The Joy of Saga

Saga is a game that I have been wanting to try out for some time but have not been able to manage to get a game in. I originally picked up the rules when the first edition was released but thought it was a bit fussy. It was also next to impossible to get the dice here in Canada when the game was originally released. I had some Wargames Factory models that I was going to use to build a Dane force but never got around to it and the models got traded or sold some time ago.

When the new version was released I was interested enough to pick up a copy and when a friend moved I picked up his painted Carolingian force and was ready to play. Sadly my schedule got in the way and it wasn’t until this week that I was able to get in a game. While I wanted to try the game out to use my historical force, the release of the Age of magic rules has made it more of a priority as I want to get a grasp on the basic rues before adding the twists and complications of monsters and spell casting. Many thanks to Palmer for providing some terrain and his expertise to help me work through the rules.

Now as luck would have it I managed to pick one of the toughest factions to play in the Age of Vikings book. The Carolingians have a special ability that allows them to bank dice and then use those to power their attacks and fuel movement. Trying to figure this out at the same time that you also try to manage splitting your Saga dice between activations and movement is a bit of a brain teaser but I think I did a decent enough job.

One thing that I didn’t really grok until I played was that your really tough, and critical, Hearthguard units go down when they take the same amount of damage as the lowly Levy units in a force. One unsaved hit takes out a Hearthguard model just as easily as it does a Levy slinger. So your devastating, highly trained Hearthguard can be whittled down by bow fire and taken out by a bad series of rolls. It makes it important to not only plan your attacks but also to plan how you are going to defend them from counterattack or a bad series of rolls.

The battle board in Saga provides you with abilities that you can use to enhance your troops but it does so at the expense of being able to immediately activate those same troops. You also have to determine when to use an ability in your turn or when to save it to provide a bonus when your opponent attacks. We often talk about the mental arithmetic in games but this borders on calculus. The dice have three symbols that appear 3, 2 and 1 times on a dice. Abilities and activations require one or more of these symbols and the combination of ‘rarity’ and the requirements for activation add another level of thought that the game requires of you. Every time it came to be my turn to roll my dice and apply them to my battle board I became utterly quiet. Not only to not give away my plans but also because the process was that involved and engrossing.

The game almost never provides you with the resources that you need to do everything you want and often doesn’t allow you to even move the units you want to. If you have a goal in mind for your turn you may find yourself having to do it with a different set of units or having to pick a different focus for your activations.

The game mechanics in Saga are actually quite simple and it borders on being a ‘beer & pretzel’ miniature wargame but the tension between what you want to do in a turn and what the dice will allow you to makes it a much more thoughtful game than you would think just from reading the rules. Saga really makes you plan and learn to respond to changes in the flow of the game in a way that not a lot of other rule systems do.

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