Review: Vikings on Board
July 25, 2016 /
Designers: Charles Chevallier, Pascal Pelemans, Catherine Dumas
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Category: Work Placement / Strategy Game
Board Game Geek Ranking: N/A
Blue Orange Games is a company primarily known for children’s games, but in 2015 they decided to step up to “family games,” meant for ages 8 and up and designed with adults in mind. The first fruit of this endeavor was the wildly successful New York 1901, and now Blue Orange is at it again with Vikings on Board.
Vikings boasts the same beautiful, colorful artwork style of New York 1901, but comes from a designer trio with quite the pedigree (Abyss, Sultaniya, Masques, and others) instead of a newcomer. Will lightning strike twice for Blue Orange?
Spiritual Content: None
Violence: None, though the game is somewhat mean-spirited. Despite being Viking-themed, no weapons are shown anywhere.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
In the past few years, two things happened that got me excited for Vikings on Board. The first is that I loved Blue Orange’s first “big box” release, New York 1901. The second is that one of the designers of Vikings put out the smash hit, Abyss, which was co-designed with the well-known Bruno Cathala (Five Tribes, Shadows over Camelot). Then, something happened very recently that got me even more excited: I opened the box.
Vikings on Board’s components are so good that the praises I am about to sing can’t possibly do them justice. The game comes with two plastic insert trays, with a place for each piece, and everything is already punched out for you–a board gamer’s dream! That means you don’t even have to assemble the ship pieces, either. I was expecting an hour of my life to be sucked up just assembling this game (if you have the game Colt Express, you know what I mean). The different-colored miniatures won’t satisfy any wargamers, but they’re functional and beautiful, just like everything else. The artwork on the board does a wonderful job being both colorful and muted, and the iconography is actually very clear once you get the hang of it, despite being language-independent. And given these production values, I think the game is very aggressively priced at $39.99. The only thing left to do is to play the game!
Vikings on Board is a worker placement game (think Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep), with a very unique twist. The actions available are laid out in order of increasing usefulness, but the order in which players grab actions with their vikings determines turn order for the next round. So if you took that very powerful action in the very back, that same viking will take the very last move in the next round–and perhaps there won’t be any useful actions left. Most of the actions involve swapping pieces on the eight boats available, but the most important action is Set Sail. Choosing this action lets you decree which boat, well, “sets sail” at the end of the victory, giving goods (i.e. victory points) to the player(s) with the most influence on that boat. It’s an incredibly clever turn-order mechanism, but the boat-competition system it is strapped onto has a few weak points.
Players score points in Vikings on Board through two primary means: correctly betting who will control a ship when it takes off, and collecting goods (which might increase in value during the game). You have only four betting tokens to use, and there are generally very few goods that come out–in fact, there are only 15 tokens that could be available in the entire game. I’m told that 21 is, in fact, the high score in recorded games so far, so there’s little margin for error. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but those narrow opportunities for points means that most of the game comes down to trying to use the actions that move and swap boat pieces to position yourself, despite the fact that you have no idea which boat will launch, unless you are the one who took the Set Sail action (and even though, you probably have not decided yet).
This means that Vikings is a very tactical game. I find the game works much better with three or four players, but you have to accept the fact that things are very easily going to go awry, as one move can ruin the plans of all of the other players at once. I think this comes in part from the fact that the collection of the goods is always a little unsatisfying; there are rarely more than two goods on a ship, and you’ll end up splitting that lot with whoever has second control of the ship after you’ve spent all of your actions vying for first control. You also have to realize that since everything revolves around which ship goes out and what’s on it, repeat games are going to play out somewhat similarly.
I’ll admit I’m being a bit tough here, as the biggest strength of Vikings on Board is that it truly is easy to learn, making it a wonderful gateway game for players who are new to hobby board games and worker placement in particular. Vikings’ gorgeous production brings it to a level it would not otherwise be; it’s honestly just fun to look at the game when it’s not your turn. Furthermore, the attractive price point means that this is not quite as deep a commitment for newbies as many other introductory games. I’ve enjoyed all of my plays so far and I would gladly play the game again. Its biggest hurdle, actually, is in the timing of its release. The past year has seen a ridiculous flood of viking-themed games after years without any, another game just beat it to the “on board” joke (Animals On Board), and, perhaps most importantly, the gameplay has a lot of similarities to recent Spiel des Jahres nominee Imhotep. It remains to be seen if any of these things will matter, particularly in a year or two from now when those coincidences are forgotten.
In sum, Vikings on Board is simple, gorgeous, and a little shallow. But for people who are new to hobby board gaming, I think the selling points are that board games can be beautiful works of art, and that they aren’t as intimidating as you might otherwise think. Vikings on Board absolutely delivers on those two counts. If you find yourself ready to move after five or ten games, I would still say you’ve got your money’s worth.
Thanks to Blue Orange Games for providing a review copy of Vikings on Board.
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