Into the Fray – SagaAugust 31, 2018
Into the Fray is an ongoing series of articles exploring skirmish wargames.
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
Saga, originally released in 2011, made a tremendous splash for a tiny game. Focusing on skirmish battles set in the Viking age, Saga was the first miniatures game to successfully straddle the divide between historical gaming and pop-fiction inspired games. The second game from French publishers Studio Tomahawk, Saga offered an engaging experience of hard decisions and fast gameplay and undoubtedly benefited from the increased interest in the early medieval period following the release of the History Channel’s TV series, VIKINGS. With a second edition released early in 2018, Saga continues to present a compelling and quickly expanding line of games.
Getting Started with Saga
To start playing Saga you’ll need a copy of the slim, 50 page core rulebook and a copy of one of three currently published supplements: Age of Vikings, Age of Crusades, or Aetius & Artur (more on this one later). The supplements provide the rules for armies from specific eras and their accompanying battleboards, the heart of your army’s rules. Finally, you’ll need a set of custom dice available for each faction, as well as a good number of standard six-sided dice.
Naturally, you’ll also need a set of models for your warband. In Saga, each player commands a warband of approximately 25 models, led by a Warlord supported by a few standard types of troops. A pleasant aspect of historical wargaming is that players are not confined to a specific, proprietary line of miniatures and can instead browse the wealth of historical 28mm figures available. Gripping Beast offers some very affordable plastic miniatures specifically for Saga, and Footsore Miniatures has been producing beautiful metal miniatures for a variety of armies for several years now.
Making a Warband
Army-building in Saga is a simple matter. Choose a point limit (4 for a small game, 8 for a large one, 6 being the standard), and build your force using a generic profile. You begin with a free Warlord and then purchase units for 1 point each.
1 point = 4 Hearthguards (elite troops) = 8 Warriors (your standard fighters) = 12 Levies (poorly armed serfs or archers/slings).
There are no constraints on how you purchase your troops. In a 6 point army you could conceivably have 24 hearthguard to make an elite force or even 72 Levies making an enormous host of cannon fodder. In general, you’ll want to strike a balance here since the number of units you have in the game will generate your Saga dice during gameplay. Small units of Hearthguard may be tough but if they die they can’t generate dice whereas unites of Levies only generate a die so long as they have at least 6 models alive (and they are gonna die fast!).
Your points spent, you then organize your troops up into units of the same kind as you like. Two points of 8 Warriors each could be divided into two units of 4 Warriors and 12 Warriors, or one of 10 and one of 6. Provided you meet the minimum and maximum numbers (4 minimum, 12 maximum, with Warlords comprising a unit of 1) you can divide your force up however you like.
You’ll notice that unlike many other games where your army has innate special abilities in its models, Saga units are generic. This is only true on the face of it because your army’s Battleboard is where they come into their own.
The Saga dice you generate each turn based on the number of units you have (1 for 1) are rolled and then placed on your Battleboard. You’ll spend these dice to activate your units, gain additional standard dice in combat or for defense, and to utilize 10 abilities unique to each army. These abilities create strengths and weakness for each army. The Anglo-Saxons, for example, have a number of abilities that offer benefits to units of 10 or more, and of their abilities allow a unit to be temporarily counted as having additional figures allowing you to use other abilities even after a unit has suffered casualties. The Viking Battleboard, on the other hand, offers abilities that encourage extremely aggressive play, even inflicting casualties on your own units for combat bonuses.
Saga’s gameplay is fast and furious and its success laid the way for the current renaissance in skirmish wargames. With numerous Battleboards available in a variety of eras and interesting twists on some units (mounted Warriors), Saga offers something for almost any gamer with an interest in the middle ages.
Once the game begins you’ll roll your Saga dice, assign them to your board, and then activate your models. Movement is entirely standardized with measuring sticks of specific length, available as heavy cardstock templates or in free printable PDF. Units move and attack by spending dice, and can even make multiple actions in a turn if you choose to spend your precious Saga dice that way. However, taking multiple actions inflicts Fatigue on a unit. Fatigue is a resource your opponent can use against you in combat lowering your own Armor or increasing theirs. Fatigue can also be spent to halt or slow a unit’s movement. Further, a unit with 3 Fatigue tokens must take a Rest action, meaning they can do nothing but recover their strength for a round and lose a single Fatigue token in the process. A variety of measuring sticks and fatigue counters are available online.
The subtle interplay of Fatigue tokens and tactical choices of dice assignation to the Battleboard are where the real fun of Saga comes into its own. Certain factions can also manipulate Fatigue. The Anglo-Dane Battleboard, for example, offers a player ways to ignore their own fatigue or add to an enemy units.
Once combat is joined, standard dice are rolled based on the number of units attacking. Both you and your opponent will attack simultaneously, rolling to hit then make armor saves against inflicted hits. Numerous Battleboard abilities are “Reactions” that can be used in combat as the assigned Saga dice are spent.
In a standard game, the death of a Warlord concludes play. No easy feat this, as Warlords roll as many dice to attack as a unit of 8 warriors and can shunt damage they take to nearby Hearthguard units. Your Warlord is the most powerful model in your army and typically has an accompany Battleboard ability to make them truly fearsome. Many games of Saga conclude with two Warlords meeting in single combat and brutally slaughtering each other.
Books and Supplements
The rulebook also offers a variety of simple but fun rules for terrain as well as some optional rules for the inclusion of mercenaries and heroic historical figures. Unfortunately, the current edition has rules only for a simple clash of warlords scenario which may grow old after a few matches. That said, the first edition of saga had a wealth of scenarios and campaign rules, so it’s likely only a matter of time before these are converted to the current rules set.
The Age of Crusades supplement focuses on the high middle ages with players commanding forces of Knights Templar, Saracens, and Moors, where the Aetius & Artur supplement is centered on the early middle ages with Goths, Huns, and the forces of the beleaguered Roman Empire. Notably, Aetius & Artur was actually the last book published for the first edition of Saga and is still a viable rulebook in the new, second edition. Studio Tomahawk offers a repackage of it with new Battleboards for the armies within making it compatible with the current rules.
I like Saga a lot, but there’s a culture gap between the French team that wrote the rules, and me as an American reader. The rules are clear enough but there are a few areas that could use clarification. The core book is also prone to chatty asides and embellishments that are common to French rulebooks and tend to suffer in translation. As well, the core book has a few unfortunate instances of mild sexism, referencing it as a game for those with “testosterone” and the like. It’s also a somewhat daunting game to pick up as there are no official starter sets and a player will need books, special dice, and models all purchased separately, though Gripping Beast offers a few bundles at a reasonable discount.
Those caveats aside, Saga is in an exciting place. The new rulebook is well laid out and includes helpful diagrams and inspiring photography, and the supplements offer engaging overviews of the time periods and armies. Notably, some of the core rule book’s photography features models from feudal Japan and even fantasy creatures, suggesting that future supplements for Saga will expand the game’s horizons substantially.
On the whole, Saga is a wonderful little game with enough axes, swords, and deeds of legend to keep you and your friends in a perpetual blood feud.