pursuit of these various types of points adds depth to individual games. Take our last game for example: though my warband won (leaving behind several burning Norman supply wagons), my opponent actually walked away with bigger gains in reputation and wealth because he fulfilled his blood feud by wounding my warlord.

I won’t go in to all the details of campaign mechanics here. If you want more of those details, you can check out an extended run-down at the Harold’s Revenge blog.

Warbands start at four points, and the composition is limited by the amount of land (levy), wealth (warriors), and reputation (hearthguard) that you warlord collects. Ordinarily, warlords start with two of each (land/wealth/rep), so may select up to two of each type of unit. Players receive limited reinforcements at the beginning of each campaign season. After games, warbands lose figures as permanent casualties at a rate of one for every four models removed during the game. In the post-game phase, some fate roll results deliver reinforcements or unit upgrades. I am still confused about how “units” in the campaign tracker and “units” in the game relate. Can players balance their units in games for optimal dice generation or pursuit of mission objectives, as in a normal game? If so, how does one track which campaign “unit” took casualties? I need to do more reading. For now, we’re letting players reorganize their warbands in game. We then track how many of each type of unit (levy/warrior/hearthguard) took casualties and let the player decide which campaign units lose models permanently.

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Rogbert the Handsome and his warrior meat-shields go in for the kill against Tostig Bloodeaxe, the Anglo-Dane warlord and unlucky target of a Rogbert’s blood feud.

 

 

So, after our first season, would I recommend purchasing AotW? YES! The system is straightforward and simple to manage. Although built for the 1066-set, it could easily be translated for Crescent & the Cross. Plus the price is right at less than $20. In all, we have already gotten a fantastic return on investment in this supplement.

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The crucial moment. Tostig desperately fights for his life at the top (he escaped with a flesh wound) while the elite Norman knights confidently ride in for the kill in the center…a little too closely to some Anglo-Dane warriors. The subsequent Lords of Battle assault devastated and exhausted the knights.

 

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First Saga Blooding – Vikings vs. Anglo-Danes

My new Anglo-Danes (build posts one, two, and three) fought to victory and glory this week in their inaugural battle! This was both proof of beginner’s luck and of the maxim that painted troops fight harder. The battle was also my first outing with the Saga system. I’ll say up front that I was really pleased with the game, but I’ll save details for later.

My friend invited me over to his place for this game. He had played Saga a few times, so he graciously showed me the ropes and eased me into the gameplay. A full report along with some great pictures can be found on his blog, so I’ll keep the details of the game short. I should note here that I really enjoyed his game board. It was a plywood top with sand glued on, finished with a few layers of thick paint and highlighting. The method is simple, but the effect was great.

 

Battle Report

We played 6-points using the Clash of Warlords scenario, in which the goal is to kill the opponent’s warlord. I took two points of warriors, three of hearthguard (four models had Dane-Axes), and one point of levy (slingers). I divided them up into two groups of eight warriors, one of eight hearthguard, one of four Dane-axe hearthguard, and the twelve-man slinger detachment. I lined the four larger units up with the big block of hearthguard in the middle. My warlord positioned himself behind the center with his four Dane-axe pals as a reserve.

My opponent brought a hard-hitting Viking list with four points of hearthguard (including berserkers) and two points of warriors. The Vikings felt like the yin to my Anglo-Danish yang. Where my abilities focused on loading opponents with fatigue, his focused on rapid fatigue removal.

During the game, my slingers put an end to the berserkers, though the single berserker who survived ranged fire took three models with him. On my right, one group of my warriors spent the game trading harsh words with a group of Viking warriors, though both

Insults

Trading harsh words on the right

were too busy watching the action in the center to enter the fight themselves. In the critical center of our battle lines, the Vikings carved through my troops. Fortunately, my Anglo-Danes dealt enough damage as they died that my reserve (four dane-axe hearthguard and my warlord) were able to finish off the Viking troops and isolate my opponent’s warlord.

 

Mustering his last two hearthguard companions, my warlord charged into combat against his hulking Viking opponent. My warlord escaped hits while inflicting four on his opponent. Surely it was the end—but no! Three of four hits saved on a 5+. In our second round of combat, the Viking luck didn’t hold. One of my hearthguard sacrificed himself for my warlord, and the Dane-axes laid low the mighty Viking raider.

I learned a few good lessons in my initial blooding. First, know your battle board! Each faction is capable of some effective combinations, but achieving them requires good dice management. I found that Lords of Battle and Exhaustion on the Anglo-Dane board are one of those combos. Second, play to your faction’s strengths. Third, plan ahead. If you blow all your dice and abilities on your half of the turn, your troops could be hurting in your opponent’s half. Fourth, some battle board abilities are more useful than others (see lesson one)—the combat pool, for instance, is usually an inefficient use of dice. Fifth, consider larger units of warriors. Saga is bloody and troops die fast—having more bodies on the field to absorb blows could prove useful.

 

Review

Overall, I really enjoyed Saga as a game. It is absolutely not a simulation of “Dark Age” warfare, but that’s fine. I didn’t expect it to be one…I hoped it would not be one. The basic mechanics are simple and easy to pick up—I had it all down within a couple of turns. The different battle boards and the randomized ability and activation availability created through dice rolling add a huge amount of depth and strategy to the simple system.

Final Combat 3

Good luck, boss!

Saga plays fast, which (along with its points system) makes it ideal for an evening game or a tournament. I finished my first game in under an hour-and-a-half, and that included a break to walk the dog.

 

I also liked that the gameplay fostered a narrative. With so much emphasis on warlords and scenarios, there’s a lot of character to enjoy. I can’t wait to pick up the new campaign system!

Finally, Saga involves a small up-front investment of time and money. The figure count is low and the terrain requirements are both minimal and clearly articulated. These factors make it easy to jump in, or convince others to do so. The low cost of investment also make Saga an attractive diversionary side game/project.

I strongly recommend Saga! Now I just need to study my battle board and find some players in New York…

First Hearthguard Charge

The Anglo-Dane Hearthguard’s First and Last Glorious Charge

Battlegroup Playtest – Brits vs. Germans in Defensive Line

I have been hooked on Chain of Command for a few years now. Sometimes I get the itch to move up to a company-level game, though. I enjoy the greater degree of combined-arms action at the company level. Companies still turn decisively on the actions of individuals, so they make for characterful subjects. I cut my teeth on Flames of War. I enjoyed the game, but it was definitely a game. When I came across I Ain’t Been Shot Mum, I moved on from FOW without a second thought. Unfortunately, nobody else came with me, and several games of IABSM have left me feeling ambivalent about the system that sounded so good on paper.

I am in the initial planning stages of a new project now—Ardennes 1944. The Battle of the Bulge is among my favorite topics of traditional military history, and this project has been gestating for a while. I am inclined to play it at the company-level, so the first step is to settle on a system. I have narrowed the competitors down to two: Battlegroup and IABSM. This weekend, I tested the Battlegroup by Iron Fist Publishing. How did it go? Read on!

Battle Report

We played the defensive line scenario at the platoon level, capping points at 500. I played a British infantry platoon on the defensive with some armor support. My opponent played an attacking German SS platoon with armor support. I included a little bit of everything in each list so that we could give every mechanism a trial run – artillery in direct and general support, armor, armored transports, machine guns, and defenses. I didn’t take sufficient notes for an in-depth battle report, but here’s an overview of the action:

 

The Germans out-scouted me, so I started with a morale counter. My opponent’s probing force (including his battlegroup commander in a Panzer IV, on which also rode his FOO and a machine gun team…probably a bad idea) pressed forward brazenly. A farm divided my fields of fire to the front, so I positioned a 6 pdr to deny the larger central area. The little gun didn’t inflict much damage besides some pins and a kill on a recon halftrack, but it spooked the hasty assaulters and denied most of my front for the rest of the game. On my right side of the board (west), a single infantry squad cowered in foxholes, praying for armored reinforcements. My opponent wisely targeted them for a breakthrough.

Three turns in, most of my opponent’s reserves showed up. They were primarily Panzer IVs with panzergrenadier tank riders. They closed the gap quickly and scared the solo rifle squad off the table (pinned, a single kill, after which I failed a morale roll). The British platoon commander rushed over, dismayed to find his squad heading for the rear. He stepped into the breach, positioning himself with his trusty PIAT team behind a hedge.

The German attack came on relentlessly. My FOO furiously worked the direct-support mortars. These guns didn’t inflict many casualties, but they expended a lot of rounds and achieved some key pins to slow up the assault and force my opponent to draw morale chits. My armored reserves came in just as the Germans crashed through my front-line defenses…and not a moment too soon! My Firefly dispatched two Panzer IVs, forcing morale chit draws. These, together with earlier draws to rally troops, broke my opponent’s battle rating. A narrow victory for the plucky British defenders!

 

The Good:

Overall, we had a good time with Battlegroup. The game came to a satisfying conclusion within about two and a half hours, which was impressive considering this was our first time playing. I spent the first two turns furiously flipping through the rulebook, but by turn three everything clicked perfectly. My only persistent question came from autocannon fire, but that was a minor issue. By the end of the game, we were only making infrequent references to the rulebook and playing right off the two-page quick reference sheet. Play also moved quickly because the turn structure allows players to coordinate unit actions and focus on key tasks. We rarely had enough orders to issue one to every unit, though, so player control was not total or given.

Battlegroup’s morale system is outstanding, and my favorite part of the game. The system creates a lot of tension when drawing chits and denies players perfect knowledge of their opponent’s standing. The inclusion of random events in the chits is fun too. Sometimes the chit doesn’t damage morale, but brings in an airstrike, causes an enemy tank to drive over a mine, or pins an enemy unit. Those random events bring a gratifying degree of friction and narrative to the game.

The scouting phase is another of the system’s strengths. The side with the fewer reconnaissance assets must take a morale chit before the game begins. Most scenarios also start with several turns where only reconnaissance units are on the table. This gives a role to units that are often under-valued and under-represented in other games. Here, recon units can snag key terrain and screen the arrival of the main force.

Finally, I like the system’s point-based force building scheme. I can hear Lardy gasps. The system helps players create reasonably historical forces that are reasonably evenly matched, though. This makes collecting figures easier, scenario design simpler, and the game more “pickup” friendly. A group could pick this game up and set point-values for a session’s play, significantly cutting down on preparation and coordination requirements.

I have to give a shout-out to Battlegroupbuilder for making the force-building and roster-printing process a snap!

The Not-So-Good:

Reviewing my list of complaints reveals something fundamental about Battlegroup – it is definitely more a game than a simulation. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It is a point of interest, though, and one the game’s creators have acknowledged elsewhere as a design principle.

My first complaint is that players control elements down to the team level. I understand the thought behind this. After all, the game is supposed to scale from the squad all the way up to the battalion level. Because I am looking for a company-level game, I prefer control down to the squad level (the old two-levels-down dictum). Team control gets messy, and as the size of engagement grows the complexity of tracking units explodes. I admit that it does work well at the platoon-plus level, which is what we played.

Officers and senior NCOs play a minor role in Battlegroup. Officers give you an additional guaranteed order, and most can call artillery or mortar strikes, but otherwise they are just another infantry team. The system incentivizes lead-from-the-rear officership. This criticism reveals my Lardy orientation. I want my leaders to be out front and influencing the battle. I also want them to have some personality for the sake of game narrative.

German Recon Moves OutArtillery, I thought, was a bit wonky. The basis of my complaint is the way fires come in. An observer calls for fire, the spotting round deviates (upwards of 4D6”), and then the player decides whether or not to fire for effect. There’s no firing adjustments, though some spotters such as FOOs can re-roll one scatter dice, and a new mission must be called each turn. Artillery’s effects spread strangely in the beaten zone too. Possible hits are calculated by the number of guns firing, usually maxing out at four hits. These are placed one at a time on units by proximity to the barrage aim point. One team could pick up a hit while an adjacent team just a few inches from the aim point gets away unscathed. The trade-off here is between speed and realism. Battlegroup sacrifices some realism to streamline the game. Again, this is not an inherently negative aspect, but potential players should be aware of it. On a related note, the game does not allow players to call for smoke. The designers explain smoke’s absence by claiming its presence on the battlefield is abstracted and incorporated into the observation roll when conducting aimed fire. This is another example of streamlining play. It works for the game, I think, but I’m looking for something more realistic. Besides, smoke capability would give my 2” mortar team something to do besides twiddling their thumbs off-table.

My final complaint is about ammo tracking on vehicles. Players have to choose an HE and AP load-out for each vehicle before the game begins, then track rounds fired. I didn’t think tracking was burdensome, but the system just didn’t do it for me. The purpose of the rule, I think, is to force players to make strategic decisions about main gun usage, and to encourage the purchase and use of soft-skinned ammo carriers rarely seen on most miniatures battlefields.

Bottom Line: I enjoyed Battlegroup and will play it again. I think it is a terrific system for club or convention play, or for introducing new players to WWII gaming. I will also continue buying Battlegroup’s theater handbooks. Not only can I use their theater-specific rules and force lists for inspiration and general guidance in other games, but the books are packed with inspiration eye candy. That being said, I don’t think Battlegroup will be my go-to rules for my own projects. Fortunately, I can base figures for my alternative system in such a way that they will work perfectly for the occasional Battlegroup game.British Reinforcements Move Out

Where to next? I am returning to IABSM for another trial run. Previous experiences with IABSM generated two great complaints from me: the system was too chaotic and rarely produced a satisfying conclusion in an afternoon or evening. I have some house rules brewing to address these issues:

  • Steal Battlegroup’s “reserve move” order idea – Units in IABSM will be able to reserve their movement to use later in a turn or on a tea-break, hopefully enabling better coordination
  • Units chits/cards will be for a unit type (e.g., armor platoon, infantry platoon) where possible, not for specific units. I hope this will give players the opportunity to better coordinate actions and concentrate efforts. I understand the stated rationale for the system’s inherent chaos, but I’m not so convinced of its accuracy or necessity. I am convinced that it gets in the way of a satisfying game for many players.
  • Use Battlegroup’s point values as a rough guide in scenario building.
  • Abolish the linkage between number of men in squad and number of actions. I’m going to have to figure out the nuts and bolts of this, but it will probably resemble CoC’s activation options.
  • Spotting – Need to think hard on this. Hidden deployment and blinds are a fun part of the game, but they require a lot of bookkeeping and make players overly cautious. Definitely good for simulation, but maybe a little too harmful for achieving decisive action in an afternoon.
  • Incorporate morale – This is easy…one of the Lardy summer specials features a bolt-on morale system for IABSM
  • Less a house-rule, more a best practice – Incorporate more of a reconnaissance fight in scenarios

Do you have any house-rules for IABSM that have improved your gaming experience?

Review: Churchill by GMT

November 1943, Tehran. Soviet forces force back the Germans on the eastern front, but slowly. The war in the Pacific grinds toward Japan, though islands capable of basing bombers are just out of reach. Churchill keeps going on about the Mediterranean and the importance of seizing Rome, and maybe inserting troops in the Balkans thereafter. I would really like to push OVERLORD back a few more months in order to focus on speeding up my Pacific campaigns, and to invest some effort in building the framework for a post-war United Nations. But can I resist Stalin’s demands for a second front? Can I keep Churchill’s mind out of the Mediterranean? Can I do something about rumors of communist infiltration in Southeast Asia?

In a single turn of GMT’s new Churchill game, players face similar dilemmas and more. Churchill is about winning the war, but each of the three players also has to keep an eye on winning the peace. The result is a deliciously delicate balancing act.ChurchillBox

Churchill is the brain child of game designer Mark Herman, one-time CEO of Victory Games and creator of notable titles such as Gulf Strike and For the People. He makes clear that while the object of the game is to “manipulate the end of World War II” to each player’s relative advantage, the game is not about direct competition. Instead, it is a game of “coopetition” (or is that comperation?) in which players both compete and cooperate. A player’s best chance of winning comes through defeating both Germany and Japan while racking up conference victories (more on this later), building clandestine and political influence in various states, dominating select “global issues,” and achieving military objectives. The trick, however, is two-fold. First, no one player can “go it alone” and win the war. Second, uncooperative players who outscore their opponents by too large a margin can lose by doing so. Act like a domineering jerk? The other two powers cooperate against you in the postwar world to undercut your victory.

Gameplay proceeded much faster and more intuitively than I anticipated. Each turn, of which there are ten in the full scenario, confronts each player with numerous strategic dilemmas. Options, opportunities, and desires always exceed a player’s capacity for action. Good strategy demands prioritization, and therein lays the challenge. The basic quandary of possible ends outstripping means is very reminiscent of another of my favorite games, GMT’s Twilight Struggle.

Enough rambling, though. How does the game actually play? Each turn has two phases: conference and war. Turns commence with selection of a conference card that mandates a few conditions, such as required resource commitments per player or the randomized destruction of clandestine networks. Each conference has three cards with different conditions, but only one will be used for each conference per game. No two games should be identical, then. In every conference, players will have a seven-card hand. The cards represent a key staff member with a “power” rating and conditional ability. Players then take turns using these cards to debate various issues. Issues range from opening a second front and placing clandestine networks or political influence to atomic bomb research and “directed offensives” that require specific players to commit resources to fronts Churchill Game Boarddetermined by the winner of the issue. The conference board is an ingenious design. Issues start stacked in the middle. Staff cards advance an issue along the player’s track according to the card’s power value. If a player can move a card all the way to level seven, he captures the issue and takes it off the table. Otherwise, issues remain open for debate. So, if Roosevelt’s power level three staffer moves an issue onto the US track three spaces, a subsequent Soviet play of a power level five staffer moves the issue three spaces back to the center, then two spaces onto the Soviet track. The phase ends when each player’s hand is exhausted. Players generally win any issue remaining on their track at the end of the conference.

Players resolve issues and allocate production resources next. A player’s options depend upon the issues he or she won. If, for example, a player won a “Pol/Mil” issue, that player can cash in production points for clandestine markers or political influence that he can place on the board later in the turn. Players also convert production markers into naval or offensive support points, which they then allocate to the various war fronts. Naval support enables amphibious operations. Offensive support improves a front’s odds of advancing.

 

In the war phase, players take turns placing clandestine networks and political influence, then attempt to advance fronts closer to Germany or Japan. Fronts advance by rolling a success number on a D10, the number being two or less naturally, but modified by offensive support and enemy reserve markers. The game ends when both Germany and Japan are defeated, or after ten conferences (five in the tournament scenario).

The game is best played with three players, but “’bots” enable play with fewer (or zero) human players. Each ‘bot is a set of rules uniquely tailored to a Big Three member. Pitting three ‘bots against one another is entirely possible, and may be a good way to learn the rules.

The game’s components are very nice. The main board is attractive, durable, and highly annotated. Nothing feels cheap. I especially appreciated the rulebook’s layout. The book begins with a “quickstart” section that gives a broad outline of play. Its next section is a detailed breakdown of each phase. It concludes with a surprisingly engaging narrative of an example game turn. The book’s index is organized in several broad categories. Here’s the bottom line: I comfortably understood gameplay after one read through and I never had a problem finding anything during play.

InvadersAt Yalta

An expansion pack waiting to happen?

How did we do in our first play through? Poorly! We played the tournament scenario covering the last five conferences, all in about three hours—pretty good for the first time! At the end of the game, Allied forces were in the Rhineland and Prussia, but Germany had not yet fallen. In the Pacific, we were nowhere close to Japan. The Soviet player ended with the most points, but because neither Axis power surrendered he had to remove D6 points from his score. The second place player removed half of a D6 roll from his score, and the third place player added D6. In the final rankings, the Soviet player fell to second. Our after action review turned up numerous mistakes in our approach to the game. For starters, we all focused too much on “peripheral issues” instead of on winning the war. We got carried away with clandestine networks, political influence, Northern Italy (thanks, Churchill!), and pointlessly bickering over theater leadership. We also noticed that for the first three conferences, none of us really talked, negotiated, or coordinated with one another. Each player hid behind his hand of cards and worked to thwart the others at the conference table. In the later conferences, we learned to negotiate. Sure, some diplomatic fighting continued, but we were able to utilize our resources more rationally and advance more quickly. There’s a good lesson here—Churchill is not a zero-sum game. Working together is crucial.

 

Final Evaluation:

The Good – Churchill constantly confronts players with dilemmas and demands a coherent strategy, but the actual nuts-and-bolts gameplay is very streamlined. I was impressed with how easily we grasped the core mechanics and how quickly the game played. The game also nails coopetition, though we didn’t. Churchill captures the historical dynamics of the WWII alliance well. I would advocate its use as a teaching aid, even at the high school level. Finally, the game is challenging and offers an enormous amount of replayability. Not only will conference conditions vary from game to game, but each player faces unique problems and demands. I played Roosevelt last time, and I have no doubt that the game will look very different in many ways if I sit in Churchill’s or Stalin’s seat next time.

The “Could Be Better” – Finding an issue with this game is tough. I loved it. The possible issue I remember was in score tracking. Scores cannot really be tallied until the game is over. Turn-to-turn tracking would be a little wonky for a number of reasons. However, winning the game requires minimizing the point spread between high and low scores. This can be tricky if you’re not sure where everyone stands. This did not bother me much, in fact I thought it was pretty realistic, but I can see how someone might get a little frustrated.

Verdict: Buy it. Play it. ASAP.