SAGA Dark Age Skirmishes: An Introduction

By Martynas Klimas 01 May 2017 0

It is fair to say that vikings are popular these days. From hit TV shows to video games both realistic (like Expeditions: Vikings) and fantastic (Banner Saga), it seems we just can't enough of the Nordic raiders. However, historical miniature wargames still remain a smaller subset of the whole playing-with-toy-soldiers-as-an-adult hobby which is dominated by the likes of Warhammer 40,000. SAGA Dark Age Skirmishes, however, is a great, viking-filled way to get both into miniature gaming and historicals.

Header image courtesy of Nick Eyre & North Star Magazine.

The main rule set as referred to in the rather unwieldy article title was published by Studio Tomahawk and translated into Queen's Own English by Gripping Beast. The players usually refer to it as SAGA. The first book is all about skirmishes in the Dark Ages, with players collecting bands of vikings, Anglo-danes, Saxons other ne’er-do-els. It started out with 4 nations/peoples and was expanded by supplements for various other warring folks, like the Irish. On the other hand, SAGA Crescent & Cross is expansion that is set in the Outremer and is out to please the more crusading gamers (it's also possible to play as the Spanish and the Moors). The newest addition of the game takes us the last days of the Roman Empire in the British islands, allowing you to create your own Arthurian myths. You can mix and match factions from all of the books, but their power levels might not be that balanced!

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Viking survivors huddle in a house they took from the Anglo-Danes

SAGA is not a large scale game, which makes it easy on the wallet and relatively fast to paint (I hate painting). A simple 4 point warband could have a Warlord, two units of four Hearthguard and additional two units of eight Warriors. 25 miniatures and you're set to go! Actually, my friendly local games store is running a 4 point tournament, and it lacks neither in variety nor in action. For you see, the basic building blocks of a SAGA army are quite simple: you have your Warlord, who is a grade-A badass and legendary shitkicker. He doesn't cost points, and you must have one. Then you have Hearthguard, who come four per point and are second only to the warlord in capacity to maim and slaughter. They are your leader's trusted retainers, professional warriors and likely heavy drinkers. Warriors – eight per point – are your run of the mill troops that your round up in the village when trouble is afoot (even if that trouble is you). Lastly come Levies, who are a step above slaves in that they can be trusted with weapons, but are an untrained, unbloodied rabble that is barely worth taking.

All of these classes are the same across the nations with some minor variations (which are larger in supplement nations than they are in the main book four). Seeing how the game has very short statlines for the troops – you have the number of attacks, the armor roll (how hard it is to hit you in melee) and the ability to shoot or not, the differences can be minor. For example, nations that can take cavalry have more mobile troops, but they're easier to hit by shooting. Taking a Dane axe – a honking big axe – will make you better on the attack, but easier to hit in melee. I'm the most familiar with vikings, and as a main book faction, they're fairly simple. A group of your Hearthguard can become berserkers (easy to hit, but any unit they run into will be slaughtered) and only your Levies can carry ranged weapons.

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A five player free for all quickly turned into Pavlov's House-like nightmare in the settlement

That's because unlike in Warhammer, you don't win in the list building stage – you win by using SAGA abilities, the main selling point of the game. Every nation has their own SAGA board, powered by the SAGA dice - D6s that have special symbols of them. A hale and hearty 4 point warband of a warlord, two units of hearthguard and two bands of warriors will roll 6 dice – two for for the warlord and one for each unit. You will then use the rolled SAGA symbols to pay for unit activations or special abilities that set your faction apart. Yes, you need to pay dice to get your soldiers to do something, with warlord and hearthguard being the easiest to activate, and with Levy being hardest. You can activate a unit as many times as you want if you have the dice to pay for it, but every activation after the first gives it an additional fatigue token. These act as resource for your enemy, as he can choose to spend fatigue tokens to knock a units armor value down in melee, gain protection against shooting, and so on. A unit can also we fatigued into uselessness, and only the first activation can be used to rest, which makes a fatigue an important thing.

Back to the abilities, Vikings are a straightforward faction – you want to surge ahead with your warlord and use your SAGA dice to shed fatigue and gain attacks (sometimes in exchange for reduced armor or even sacrificed soldiers). There's even one that makes 3-man strong units of enemy Warriors or Levies disappear! However, most abilities work best in conjunction with your combat maneuvers or other powers, and to understand the synergy of your SAGA board is to blend the enemy in a flurry of incomprehensible screaming, violent thrusts of spear, and impeccably groomed beards.

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Sometimes, you have to get creative with the terrain and break out your Flames of War/Tanks! stuff

Sure, the abilities make SAGA more gamey than simulationist, but if 4chan's /hwg/ and Something Awful's historical games threads acknowledge it as a good game, than so should you. While games like Black Powder are more catered to the historical crowd – featuring no points costs, giving units less standout stats and relying more on “realistic” maneuvering – SAGA is more approachable to gamers, newbies and casuals. It coasts more on the idea of vikingry than the realistic depiction of Norse warfare, and it's perfect at that. Players don't have to research historical TO&Es or fret too much about getting the uniforms right – they just have to get some miniatures and lead them to kill other miniatures.

And unlike Warhammer, it gives players more agency to play strategically. You can't really sacrifice your warlord like he was a palsied beggar armed with a crooked fork – if nothing else, the warlord brings in the third of your SAGA dice in a 4 point game, and without him, you lose a third of your activation or ability potential. Some abilities ride specifically on the warlord – for example, a great, if somewhat expensive Viking SAGA ability, lets you remove fatigue from units in a certain range of the warlord. You don't want to lose units, either, as it strips away your SAGA dice.

Here, the Levies are an interesting case: they're harder to activate, they don't generate SAGA dice and they're almost useless in melee. However, they shoot just as well as the rest (sometimes being the only source of shooting) and in a pinch they can be used as a speedbump: the enemy might lose a soldier to melee and get a fatigue token while you won't lose a SAGA dice even if (when) they get wiped-out unit.

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Here's a much diminished 4 point warband facing off against the Byzantines

Playing strategically also means using battlefield maneuver and your own skill to stack benefits. As pinning, flanking and weapon ranges basically don't exist in 40k, there's little you can do to make a Space Marine Marine harder once he's out in the field. You could add wargear, commanders and psyker boons, but that's what you have to think about in the army building stage. In SAGA , you bring your army, you let the opponent get fatigued, and try to see where your SAGA board will take you.

Things get even more interesting in campaigns, which were introduced in one of the supplements. Our hobby store ran a 4 point campaign, and we had plenty of action. Suddenly, your warlord is even more important than before, because he gets randomly generated characteristics as well as a name. Losing a warlord can mean his death if you lost the game and maiming even if you won. You also need to be more careful about casualties, because replenishing your numbers won't be easy (however, none of us got crippled into uselessness). Furthermore, the after-game rolls can both benefit and hurt your standing, so you can never rest easy. Of course, that didn't stop us from making each battle into a bloodbath.

My warlord Knutt the Nutt (named so because his generated trait did not allow him to go into alliances or pay his way out of combat) got maimed twice – which forced me to spend two campaign turns on defense, signaling other players that they don't have to worry about viking raids – before dying and leaving the reigns of my warband to Olaf the Oathsong.

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Knutt the Nutt in his last fight (against the damned Irish). Half of the fun in painting SAGA miniatures is getting creative with the shields

So if you want to experience similar adventures, you best buy the main SAGA Dark Age Skirmishes book and a box of soldiers. Gripping Beast's 4 point army deals are pretty decent (though cavalry armies cost more) and you don't have to deal with boutique miniature makers that infest the historical scene. You should also buy your factions SAGA dice like a real thegn – only ceorls use regular D6s!

SAGA Dark Age Skirmishes is a great rule set for being a viking. Remember, it's not about the realistic amount of threads in your soldiers' pants – it's about making a saga that will make your foe soil theirs.

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