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"Saga Dark Ages Skirmish Rules Review" Topic

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Marshal Mark25 Nov 2011 8:26 a.m. PST

This is a review of the new Saga Rules for Dark Ages Skirmish Wargames by Gripping Beast and Tomahawk Studios. I have not played the game yet, so this is a review based on reading the rules. I will provide further comments after playing some games.
After reading an article about Saga in Wargames Illustrated I thought it looked like just what I was looking for in a set of Skirmish rules that is a level up in terms of size of armies than Song of Blades and Heroes. SoBH is the ruleset I normally use for skirmish games and it works well for around 5-10 figures per side, but struggles with much larger forces, so I have been looking for a ruleset that will allow me to get more figures on the table. There are plenty of other sets of skirmish rules out there, but the trouble with most skirmish games is that there isn't a lot of tactical decision making involved. This might well be realistic after all in a battle between two small warbands of about 20-30 combatants, I'm sure there wouldn't be much in the way of tactical manoeuvring, and command and control would not be much of an issue. It would just be a matter of everyone getting stuck in. However in wargaming terms this just comes down to who rolls the best dice, and that isn't much of a gaming experience. However, the unique aspect of SAGA is the concept of the Battle Board, which provides the decision making aspect that makes the game interesting and challenging. Each faction (army) in the game gets a separate Battle Board these allow activation of units and various special abilities such as extra attacks, special manoeuvres, defensive actions, etc. They give each of the four factions (Normans, Anglo-Danes, Welsh, Vikings) their own unique mode of play. Effectively they provide the same role as the unit ability cards you get in some of the collectible or boutique type miniatures games such as Warmachine, but in a historical setting and without being tied in to the figures of the manufacturer.
The game is IgoUgo, and at the start of each turn the player rolls some special Saga Dice (more on these later) and places them on a matching dice symbol on the Battle Board. These dice are used throughout the players turn (and sometimes in the opponents turn for reactive or defensive abilities) to activate units for movement, shooting or resting, and for the special abilities. The more powerful activities require rarer dice results and sometimes require two dice. So planning ahead and anticipating the opponent's moves are vital. Management of the Saga dice and clever use of the abilities (and particularly combinations of abilities), in conjunction with how you manoeuvre your units on the table, are the way to succeed in this game.
The rest of the rules are pretty straightforward, which is as it should be as it allows you to focus on the Battle Boards. Combat (melee or shooting) requires rolling a certain number of dice depending on the type of combatants involved, with the target number depending on the defendants armour. Saving rolls can be made against any hits, with any that are not saved resulting in figures lost. Units build up Fatigue after combat or on multiple activations, and Fatigue can limit what the unit can do, or can be used by the opponent to disadvantage the Fatigued unit in melee. Remember, all of these factors (attack dice, armour level, saving throws, Fatigue) can be influenced by spending the dice placed on special abilities on the Battle Board.
Each army has a Warlord and units made up of up to different three qualities of troops household warriors (known as Hearthguard), standard warriors and levies (who are normally armed with missile weapons). The points system is simple One point gets you four Hearthguard, 8 warriors or 12 levies. There are some special rules for different armour and weapons that certain factions may have, so Anglo-Danes may have Danish Axes, and Normans may be mounted. These are supposed to be balanced so that for any advantage you get a corresponding disadvantage. For example Norman warriors may be taken as crossbowmen they get a crossbow at the expense of a reduction in armour level. A standard game is between 4 and 6 points, so around 20 50 figures per side.
There are a few scenarios included, such as straight up fights, river crossings and attacking the enemy warlord's hall, and there are rules for using named historical characters such as Harold Godwinson or Duke William of Normandy.
The rules are clearly laid out and well written, with plenty of examples and diagrams. They also include some background information on the armies, tactical tips and hints and plenty of colour photos of nicely painted figures in action. It really is a nicely produced rulebook.
I haven't played yet but Im really looking forward to playing and I am sure that this is going to be a game that I really enjoy. I will be playing with 15mm dark ages figures, and also 28mm LOTR, using appropriate historical Battle Boards for each army.
I now come to the only negative thing I have to say about these rules, and that is the cost. For 25 you get the rulebook, with is a colour 74 page A4 softback book, and four A4 card Battle Boards. That's not a lot for the money, especially when compared to other recent rules releases. If you are the sort of person that likes to feel like they are getting value for money, in terms of what you actually get physically, then this might put you off. What's more, you need the special Saga dice to play, and these are not included. These dice are specific to each faction, and have one symbol on one side, a second symbol on two sides and a third symbol on three sides. You can buy these from Gripping Beast at a price of 12 per faction set (well actually you can't at the moment because they have sold out, but I understand there are more being ordered). And yes, that is per faction, not 12 for all the dice you need. So that's a minimum of 24 just for the two sets you would need to start playing. Alternatively you can make your own, and they provide a free download pdf with the dice symbols on. Doing this has cost me about 12 for the full four sets of dice (purchase of blank dice in four colours plus round labels). The final alternative they suggest is using normal dice and remembering that a 6 is one symbol, a 4 or 5 is the second symbol and a 1, 2 or 3 is the third. Not a very satisfactory solution though, and potentially time consuming and prone to mistakes. The publishers could have made this approach more feasible by printing the Battle Boards on both sides, with normal dice symbols on one side.
In conclusion, it looks like being a great game and will appeal to those who like games with challenging tactical decisions rather than just pushing figures around and rolling dice. If the cost doesn't put you off I'd recommend giving it a try.

Karellian Knight25 Nov 2011 9:55 a.m. PST

To be honest it wasn't only the price, but the review in WI that put me off this game. Sounds too fiddly and gimmicky.

Terrement Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member25 Nov 2011 9:58 a.m. PST


McSorley25 Nov 2011 11:12 a.m. PST

"This might well be realistic after all in a battle between two small warbands of about 20-30 combatants, I'm sure there wouldn't be much in the way of tactical manoeuvring, and command and control would not be much of an issue. It would just be a matter of everyone getting stuck in. However in wargaming terms this just comes down to who rolls the best dice, and that isn't much of a gaming experience."

You would be astounded how many gamers can't comprehend the meaning of this…

Serotonin Inactive Member25 Nov 2011 2:37 p.m. PST

I'm not sure it's fair to call Saga 'Gimmicky'. Arguably the battleboards are a novel approach for historical war gaming but it's coherent and elegant.

Wargamer Blue25 Nov 2011 4:32 p.m. PST

I tried to order the rules but they have sold out. I have to wait until after Christmas now.

Pedrobear Inactive Member25 Nov 2011 5:50 p.m. PST

"I'm not sure it's fair to call Saga 'Gimmicky'. Arguably the battleboards are a novel approach for historical war gaming but it's coherent and elegant."

Yes, but is it metagaming? Does the game come down to waiting for the dice to fall in the right combination?

Serotonin Inactive Member26 Nov 2011 1:00 a.m. PST

No not at all. Well no more than any other wargame that relies on dice to decide outcomes.

Major Mishap Inactive Member26 Nov 2011 12:59 p.m. PST

I've played several games now and they are very tactical and fun to play. The price is a big issue for what is very simple rules and light on content, but because of that you will only need 1 copy between a group of players.

coopman Supporting Member of TMP26 Nov 2011 1:58 p.m. PST

I ordered a copy from Architects of War last night. They had them in stock, according to their message back to me.

Derek H27 Nov 2011 5:20 a.m. PST


Yes, but is it metagaming? Does the game come down to waiting for the dice to fall in the right combination?

Usually you can't wait until you get the dice you want, your opponent won't let that happen if he's got any sense.

You have to make the best use of the dice you get.

Carl H Inactive Member27 Nov 2011 10:32 a.m. PST

I have a couple of questions for those who have seen the rules:

1) Are the units used only for selecting troops, or must units of like models act together?

2) Are combats fought model-to-model or unit-to-unit? In like vein, are casualties assessed to specific models or to a unit?

Marshal Mark27 Nov 2011 11:16 a.m. PST

Figures must be organised into units of like troops. So you could spend 3 points on huscarls but split the 12 figures into two units of six.

Combat is unit-to-unit, always one unit against one unit.

coopman Supporting Member of TMP27 Nov 2011 11:23 a.m. PST

Do the rules not allow two units to charge a single enemy unit? Or are you saying that each unit vs unit melee would be resolved separately?

Marshal Mark27 Nov 2011 12:05 p.m. PST

No, you activate units one at a time. If one unit charges, combat is resolved against one enemy unit. Combat always end with one side breaking off / pushed back. So there are no multi-unit combats. This aspect might not be realistic, but it keeps the game mechanics simple.

Derek H27 Nov 2011 1:57 p.m. PST

The Warlord can lead one of his units into combat, but that's the only occasion on which one unit can fight two (the Warlord counts as a unit).

Shootmenow Inactive Member27 Nov 2011 3:02 p.m. PST

When you've played a couple of games you soon learn that whilst the rules are quite easy to grasp, mastering the game is down to capitalising on the Saga dice you have and not waiting for the perfect combination as this will probably not arrive until the battle's lost!

One example I soon learned is the power of successive attacks. By this I mean your unit A attacks the enemy unit B which very little hope of success. However, the aim isn't to defeat the unit but to draw out your opponent's defensive Saga dice (used to boost the melee powers of a unit) and tire that unit (each unit involved in a melee recieves a Fatibue marker which can subsequently exchanged for a combat advantage by the enemy). After this the 'real' attack is made on enemy unit B by a fresh unit, hopefully boosted by your own Saga dice. Thus you can often get 'multiple unit melees' in the same turn, just not in the same activation as each unit activates individually.

I have really enjoyed all the games of Saga I've played, win, lose or draw and it's become the most popular short play game at my club by some measure.

I have to say that whilst I own the Viking Saga dice, I've regularly played with Anglo-danes and Welsh using standard D6's with no confusion or difficulty whatsoever and I get confused quite easily with many rules!

daghan Inactive Member28 Nov 2011 2:59 a.m. PST


Interesting insight, but did Dark Ages warriors actually think and fight in this way, I wonder? Although the dice sound runically realistic.

Derek H29 Nov 2011 2:57 a.m. PST

drusty wrote:

did Dark Ages warriors actually think and fight in this way

If you're looking for much of anything in the way of historical realism then Saga is not for you. It's a fairly abstract game dressed up with some historical clothes and a bit of Dark Age flavour.

Still a fantastic game though.

Shootmenow Inactive Member29 Nov 2011 2:39 p.m. PST

Drusty, I honestly cannot say exactly how Dark Ages warriors fought in minor skirmishes, which is what Saga represents. I'm not sure that anyone can.

I can tell you that the game has bags of Dark Age flavour and is non-stop action from start to finish. That, combined with the pure fun of the game, is why I, and everyone else I know who's tried it, have thoroughly enjoyed the game. However, I'm equally certain that it won't appeal to all.

I'd also say that I must have played close to 50 games at various point levels by now and every one has been different.

ajbartman Inactive Member29 Nov 2011 3:36 p.m. PST

Shootmenow – While I'm still waiting on the rules so I can't say a whole lot but the AAR I have read is what got me to looking at the game. Like you said, fun and a lot of flavour. I would say any game that uses dice and 2 folks playing against each other is what it is… a game. Looking forward to getting my rules.

Joe Legan Supporting Member of TMP30 Nov 2011 3:31 p.m. PST

I think everyone has their idea of how much "realism" they want. It is certainly fun.
As I stated in my review, my hat is off to the designer. It is more difficult to design a simple game than a complicated one. I am playtesting my tweaks to the system such as C+C, spotting and the boards and hope to have an article ready for the spring.


freecloud Inactive Member30 Nov 2011 3:58 p.m. PST

We've played a few SAGA games, I dont think it's that fiddly it's kind of like using a card based game (battleboard) but cards are chosen by dicing not dealing each turn.

We get 2 games in a night, it's quite good fun and more club members are getting into it, the low barrier to entry 30 to 40 figures to get going is very attractive. You can build all.4 armies with less figures than you'd need for a small 300 pt 28 mm DBM army.

As to whether it's realistic or historic or not, who knows what historic in terms of a 30 man Dark Age skirmish would be like. It follows the Big Man concept that the 2 Fat Lardies games use.

ajbartman Inactive Member01 Dec 2011 5:37 a.m. PST

Got the rules yesterday. After a quick look through last night, they look very promising. The rules seem simple and concise. Yet still a lot going on. More thoughts in a few days.

Thomas O01 Dec 2011 12:11 p.m. PST

I have played several games, and really like the system, the battleboards being the key to the whole game. One good attack per turn using as many opptions as you can from the battleboard is worth more than trying to get all your units to move up and engage at once. Plus depending on how you play your SAGA dice you can actually run up and make an attack and then withdraw, this is very effective when using cavalry against infantry.

Shootmenow Inactive Member01 Dec 2011 2:31 p.m. PST

Thomas O – don't forget that if you activate for a second (or more) movement within S range of the enemy you have to engage them so cavalry hitting and running away wouldn't be a legal move unless they had wiped out the unit they hit and nothing else was within S range. The Welsh can run away using a Saga ability as soon as a nearby enemy activate (and it's damned annoying when they do! :)). Basically cavalry have the initiative due to mobility but can find themselves vulnerable to infantry counter-attacks.

coopman Supporting Member of TMP01 Dec 2011 9:19 p.m. PST

It seems to me that the system is unforgiving with regards to a player that loses a unit. That'a a hard thing to overcome. With so few units to start with, they are seem very important to the army's efforts. I wonder how often will the side that loses the first unit also lose the game?

Shootmenow Inactive Member03 Dec 2011 4:58 a.m. PST

I can only speak from personal experience but, unless you're playing someone who has made a major blunder, you'll find both sides lose units throughout the game. When playing my mate's Welsh with my Vikings I expect to lose the first unit due to his missile ability. However, once we get into melee then its 'go Vikings'!

The loss of a unit doesn't cripple your game, particularly if its a bit of a sacrificial lamb to allow a significant advantage elsewhere. It does lose you a Saga dice but it also saves you a Saga dice as dead men don't activate! :) Seriously though, this is a bit of a blood & guts game so don't get inhibited about losing a unit. Just try to gain an advantage from it.

jpwalker04 Dec 2011 10:58 a.m. PST

Played a five person free-for-all last night to try to get everyone familiar with the rules, it was a blast. Everyone had a great time.

I was the only one with SAGA dice (I made some viking dice with blank dice and a sharpie) no one seemed to have any trouble with regular old D6. It was fun watching players discover new abilities and combos on the battle boards. Our group was a little concerned that SAGA was geared to one on one matches, last night proved otherwise. We were able to generate a lot of excitement in the group for the game.

One of our members was a bit put off by the one unit vs one unit combat, except if your warlord brings a unit into combat. The reasoning being, the unit just fought with the warlord, why can't they fight now? I really didn't know what to say (we only have two copies of the rules in the group, I was able to pick up a few copies in London while on a trip at the Orc's nest. Great store by the way, everyone who is able needs to support this place.) The only answer I could give him is game balance.

Anyway, super fun game. Now it's time to paint some apples and chickens. My Vikings need something to pillage.

freecloud Inactive Member06 Dec 2011 3:26 a.m. PST

Played a 6 point game last night, takes a lot longer then the 4 point game (more to move and remove, and the added dice have a smaller % increase)

Bloody Norman Dux Aie dicefest finally did for mey heroic Welsh leader.

I agree with the above re losses, this is a game to allow Sagas to be written, with sword blood channels flowing etc etc.

Surferdude Inactive Member27 Jan 2012 12:15 a.m. PST

Best fun skirmish game I have ever played, including the stuff I have written. :)
It is a game but having done a deal of mock live skirmish in my time I don't think tactical planning is ever going to be a great part of a 30v30 scrap!
The battleboards add the 'make your own luck' element of a hand to hand melee!

VonBurge Inactive Member08 Feb 2012 3:17 p.m. PST

Been keeping up with Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories. When I saw this I immediately made the connection to how cool it would be to recreate some of the fights of Ubba of Babenberg!

I've got a pre-order in for the 2nd printing of Saga which is due to arrive in the US any day.

VonBurge Inactive Member09 Feb 2012 6:17 a.m. PST

Ooops..correction. I meant Uthred of Babenberg.

pilum40 Supporting Member of TMP17 Feb 2013 6:04 p.m. PST

I want to play this game in 54mm. Will the rules support the scale differential or does that matter? I'm thinking this would make this game visually cool. Any thought on this or has this already been run up and kicked around?
Steve Miller
DFW Irregulars

Dexter Ward18 Feb 2013 7:28 a.m. PST

There's no reason the game wouldn't work in the larger scale. Just use slightly bigger bases (though I'd keep them as small as possible)

Marshal Mark19 Feb 2013 3:29 a.m. PST

Given that it's a skirmish game with individually based figures, you can use it with any scale. Just increase the range sticks proportionally.

dapeters19 Feb 2013 9:01 a.m. PST

I've played it and it was fun. It has a unique mechanism (battle boards) and I would not call it a gimmick. I would think that the system would work well for fantasy battles. But It's not really a historical rules set. Again it was fun and for me that has to be part of any game I play.

vonkluge Supporting Member of TMP07 Jul 2013 10:41 a.m. PST

In conclusion, it looks like being a great game and will appeal to those who like games with challenging tactical decisions rather than just pushing figures around and rolling dice. If the cost doesn't put you off I'd recommend giving it a try.

I just tried Saga for the first time and found it very interesting, not your straight up "Historical game" that all the Grognards would be used too but sort of a Hybred with bits of "Hollywood type" history placed at you disposal to be used by a player provided he gets the dice. I think this is a well designed game that will appeal to the crossover generation of gamers, and lets face it whether you like it or not that is the future of gaming. Its getting very close to the time that most players of historical games will have had some experience in fantasy / Sci fi games if not their whole gaming foundation in it. The dry, cumbersome, lengthy, figure heavy rules of our youth and "yesteryear" are just not what new gamers are looking for, used too, and frankly few of us from the "yesteryear" generation have time or patience for anymore!

I at first thought the game was/might be a bit gimmicky but its more a way of mixing it up and forcing a commander to make decisions during the battle based on what is happening with his troops as well as those of the enemy. I think this will give the game a better longevity due to the unpredictability of events. Ok I only played one game, but I've been playing Historical's 30 years so I got a bit of smarts when looking at rules. It may not be for everyone but as a fun game for getting lots of people interested it works. The ability to go to another town, convention, or gaming group and play with a group who knows and plays the same rules is Priceless!

As for price, please lets ditch the frikking cheap wargamer attitude where we all want the greatest, most perfect, beautifully printed rule set and still pay what we did 10,20,or 30 years ago! Quit expecting people to design games and go through all the work and risk of publishing to not make any money on it.Most companies are very fairly priced in the market and their profit margins are not great. Wargaming is cheap hobby when you come down to it, and I'll argue that with anyone. I have been a fishing nut, a motorcycle nut, and a wargaming nut, For the money invested Wargaming by far gave me the best and longest return for the money and my armies did not wear out, breakdown, go out of style, and I don't even want to think about how much those trout actually cost to catch! Nothing is free, quality is not cheap.

Codsticker08 Jul 2013 8:52 a.m. PST

"Wargaming is cheap hobby when you come down to it…"
Amen brother!

Marshal Mark08 Jul 2013 10:27 a.m. PST

As for price, please lets ditch the frikking cheap wargamer attitude where we all want the greatest, most perfect, beautifully printed rule set and still pay what we did 10,20,or 30 years ago!

I'm not comparing it to what we paid 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I'm comparing it to what you get now for a similar price – such as rules like FOG, Hail Caesar, Black Powder, War & Conquest, etc.
I'd have more sympathy for them if they were a small independant rules writer, but I'm sure GB have done very well from figure sales as a result of Saga, so I think they could have sold them cheaper.

Nikator Inactive Member12 Jul 2013 2:46 p.m. PST

When the rules are more expensive than the minis for an entire army (at least if you buy the GB Plastics box and build your force out of it, as I have done) then the rules are officially expensive. Not prohibitively so, IMHO, but pricey.

Fortunately the game is lots of fun. Our crowd mostly plays FoG, but this is a very nice alternative for a shorter simpler change of pace.

vonkluge Supporting Member of TMP14 Jul 2013 11:04 p.m. PST

When the rules are more expensive than the minis for an entire army (at least if you buy the GB Plastics box and build your force out of it, as I have done) then the rules are officially expensive. Not prohibitively so, IMHO, but pricey.

Your example doesn't hold water my friend, I could build an army out of matchsticks and that would be real cheap. Judging what the rules should cost by comparing them against the miniatures cost is silly.
I just played my third game of SAGA and the rules are very good, well thought out, innovative, and FUN. These are folks trying to bring gamers a great game, they have overhead, families, and need to make a living just like the rest of us. Do you really think given the time and work that goes into a ruleset like this generates a big profit margin? Some companies dont even make money on the rules but count on making money selling the miniatures. When guys like you and I do our armies out of a single box or in my case "matchsticks" they dont make $$, not that you should not do what works for you but think about it realistically when your group buys one set of rules, thinks the fact that the rules being overpriced in their opinion is justification to copy them instead for the rest of the group, the company makes even less! Yes I have played with groups like that and quit them because of it. Good gaming my friend, I just like to be the "Devils Advocate"

Grandviewroad Inactive Member15 Jul 2013 11:36 a.m. PST

Saga is a pricey game overall. There are several sets of colorful games that have lower price tags.

That being said, it's apparently the game playing pieces like dice and boards that up the cost, so if you like them I guess it's worth it.

As for the game, the word is that it's very "gamey" and less "historical re-enactment". As much of history is tedious, unfair or just plain one-sided, gamey is OK for some.

But it is nice to have people do reviews and bring on the comments so that people get a better idea of what they're buying then the manufacturors advertising.

So thanks to everyone who contributed. I personally chose Dux Britanniarum by TFL, but it has its own problems and while SAGA isn't for me a fellow at the FLGS has it and I plan to give it a go on his purchase.

ochoinlight Inactive Member05 Dec 2013 3:58 a.m. PST

Is it possible to use other than the Saxon/Norman/Welsh/viking option?

I'm keen to get an Arthurian Late Roman-style force together.

KTravlos Supporting Member of TMP08 Dec 2013 1:08 p.m. PST

If you go to the Studio Tomahawk forums for the game there are free extra factions.

The game also has official rules for Irish-Breton-Byzatnines-Rus-Rus Princes-Caroligians-NorseIrish-JomVikings-Strathyclyde Welsh

infinite array08 Dec 2013 10:14 p.m. PST

To expand on what Travlos said, the 'official' factions in Saga are:

Franks (Which can be Carolingian, Capetian, or Merovingian)
Norse Gael
Strathclyde Welsh
Pagan Rus
Rus Princes

Additionally, there's a Skraeling battleboard/starter set combo that's a bit rare, if I remember correctly, since it was a limited time deal, and a new Steppe Tribes warband that has its rules in Wargames Illustrated.

There is a 'Late Roman' battleboard on their forums, but I think its a bit early for Arthurian Britons, and its more focused on Romans vs Huns.

Personally, I demoed the game with my Vikings fighting against a Arthurian-Welsh warband that used the Anglo-Dane battleboard, if that helps at all.

EricThe Shed18 Dec 2013 7:33 a.m. PST

The saga website at studio tomahawk has loads of stuff well worth a visit

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