Saga of the Northmen
In Saga of the Northmen, you control a clan of mighty Northmen. Each round, you will use your influence cards to try to gain control of the seven major kingdoms of Europe. You will then maneuver the armies and fleets of the kingdoms that have fallen under your sway. Use your forces wisely, and the riches of Europe are yours for the taking. But beware, there are other clans who also seek plunder and coin. Only the richest and most notorious clan will prevail! (Board Game Geek)
Area Control/Area Influence
Designer: Scott W. Leibbrandt
Publisher: Minion Games
As legends go, Minion Games met designer Scott W. Leibbrandt (Colonialism) at a local play testing meetup. Seeing the potential for Saga of the Northmen, Minion Games launched the game’s first Kickstarter in October of 2015.
The first campaign was unsuccessful. With perseverance, Minion waited a year and relaunched Saga of the Northmen in September of 2016. The game was funded and will be available for purchase late February to early March.
Saga of the Northmen is a game about warfare and plundering treasure. However, all violence is strictly implied through gameplay. Cards lack any sort of violent artwork. The board is simply a map of Dark Europe.
Sailing ships full of angry, bearded men. Fields caked in blood and thirst for plunder. Innocents caught up in a violent struggle between old enemies and new allies. Routes guarded carefully by splinter parties.
Saga of the Northmen put players in charge of influencing and inciting tribes toward conquest and glory. Played over three rounds, players will place influence in regions and move troops into neutral areas. The victorious player will efficiently complete ownership of trade routes, while amassing a majority of plunder tokens.
At game start, players are given a hand of influence cards and few route cards. Influence cards depict one of the seven tribes a player may influence. Not all cards are created equal, with some allowing naval transportation, and most only allowing adjacent land movement. Each card has a different number attached and when played, gives the player an equal number of cubes in that region.
Most cards will also direct players to place a round plunder token in a neutral region. Though these are key to victory, influence is the motivator of the northmen. Players stack influence cubes onto regions adjacent to high value neutral regions. At first, troop placement is arbitrary, but over time it becomes clear where players should have stacked their influence.
After the fifteen tokens are dropped, players check for majority numbers in each region with the highest number overtaking the lower numbers. These weaker troops are considered martyred for the cause and are placed onto a player’s action card. More on this thing later.
Hard-earned influence now pays off, as the most influential players command the mighty men from each controlled region. From here, it becomes a time-table, starting with the most populated regions moving their troops into neutral regions. Players can choose to sacrifice some of their martyred cubes in order to delay their movement, allowing for a better vantage point on overtaking the most defenseless of regions.
After all tribes have moved, the majority wins in each region, killing off the opposing cubes, and taking plunder for their own. In addition, players can now turn in the appropriate trade routes, requiring control of a specific tribe, and a specific neutral region. From here, two more rounds are played, and the game ends. The victor amasses the most points between routes and plunder.
Now, I’ve not played Risk for many years. However, my childhood experience left an indelible impression that upon reflection, I think Saga of the Northmen is close to Risk, but much, much better.
Player elimination is a mistake of Risk. No one enjoys taking an evening off to play board games with friends, only to lose in the first half hour and sit out the rest of the evening while everyone else has fun. Furthermore, Risk rewards a conqueror by giving them the spoils of their opponent. This makes the winner immensely powerful, hugely increasing their chances of winning.
Saga has no elimination. Players also cannot snowball their way to victory in Saga. Every lost troop becomes a point towards one of your four available actions. You can keep a powerful influence card or place a tie-breaking hero unit with your forces. Even more powerful, you can use the time token to stave your own movement until other players have moved their reinforcements.
In many modern games, combat is not only decided by dice. Players have options to mitigate an opponent’s roll, or to add points to their own. Risk combat is mostly decided by rolling some dice and hoping for the best.
In Saga of the Northmen, players count up their units and the highest number wins. You get these units through cards, of which one can count to deduce what remains in the deck. When replenishing your hand, players have a choice of four different cards. Rolling dice isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in many games I enjoy it. What’s better than having options though? You know a dice roll is a random value between 1-6. You know there are 56 influence cards in a deck. Here you can not only choose between multiple options to reinforce your hand of cards, but you can learn which cards will become revealed, therefore making your choices far more educated once randomness is reduced.
Without comparisons to Risk and other modern area control titles (Cry Havoc, Blood Rage, etc.), Saga of the Northmen acts as a wonderful in-between. It offers enough tactical depth while dodging over-complicated rulesets. This means players looking for a deep area control experience are better suited with a heavier game, but those looking to try something with more decision-making should look no further.
Thematically, players will lose their influenced troops to “the cause.” These men die and further the influential march of their owner. They can now use the fallen men as examples to raise up heroes and hold their troops for more precise reinforcing. As mentioned, this cures the imbalance of a dominating opponent. Their good hand of cards might have gained them a plethora of plunder, but now you have a card covered in cubes to dispense as you please. It makes for a wonderful catch-up mechanic and keeps the game interesting.
The biggest struggle Saga of the Northmen faces is in its art and presentation. Perhaps it’s just not to my taste, but the dim and desaturated war map of Europe is unpleasant. The card art is dull and decent. Action cards are scattered around the influence deck and allow for special abilities, but provide more in terms of big, brown backgrounds. The bleak landscape might be necessary to convey the futility of this historic period, but it teaches me everything used to look so drab at this point in history.
Despite setback in art, Saga of the Northmen is mostly simple to teach and plays wonderfully at 3-4 players. Two-player games might seem one-sided, but the winner will be the one to better pace themselves. After all, most two-player games focus on being the one to manage their opponent more effectively. This means controlling the right regions at the correct times, and using your time token when most opportune.
If you find yourself wanting something with more depth than Risk, please look no further. If you just want to try out an area control style game, this is an ideal choice before heading into other titles like Kemet or Blood Rage.
+ Lots of player interaction, so downtime tends to be short
+ Teaches quickly because actions are simple
+ Excellent next step game for those interested in area control
+ Small footprint
- Artwork and components are a little bland
- Can lose out big on placement numbers because of unlucky card draws