Boardhammer: SAGA review

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SAGA logo

As much as we love pushing our armies around the table sometimes we need a break… so we can push different armies around the table! Whether its a quick game between rounds or an all day main event, the Goonhammer team can often be found pushing chits, cubes, and cards around a board game or other wargame. Boardhammer will bring you periodic reviews and articles from the land of hobby board games and wargames not called Warhammer.

We’re diving back through the mists of time today, to talk about SAGA 2nd Edition, a wargame from Studio Tomahawk, and exclusively distributed in English by Gripping Beast. It’s probably best known for the Viking Age setting that it began with, but since then has expanded into several other historical periods and also has a fantasy incarnation.

SAGA is written with 28mm [≈ 1 inch] scale in mind, but you’re not obliged to stick to that if you don’t want to – there is no official model range, though Gripping Beast sells minis with it in mind. It’s a skirmish game, focusing on battles between small warbands made up of only a handful of units. Depending on the size of game and kind of army you play you might have as few as 16 models on the field, or over 100. Most of the time you’ll be bringing 30-40 to play with.

To play you’ll need the core rules and then the setting book for the kind of game you want to play. At current the options are Age of Vikings (Dark Ages Europe), Age of Crusades (Early Crusades in the Holy Land and crusades against pagan in Eastern Europe), Age of Invasions (formerly Aeitus and Arthur, set in Britain with a semi-historical King Arthur resisting the Romans), and Age of Magic (fantasy with broad tropes to let you field pretty much whatever you have to hand). I’ll come back round to Age of Magic a bit later, but let’s dig into why I think SAGA is worth your time in a historical setting.

I don’t want to just plough through the rules, so instead I’ve picked out the things that I think set SAGA apart from the crowd:

Army building made simple

saga armies

Credit: Studio Tomahawk

A standard army in SAGA is 6 points. A small game is 4 points, and a big one 8. That’s it. So how does that work exactly?

A point buys you one of:

  • A hero (you get your leader for free)
  • 4 hearthguards (tough powerful units, your elite)
  • 8 warriors (trained soldiers that make up the mainstay of your force)
  • 12 levy (cheap and untrained soldiers that provide weight of numbers)

Some factions do let you purchase other things, like banner bearers, and Age of Magic has quite a few more options (monsters, war machines, and so on). But for the majority of forces, this is what you choose from.

That means that making a force is extremely easy. If you want to run a really elite force in a standard size game, then you can turn up with 24 hearthguard. On the other end of the scale, you could bring 72 Levy. Mostly you’ll run a more balanced force, with selections from each type of troop, but there’s a huge amount of variability. Part of the reason for that is that the specific weapons and special rules for each type of troop is different for each faction, and you often have some choice in your selection (do I want warriors armed as standard with hand weapons and shields, with heavy weapons, on horseback, or with bows?).

The simplicity of this really speeds up your list design, and gets you playing as fast as possible, while offering a surprising amount of flexibility in your builds.

Faction special rules and units

Many factions have some unique rules available only to them, or some units that other factions simply can’t buy. For instance, a small number of Viking hearthguards can be run as berserkers, giving them bonuses to attacking, but making them more vulnerable to enemy attacks. Others might have rules that allow a faction to get more levy for their point spend than others, or which let you arm types of troops in ways you might not expect (like giving normally melee-focused hearthguards composite bows on horseback for some of the Arabic factions in the crusades).

You also get legendary units – these are famous commanders or units that are iconic to a specific era or deployment of a faction. So you can decide to spend a couple of points taking Alfred the Great as your commander of the Anglo Saxons, or field the Brothers of the Sword in an Ordenstatt army, the elite of the elite of the knights at their disposal. Some replace your warlord, while others give new units entirely of unusual troops. The key is, the inclusion of such a unit dramatically changes the nature and playstyle of that faction. Let’s look at an example: Peter the Hermit, a legendary unit for Levantine Crusaders.

Peter replaces your warlord and costs a point. He’s not a terrible fighter, but he’s no monster of a man. But that’s not why you pick him.

First up, you can’t recruit hearth guards if you have him as your warlord. That’s right, a crusaders army with no knights. Instantly, this is a completely different faction almost. You also can’t spend more on warriors than levy (which are pilgrims for the crusaders). So what do you get out of this? Well, your pilgrims can be activated as if they were Hearthguard (we’ll talk about how that works in a bit), and any within 4″ of Peter get a bunch of bonus attack dice. You can also recruit as many fanatical pilgrims as you like – an auxiliary unit you’re normally capped at one of per army, that is basically a stronger fighter than a standard pilgrim unit, but less controllable. These fanatics also get the loyal special rule making them great for looking after Peter.

Finally, Peter can use the bodyguard rule (that lets you sacrifice Hearthguard to avoid damage on your warlord) on any pilgrim unit on the table, though you do have to sacrifice 2 models instead of one. This is still absurdly good.

The result of all of this is to change the Crusaders faction, which is typically made up of elite knight cavalry, stout sergeants, and a handful of rabble pilgrims, into a mob of crazed fanatics. You’ll lead dozens of zealous peasants into battle, swarming your enemy and tearing down units that should probably best you. It radically reshapes your experience. This kind of change is very common when you field legendary units.

Auxiliaries (or mercenaries) are another key way in which you can shake up the standard list building. They’re drawn from a central list for the relevant universe but restricted to certain factions, these are unusual units that can add variety or flavour to your lists. You might add, for instance, a unit of foreign knights to a crusader list, or bring a priest to battle to support your Welsh warband. Most cost a point, some are actually free but of mixed impact, and all are a great way of breaking things up.

Together, legendary units and auxiliaries ensure you’ll have a huge amount of variety to play with, even within one faction.

Battleboards

This is really the heart of the game, and what elevates it from “easy and fun” to “outstanding and dripping with flavour”. Each faction in a setting book has their own battle board, which is a large, colourful sheet with a bunch of boxes printed on it. At the start of a turn, you roll your SAGA dice to see what symbols you get and then in the orders phase get to assign them to the board. Let’s throw an example board in here:

Battleboard for the Skraeling faction

Credit: Studio Tomahawk

At the top above the faction name you’ve got your basic abilities. The ones on the left are activations and the ones on the right are just called basic abilities.

Activations are how you get your units to move around and do stuff. Most “standard” factions have:

  • activate a unit of hearthguards or your warlord with a die showing any result
  • activate a unit of warriors with a die showing two of the three possible results (the two most common)
  • activate a unit of levies with a die showing two of the three possible results (the two least common)

Generally, it’s easiest to activate your hearthguards (trained elites) and hardest to activate your levies (untrained peasants). In the Orders phase you assign dice to the activation types you’re gonna want to use, and then when you’re actually in the turn you discard them to activate a unit.

Now you might notice that in the above image, the Skraelings instead have “activate warriors or a hero”, “activate levies” and “activate two units close together“. This is one of the ways that Battleboards can radically change how a faction plays – in this by case dramatically altering how they’re activated.

You then have basic abilities. These are standard abilities that you’ll be using a lot of, that you’ll want to use to be able to influence the rest of the Battleboard. In this case you can cash in dice to add dice to attack or defence rolls (useful but not thrilling) and to set saga dice to the face you want them to be to have more control over the rest of your abilities.

Now we get to the exciting bit: the advanced abilities. These are special powers you can activate with specific dice or combinations of dice. They range from simple useful tricks to incredibly powerful abilities that will change the tide of a battle.

Let’s grab one from the Norman faction to take a look:

Envelopment battleboard ability

Credit: Studio Tomahawk

This ability makes your force incredibly mobile. It puts the focus on your mounted troops (very fitting for the Normans), and lets you react quickly and on a large scale.

Or how about something more advanced:

Jinetes battleboard ability

Credit: Studio Tomahawk

This ability, for the Spanish, is harder to activate (needing two identical dice), but turns a mounted javelin-armed unit (which the Spanish force are known for) into an absolutely ludicrous chaos of a thing, letting it dash around the board and shoot at every single unit in the enemy force if it gets the chance. It’s what battleboards are best at: twisting the expectations of how units behave, and what tactics are worthwhile, and forcing both players to adapt.

So how do you actually use this stuff? Well in the orders phase at the start of each turn you’ll roll your orders dice – the number of which is set by the number of units and any bonuses from your Warlord – and then assign the results to your Battleboard. At this point you have to determine what you’ll use across the turn – you actually use things by taking the dice off.

This leads to one of the most intense, calculating, and sometimes joyous experiences in wargaming. You react to the whims of fate and decide based on your expertise as a general how far you’ll push your luck this turn, and hope you can anticipate what your enemy has in store. It rewards a deep knowledge of the battleboards, but the battleboards aren’t secret – they’re right in front of the players! That means it isn’t a memory test, but instead a tactical calculation based on the available data. Second edition has tweaked the rules letting you keep dice back across turns, which means that things aren’t so random, and that is a huge improvement. The balance is fine, but Saga really makes this mechanic sing.

Age of Magic

So I’ve put it off until now because really it needs to be discussed separately. Age of Magic is the most ambitious of the supplements put out to date, because it takes the (mostly) realistic setting of the other books and throws it out. Instead, it presents you with a toolkit with which to run fantasy games using the system, with little to no overt setting (but plenty of implied setting). It’s very generic as these things go, and would be pretty easy to tweak. The big features are:

  • new unit types like monsters, war machines and wizards
  • New battleboards for broad factions playing on a particular fantasy theme (the great kingdoms, undead, the horde, and so on)
  • Rules for magic and wizardry, which use a sort of variant of the battleboard system which you can get different effects at different levels of potency by allocating dice of different types
  • New rules and scenarios getting you playing with what are recommended to be larger and more varied forces
  • Factions that have more significant special rules than in the historical settings, and which feature unique units (like the Paladins of the Great Kingdoms that specialise in monster hunting)
  • Increasing the standard game size to 8 points to make room for all the wacky stuff.

Does this work? The answer is a resounding yes, but with a caveat: it’s absolutely more complex than the historical settings. You absolutely could jump into Age of Magic first, and I think you’d have a great time, but it’s absolutely a more complex game than the other variants. That said, Saga as a whole is a lot more streamlined and simpler than many wargames, so don’t think this is a no go if your only experience to date is AoS. Oh, and you absolutely can use your AoS army probably without any effort at all.

Getting Started

To get started with Saga you’ll need:

  • a copy of the core rules
  • a copy of the universe/supplement book of your choosing
  • some saga dice though you can just stick the symbols onto normal 6-sided dice, and Tomahawk provide these to download to do just that
  • a tape measure
  • somewhere to play (you can play on a 4’x4′ table, but a classic 6’x4′ is better) – you don’t need too much scenery, but a few bits will improve the game
  • a warband

Since buying books and having a gaming table aren’t onerous, let’s focus in on warbands. What’s the best, easiest and cheapest way to do it? I’ll give you an easy way into two of the historical settings for two players, and then give you a few sample lists drawn from common AoS armies.

Vikings!

Credit: Victrix

A slightly ahistorical matchup, but a cheap one to get started with. You can use the Vikings set (which is beautiful, flexible and comes with 60 hard plastic multipart miniatures) to make both of the warbands below. You don’t get any bases but mdf ones are cheap, or… well, you’re swimming in 25mm rounds, right?

Still, this is a hell of a lot great minis, and the nice thing is none of the choices here you make will be useless. If you wanted to play someone else you could combine elements together for really big games, or just pick and choose from a lot of options.

The lists below show off two legendary units, including one of my favourites, Sigvaldi, who has the special rule coward and therefore can only take hearthguards because he wouldn’t turn up if there wasn’t some really good protection nearby.

If you didn’t want to go all vikings all the time (you fool), Victrix do similar boxes for Saxons too, and those minis are just as nice.

Viking Warband (6 points)

Harald Hardrada, King of Norway

8 Varangians (heavy weapon hearthguard)

4 Beserkers

8 Warriors

12 Levies with Javelins

Jomskivings Warband (6 points)

Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson

4 Hearthguard

8 Hearthguard

8 Hearthguard with Heavy Weapons

Knights!

A more expensive starter, because you can’t just throw vikings at every problem (sadly). We have an extremely classic lineup here, with a numerous Saracens force with strong heavy cavalry and good ranged output facing off against a slightly smaller but extremely elite Templar force. If you wanted to be fancy, you could grab a Templar Grandmaster too, but it’s not necessary.

Saracens Warband (6 points)

Mounted Warlord

8 Mounted Hearthguard

8 Mounted Warriors

8 Warriors on Foot

8 Warriors on Foot

12 Levy Archers

Milites Christi Warband (6 points)

Mounted Warlord

8 Mounted Hearthguard

8 Warrior Crossbowmen

12 Warriors

12 Warriors

Age of Sigmar Magic

Here are some sample Age of Magic warbands at the larger standard of 8 points. The first two are built out of combining the Soul Wars and Tempest of Souls sets.

The Stormcast are built using the Sapphire Elves legendary warband, as that lets us field the castigators and also ups the magicalness of our sorcerers, which seems very appropriate. The Nighthaunt list doesn’t include a unit of their unique Spectres (which seems weird) but I figure if they’re all ghosts, having one unit of super ghosts would be weirder.

Stormcast Eternal (Great Kingdoms – Sapphire Elves) Warband (8 points)

Lord -Arcanum on Gryph-Charger (Warlord mounted on beast)

Knight-Incantor (Captain)

Evocator (Sorcerer)

Evocator (Sorcerer)

Evocator (Sorcerer)

12 Sequitors (Hearthguards)

8 Castigators (Warriors with bows)

Celestar Ballista (Static Warmachine)

Nighthaunt (Undead) Warband (8 points)

Knight of Shrouds on Ethereal Steed (Warlord mounted on beast)

Spirit Torment (Lieutenant – Black Knight)

Lord Executioner (Sorcerer)

Guardian of Souls (Sorcerer)

8 Grimghast Stalkers (Hearthguard with Heavy Weapons)

8 Glaivewraith Stalkers (Hearthguard with Heavy Weapons)

15 Chainrasps (Mindless – unique levies for the undead that come in larger units but are dumb as a box of rocks)

15 Chainrasps (Mindless)

Sylvaneth (Lords of the Wild) Warband (8 points)

Druanti the Archrevenant (Warlord mounted on Flying Beast – obviously he has the wings, but this is a good way to do it)

Branchwych (Lieutenant – Ranger)

Branchwraith (Sorcerer)

Treelord (Monster – Titan)

Treelord (Monster – Titan)

3 Kurnoth Hunters with Swords (Bipedal Creatures)

4 Tree Revenants (Hearthguard)

8 Dryads (Warriors)

8 Dryads (Warriors)

Demons of Nurgle (Otherworld) Warband (8 points)

Herald of Nurgle (Warlord)

Sloppity Bilepiper (Sorcerer)

Great Unclean One (The Avatar – a unique unit that’s just a really really scary monster. For Nurgle I’ll give it The Unspeakable giving it more resilience)

3 Plague Drones (Flying Creatures)

3 bases of Nurglings (Quadraped Creatures)

12 Plaguebearers (Warriors)

12 Plaguebearers (Warriors)

In summary

Positives:

  • Varied settings and flexible factions
  • Novel and compelling mechanics, particularly for battleboards
  • Cheaper than many games to get into
  • Fast to play, hard to master
  • You probably already have an Age of Magic warband

Negatives:

  • Unique dice which can be offputting
  • No PDF rulebooks (as you need the card battleboards to play)
  • Slower release schedule than you might be used to

 

 

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