If you have ever looked for a cross between Ryan Laukat's Eight-Minute Empire (Red Raven) and Risk (Hasbro), or a streamlined version of Martin Wallace’s Perikles (Warfrog), Saga of the Northmen may well be for you. Designer Scott W Leibbrandt and publisher Minion Games keep the gameplay swift while adding some theme and depth (and actual battles) so that Saga of the Northmen does a good job of being a light-to-middleweight area control game. Using a rough map of Europe, players have the chance to send their Saxons to raid the coast of Africa or plunder the Holy Roman Empire with hordes of Danes: each game - in fact each round - will be an entertaining re-imagining of history.
Play is over three rounds, each with three phases. In the first phase, you play cards that give you influence over one of the seven 'kingdoms' on the board. Once this phase is done, each player should have at least one army at their disposal for use in the next round. Here armies can be used to invade neutral regions, each worth varying amounts of ‘plunder’ points according to the cards played in the previous round. Finally, there’s a bit of clear-up in which bonus points are available for players managing to control specific armies and invade specific regions, according to their secret trade route cards.
Throughout the game, players vying for control of territories and then struggling to invade regions will inevitably lose out to each other. The interesting twist in this game is that any cube (influence in the first phase, or armies in the second) that isn’t part of a successful claim, returns to its owner in the form of ‘Infamy’. Infamy is a currency that can be spent to recruit Heroes for military advantage, delay the actions of an army until other armies have been committed, or draw more bonus cards. This acts as a useful catch-up mechanism, taking the sting out of missing out on what you wanted to do.
The fact that you get compensation even when you lose out helps to make Saga of the Northmen great fun to play. There’s always the thrill of tension, the intrigue of second-guessing each other’s plans and the joy of seeing a plan come together. The game rewards both long-term planning and opportunism. Due to the deck of cards determining which armies you can influence, you'll never find you are playing the same game twice.
If there's a problem with Saga of the Northmen, it lies in the way in which draws are resolved: they go in favour of the start player, or whoever is next after the start player. When there are seven kingdoms to struggle for control of, and then nine further regions to control, there are a lot of draws. That means that if you’re the last player, you will do well to achieve anything that round. In a 4-player game, one player will be 4th, 3rd and 2nd in turn order over the course of the 3 rounds, which is fairly crippling. Different amounts of starting Infamy aim to balance out this disadvantage, but I’m not sure that it does enough. At least in 3-player games, everyone gets the same opportunities, so that is surely the sweet-spot as far as player count is concerned.
Questions of balance aside, Saga of the Northmen is fun to play from start to finish. I hope there’ll be a second printing with player aids or a rules summary to ensure nothing gets missed, and it’s a shame that the terminology is inconsistent between the Infamy cards and the rules, but this doesn’t prevent Saga of the Northmen from being a very good one-hour scratch for when you have that insatiable itch to take over at least some of the world.
(Review by Matt Young)