Saturday 3 November 2012

SAGA 28mm Dark Ages Rulebook Review

I've had my eye on this for a while but had been put off by the "buy in".  I know the Gripping Beast minis cost pale in comparison to GW fare, but two small starter warbands combined with the "specialty" dice ($84 x 2) and the rulebook ($35) are a significant investment when no one locally plays it.

My starter minis have been caught up in the Maelstrom Games mysterious "stock reduction/move" (which is looking more and more like a Ponzi scheme) so my playtesting has been limited to proxying some LOTR minis.

 A slim but well-produced and very practical rules set, with lots of examples and summaries

The Shiny
I was a little surprised how thin the rulebook was - when I initially ripped open the packet I thought it was only the battleboards (of which 4 were included). Softcover, it actually weighs in at 75 pages - full colour throughout.

This is evidently a set of rules that has been carefully playtested, and created by gamers, for gamers.  It is easy to read, and includes not only a quick reference page, and photocopyable measuring sticks and tokens, but lists a section on "often overlooked rules", has a solid index, and plentiful examples of gameplay.  In fact rules are summarised at the end of each chapter making this rulebook very easy to read and use. One of the best laid out, user-friendly rulebooks I have come across in a long time.

Army Building
This is dead simple - for 1pt you get 4 Hearthguard (elites); 8 Warriors; or 12 rather rubbish Levies (the horde option). Most armies are 4-6pts and range from 20-70 miniatures. This applies to each faction. Factional differences are shown due to different options in battleboards.

Whilst the battleboard mechanic is a great idea, I disliked the $18 custom dice, especially since a normal d6 would have done the job just as well...

The Battleboard (Orders Phase)
SAGA is a game, not a simulation.  Whilst without the ridiculous rules cheese of say Malifaux or Warmachine, the game hinges on good management of the "battleboard" to enable heroic actions from myth and legend. Each unit generates a "SAGA dice". These are rolled at the start of your turn. Various dice combinations can be used to activate SAGA abilities.  SAGA abilities differ between factions - some can be activated more than once - and SAGA powers can be combined to create powerful effects.

Managing SAGA dice and your battle-board is a mini-game in itself. The rulebook provides good examples of how this works.

Activation Phase
Units can be activated by spending SAGA dice.  Elite troops are easier to activate, ill-disciplined levies are the hardest.   An activated unit may move, shoot or rest. Resting gets rid of a fatigue token.
Units can be activated repeatedly in a turn, as long as there are SAGA dice available to do so.

This is very standard. Troops move a standard range and stay within cohesion range rather like 40K.  Uneven and impassable ground have typical events. Units that move or activate more than once accumulate Fatigue.  

 This Breton starter warband is $118 including SAGA dice - expensive for a "historical" game - the buy-in is disturbingly similar to GW products
Shooting & Melee
Ranged units can engage others within range and LoS.   Levies & Warriors get 1 dice per 2 models; Hearthguard get 1 dice per model.  Attackers and Defenders can use battleboard abilities. Attackers check their rolls - each roll that scores above the enemy "Armour" level scores a hit.  Defenders then can roll a dice each hit. A 4+ cancels the hit.  Cover cancels hits on 3+.  Melee works in a similar manner - however elite troops and warriors have even stronger advantages over levies and combat is more lethal. Units who take the most casualties in melee will retreat. Each unit in melee gains Fatigue.  As units are lost, so too are their accompanying SAGA dice, reducing the capabilities of your warband.

Besides the battleboards, I found this mechanic the most interesting.  Units may accumulate fatigue - levies and warriors may accumulate 3 whilst elite hearthguard can accumulate 4.  Once a unit reaches its limit it may not be activated except to "Rest" and fights with only half the usual dice in melee.

But this isn't that bit that interested me - it was the ability to "spend" an opponent's fatigue points!
If fighting a fatigued opponent, you can "spend" one of their fatigue tokens in order to increase your armour; or you could use an opponent's fatigue to reduce their movement distance. The fatigue system provides a simple but interesting risk-v-reward resource that adds depth to SAGA. Fatigue tokens are the only tokens used in the game (a nice change - most new games have a million tokens and unit cards cluttering up the table).

Other Stuff
The core rules encompass 35 pages - the remaining 40 include miscellaneous rules such as your Warlord (a heroic character who generates extra SAGA dice and is very powerful in combat); faction rules for Vikings, Normans, Danes and Welsh; stats for "named" heroes like Harald Hardrada or William Duke of Normandy; a list of all SAGA abilities, six standard scenarios as well as a scenario for a 3 or 4 player battles. 

Armies with more elite troops are cheaper - this Anglo-Danish force costs $50 - without the $18 SAGA dice

SAGA is simple game, with two clever mechanisms tacked on - the use of the "battleboard" and "fatigue" introduces another level of tactics and resource management, whilst not complicating matters - always a good design point.  A game for heroic actions rather than a strict historical simulation, SAGA lacks a morale system and as the game is scenario-based, there is no reason not to suicidally sacrifice your units to accomplish objectives.  The faction-specific battleboards provide the ability for some fun meta-gaming and heroic actions without the over-the-top cheesiness or "he who knows the most rules wins" of Warmachine or Malifaux.   The rulebook is nicely presented and very gamer-friendly - one of the best I have come across lately.  I'm not a fan of having "special dice" (especially at $18 a set) and although you can convert your own it seems more trouble than it is worth. I also found the cost a little daunting - one 28-man starter army was $100 which is much steeper than the usual cost to try a skirmish wargame*

The game seems to cry out for a campaign system where warbands can battle for land and renown, and perhaps gain "experience" and abilities - I notice there are quite a few home-grown campaign systems springing up on the net.  An "official" campaign is possible, as  Gripping Beast have already published two supplements, each introducing 4 new warbands, so the game seems solidly supported.  Dark Age raids are ideally suited to skirmish gaming but it is rumoured that Arthurian and Crusades versions in pipeline.  SAGA seems a solid club game and a good introduction to historical gaming, and I can see it attracting new players to historical gaming a la Flames of War.

Recommended?: Certainly.  The battleboard and fatigue mechanics are great, and I think both historical and non-historical gamers will enjoy this one. I'd like to see a campaign system supplement; but all in all, a good intro to Ancients/Dark Ages gaming.

*Bulk plastics: If you used Wargames Factory plastics and did a bit of creative kit-bashing you could make warbands for much cheaper.  At 32 minis for $20, if you shared buying 3 boxes of say Fyrd, Thegns, Bondi or Huscarls with a mate, and mix and match body parts a bit, you could both end up with 48 minis for $30 - a much cheaper proposition.


  1. I'm not a fan of their expensive custom dice either. However, you can download dice "sheets" that can be printed out and used on regular dice. Its buried somewhere in their forum.

  2. I think I saw someone do just that on another blog, but there wasa fair bit of stuffing around... (I dislike having to make special tokens or equipment for games - IMO they should be included in the starter pack/rules)

    Personally I think instead of meddling with dice, I'm just going to photocopy the battleboards and alter them so they have "1" "2" "3" "4" etc instead of their symbols - and keep using normal dice.

  3. Great review; I played this game once - I liked it and I can use my existing Normans/Saxons/Vikings for the game; so no cost for figures. That said, I am a bit taken aback by the $40.00 (here in the USA) price for the core set (felt and looked about the size of a nice new car pamphlet). The beautiful packaging and well-written format notwithstanding. I was very intrigued with the battle board concept too. Best, Dean

  4. Agreed, Dean. It is a rather thin rulebook - I initially thought it was just the battleboards - "wherez ze rules?" - TFL/2HW rulebooks of similar size retail for about $20-25 but are, I suppose, not full colour throughout. I'm pretty sure a "entry level" pdf at say $15 would sell well.

    Compared to a production like Anima Tactics or Infinity it doesn't fall into the "coffee table" rulebooks which I feel are the only ones that merit a $40+ pricetag...

  5. For the bulk plastics, you can also use the Gripping Beast viking and saxon boxes. The unarmoured ones are also coming soon ;)

  6. Nice review--thank you. Like others have said the special dice are a ripoff, I'm using regular dice. Also as others said you can save quite alot of money with 28mm plastic figures from other manufacturers.

  7. Great review! This really helps as I'm tempted to give this a go. Now I need to find at least one other person locally and I'm in.

  8. It's the sort of game that would make a good club game. Simple but the battleboards give it an interesting twist. I'd like to play the 4-player scenario...

  9. Thanks for the review - I went and tried some games and just bought all three books!

  10. Besides a bit of proxying with LOTR Rohan I haven't done much - my viking bands disappeared in the Maelstrom debacle. Would like to see a campaign option. I hear Dux Britannium by TFL does it well so I may try it...

  11. Dux is quite good but is a very different game. The rumour is that next year's expansion book for SAGA will include a campaign system.

    I've divided my existing figures into Vikings, Anglo-Dane and Welsh warbands, and Santa is bringing me some extra treats too!

  12. I haven;t tried Dux as they seem to have a narrow scope (Britons vs Saxons only) I'm presuming Dux uses the TFL usual style - "Big Men" who direct troops, card activation, blinds, buckets of dice to resolve combat, and a comprehensive and common-sense if haphazard house-rules feel to them....

  13. On a purely aesthetic basis, I like the Viking dice because of the runes, and the Scottish ones because of the Celtic symbols - both of which I'm assuming are authentic, as well as adding to the atmosphere - but dislike the simplistic pictograms used for the Normans and Anglo-Danes. The inconsistency in graphic style annoys me even more than the price. That's just me, no doubt.