Review: SAGA

I never really had the calling to get into ancients or medieval wargaming. A long while back I was into Warhammer which seemed to scratch my itch for medieval-type gaming. Big blocky units moving in formation, a crash of cavalry in a wedge charging a flank, rows of archers and siege weapons, it just was more fun for me to collect and paint minis for fantasy armies than a historical game. I dumped my Warhammer stuff years ago but lately I’ve considered getting into historical ancient gaming. However I really didn’t want to go the route of a huge army. Maybe something smaller scale. So along comes SAGA from Gripping Beast and Studio Tomahawk.

SAGA is a skirmish wargame set very loosely in the mid-11th century. Players form small warbands and battle it out over a small stretch of earth, pitting each warlord-led host against each other. True historical scenarios are somewhat thrown to the wayside and the game pretty much embraces a ‘what-if’ sort of vibe, which is just fine. You aren’t recreating historical battles here. It’s pretty much small unit action of a group of 30-60 men and mounted horses.

The scale is man-per-model and is about 20-28mm. Ranges are set increment range bands. So Very Short is 2″, Short is 4″, Medium is 6″, etc. with ranges maxing out at 12″. Movement is typically 6″ with shooting at maximum ranges of 12″. All references to distances use this nomenclature of range bands. What is particularly nice about this range system is its flexibility. If you wanted to run a 15mm game, just alter the range band scales from inches to cm. Simple.

A key component of the game is the battle boards. Each faction has its unique chart that describes the various actions and special abilities related to common tactics and characteristics of that group. Players roll saga dice, these special d6 (although a normal six-sided die could also be used) and allocate them to different sections on the battle board. The saga dice themselves are 3 symbols unevenly distributed. Effectively one symbol represents 1-3, another 4-5, and the last symbol is a ‘six’. During their turn they spend upwards of 6 order dice removing them from the board and activating certain abilities (some allow more dice to be used up to a maximum of 8). Once they spent the dice they care to, their turn ends and their opponent takes a turn doing the same.

I love it. Certain units will only activate on a particular die range, with the most trained units being able to always activate. You have special abilities that enhance attacks. You also have abilities that can be spent on defense during your opponent’s turn. So deciding what dice to use for activating units and attacking, while keeping a precious few in reserve for your opponent’s turn is a key part of the game. It’s a surprisingly dynamic system where you have to plan out attacks and be prepared for charges.

As lesser trained levy units don’t activate as much (50% of the time) and they share an activation die symbol with more powerful combat abilities, in effect you have leadership become part of order dice allocation. It’s an exceedingly clever system. It builds in that unknown of not being able to count on poorly disciplined units when you need to. To bypass this, you have a warlord for your warband that can order movement to units within range. So if you really need to move those peasant archers, you can bypass the die order allocation with judicious placement of your warlord.

Another nifty point is that units can activate multiple times. So you can take that elite unit of troops and go all out in a fight if needed. However each order beyond the first accumulates fatigue. Units also get a fatigue marker for shooting or being in melee. Fatigue can also be gained if nearby units are wiped out. If a unit has a certain amount of fatigue (which varies depending on the unit quality) it cannot do anything but rest, removing a fatigue token while it does so. If attacked while fatigued, the unit will also fight significantly less effectively. Essentially it incorporates some aspect of morale for units.

Fatigue can also be spent by your opponent. They can be used to decrease a unit’s combat effectiveness in a melee, or be spent to increase the likelihood an enemy will land a blow. This all adds a tactical layer to the game making it very engaging. If I push a unit to move and attack, I’m decreasing the chances I can use it again on later turns. Even worse, an opponent could use that accumulated fatigue against me if that unit is charged by the enemy. Meanwhile, my opponent seriously has to think about that decision of using my fatigue. If they can’t inflict significant casualties, my unit will be able to activate on future turns (as they’ve removed fatigue markers on my unit). This is a really cool feature of the game and allows both sides to be involved, despite it being one person’s ‘turn’ to activate their units.

Combat is a basic affair. Units roll a single d6 to hit with the number of dice depends on troop type, where elite warriors might roll two dice per man, to rolling a single die per 3 models for levies. Warlords are a force unto themselves generating 5 melee attack dice for a single model. Both shooting and melee work against equaling or exceeding a specific number (again more elite units are harder to hit, compared to easier, lesser-trained troops). For each successful hit, the dice are passed to the defender and they can try to make a save, either 4+ or 5+ depending on it being shooting or melee, respectively.

The composition of the force is points-based, with a typical warband ranging from 4-6 points and your warlord being free. Units range from a minimum of 4 models up to a maximum of 12. Units are bought in groups where elite trained warriors are in groups of 4, warriors as units of 8, and levies as a single group of 12. For each unit you have, you get one saga die. Your warlord automatically gives you 2 saga dice and levies offer no dice if you field them.

As force composition goes, it’s an elegant system to ensure a fair fight and something to carefully consider. As you lose units, you lose saga dice reducing your tactical options. Smaller units are cheaper and generate more dice compared to larger, well-trained units, but suffer from being more easily wiped out. Likewise the cheap, large units of levies might be able to soak up a lot of fire and casualties but don’t award any order dice.

The game details 6 simple scenarios, with a bonus multiplayer/faction one. Rules are provided for even larger engagements of up to 12 points. The scenarios range from simple battles for the field to others requiring the taking of terrain objectives. There is even a scenario where an attacker tries to steal a baggage train from the defender.

Out of the book there are 4 factions: Anglo-Danish, Normans, Vikings and Celts. Aside from each faction gaining a unique battle board, every group has special rules. Special heroic warlords can also be bought with rules for fielding these larger-than-life warrior leaders.

The Good – SAGA is an enjoyable skirmish medieval game. It moves and plays unit based, melee combat very well. The order allocation and fatigue mechanisms are interesting ideas and provide a dynamic experience on the tabletop. It provides just the right mix of varying leadership and uncertainty of executing orders through a different process from other games.

The book is well written with lots of examples. The photography of colored models is quite nice. The softback book is printed on quality, glossy paper with oversized pages. The battle boards themselves are decent cardstock and look like they can take some handling wear.

The Bad – Some might consider the special SAGA dice somewhat a gimmick. There are rules and charts for converting the die results to a normal d6. Still it’s a bit of a chore interpreting the symbol on the faction boards with a specific die roll, and the dice set themselves are pretty expensive.

Every faction revolves around a separate battle board. There is not a copy of the board within the rulebook so if you lose one, you’ve effectively lost the ability to play that faction. This relates somewhat to the overall expense of the book. You are paying about $40 for a 72 page softback book (with a fair amount of whitespace on the layout of each page) and a few special cardstock charts. Compared to something like the quality of Osprey’s Bolt Action rulebook, it’s pretty steep. I’m also put off a bit a little by the cheapness of Gripping Beast related to what is available for SAGA online.

Clearly piracy is on their minds, with no online resources for PDF versions of their battle boards (and none in the rulebook itself). There is also this adherence of using special dice for each faction (instead of offering pre-made charts that could work with regular d6). The rules are simple and sparse, with much of the meat of how a faction works parsed off to a single page. It seems that they want to push people buying a set of rules that are a tad overpriced for what you actually get, with limited online support like copies of the faction boards.

The Verdict – While I complain some on the relative cost of the book, and the push for using special order dice, SAGA is a good game. It offers a very engaging system for medieval skirmish wargame action. The order and fatigue system allows for play that’s surprisingly dynamic in action. Despite the limited number of factions in the book, each one has some truly unique abilities giving what would be simply a mob of armored men, some different tactical abilities on the battlefield.

I really like this game. It brings something different to the table in relation to historical skirmish games. The rules are simple and easy to grasp. All the while, choosing what abilities to assign to your troops and when to use them is a challenging tactical experience. Additionally, you may have to consider the limited orders and maneuvering you can accomplish during a single turn, meaning strategic planning is needed to execute complicated moves. It’s surprisingly deep for what appears to be a simple rule system.

If you’ve had a fancy of dabbling into historical wargaming, SAGA is a great system. There are some dings to how the rules are presented and the peripheral items needed for the tabletop. However with a little work they can be bypassed. It really is an enjoyable game with a pretty low model count to make for a fun afternoon on the table battlefield. Consider picking up these rules if you’ve got the itch to have men cry for Valhalla over the clash of steel and crashing of bodies into a shield wall.

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