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What is Saga?

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Saga is a historical table top skirmish war game by Studio Tomahawk set in one of four different time-periods: Age of Invasions covers Europe's Migration Period, when barbarians threatened the Western Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire threatened back (i.e., roughly 400 CE to 800 CE), Age of Vikings covers Europe's Viking Age (i.e., roughly 700 CE to 1066 CE), Age of Crusades covers the first three Crusades of Christians into the Holy Land, plus the Northern Crusaders into Eastern Europe and the Iberian Reconquista (i.e., roughly 1096 CE to 1300 CE), lastly Age of Magic bucks the whole historical theme and covers fantasy battles, albeit more for fantasy grounded in reality like Tolkien or Howard and not the "high fantasy" of Age of Sigmar. There are also talks of an Age of Samurai and Age of Hannibal in the works, but nothing official yet. Although the game is clearly grounded in our real world's history it chooses to put an emphasis on the romantic legends of these eras rather than nitty gritty details. It's a sort of "Hollywood History" where the great figures of the era are grand heroes and cunning antagonists, the emphasis of the game is on having a fun game and not academic dissertations. So, if you're the type to be scared away from historical war games due to the fear that homework will be required, fret not.

SAGA: Dark Age Skirmishes (the first edition) was designed by Studio Tomahawk and published by Gripping Beast, a miniatures manufacturer, in 2011. SAGA: The Crescent and The Cross followed quite in 2014. Crescent and The Cross was kind of a "v 1.5" release, not changing anything major from the game, but tweaking and clarifying it. Saga's second edition came out in late 2017, the core of the game remains the same but the changes were a lot more extensive. The biggest change, however, was in the way the rulebooks were printed. Saga: Dark Age Skirmishes had been a complete rulebook for the game with several Viking era factions in it; Saga: The Crescent and The Cross was a complete rulebook for the game with several Crusades era factions in it... Making it really redundant if you played both. With second edition, they broken things up into a core rulebook and the four "universe" books. This costs ever so slightly more if you only play one era, but its cheaper in the long run if you plan to play more than one era since you don't have to buy multiple thick rulebooks filled with redundant rules, just one small rulebook and several smaller universe books.

Although the four of "universes" games are somewhat separate thematically and chronologically, there is just enough wiggle room for some plausible overlap. Mechanically, with the exception of Age of Magic, all the games are completely interchangible. Compared to the other very popular separate-but-compatible war games of Warmachine and Hordes, there is far better synchronicity between the different Saga eras as they all share one core rulebook.

Saga's core rulebook runs about $15.00 USD and is the games primary rulebook. It contains all the basic rules for the game, and some scenarios. What it doesn't contain are any rules for factions...

Age of Vikings has the rules for Vikings (obviously), Anglo-Danes, Anglo-Saxons, Byzantines, Carolingians, Irish, Jomsvikings, Normans (including the Bretons), Norse-Gaels, Pagan Rus, Scots, and Welsh. Based on my totally unscientific surveys of Saga chatter on the internet, Age of Vikings seems to be the most popular.

Age of Crusades factions include Crusaders (a sort of catch-all for the various European kingdoms and Crusader States), Spanish (focusing on the Reconquista), or the Milites Christi (the professional military orders of the era like the Knights Templar or Hospitalier Orders), Ordenstaat (the Teutonic Knights), and Poles; Representing the Muslims we have the Saracens (a catch-all for the various Islamic realms of the Levant), Moors (North Africa and Iberian with a focus on the battles for Iberia), and the Mutatawwi'a (your more fanatical war bands from the less civilized parts of the Islamic world). Rounding all that out we also have the Byzantines, Baltic Tribes, and Mongols. My totally unscientific surveys of Saga's player base seem to indicate that Age of Crusades is the second most popular.

Age of Invasions covers the Romans, Britons, Saxons, Goths, Picts, and Huns. Age of Invasions seems to be the least popular.

As I said before,  since it's all same base game all of these factions are completely playable with one another. So if you are a historical accuracy obsessed grognard, you could recreate the Battle of Poitiers where Charles Martel led the Franks to halt Islamic expansion into the West in 732 AD by playing a game pitting Age of Vikings Carolingians against Age of Crusade Moors. If you're the more just-here-for-the-game type then you don't need to worry about the anachronism of William the Conqueror fighting Saladin, just know that the rules will be balanced and the game will be fun.

Age of Magic takes a "roll your own" approach to the setting, without any defined world or lore behind it. Instead, the factions are kept purposefully vague and are based more on themes than specific "races" or "cultures." There are six different factions: The Great Kingdoms, The Lords of the Wild, The Undead Legions, The Horde, The Otherworld, and The Masters of the Undereath. If you wish to play a warband that is composed of vampires and skeletons, then The Undead Legions is an obvious faction to use. But what about say dwarves? Well, you could decide to base these around The Great Kingdoms with an emphasis on their technological abilities... Or you could choose The Masters of the Underearth with abilities that focus on a life lived underground. I've seen players run Otherworld forces that are made up of traditional demon models, but also angels, elementals, ghosts, and faeries. Age of Magic also adds new unit types like Monsters, Creatures, and War Machines. Plus wizards can cast spells, adding another new dimension to the game. Age of Magic can be combined with the other era books, but I wouldn't recommend it... On the other hand, it's not hard to add a D&D Frost Giant mini and a D&D Druid model to an existing Viking army and, presto, you've got an Age of Magic army.

The materials needed to play Saga aren't anything out of the ordinary for most gamers: a copy of the relevant rulebook(s), a tape measure, a dozen or so six-sided dice, a modest selection of terrain, a decently sized flat surface, and a collection of 25-28mm scale toy soldiers. The only unusual requirements are to have a copy of your faction's Battle Board and a set of eight special Saga Dice. The Battle Boards for each faction come included with the book had that that faction's rules in it and you can also download copies easily from the web. I'll explain them in a bit, but basically each is a single-page of info you'll need to consult a lot during game play. If you buy the books you get the boards, if you have a decent printer, you can have spares. The Saga Dice are the trickier bit. But don't fret, you can either buy these fairly cheap from various retailers, follow the DIY guide in the books to make your own, or just convert the rules to use regular numbered D6's. I'll explain what Saga Dice are soon. Promise.

Gripping Beast was a miniatures manufacturer long before they ever published the rules for the game, so obviously they'd really like you to buy your toy soldiers from them! But in a refreshing change of pace from Games Workshop or Privateer Press, Gripping Beast still has the "It's all good!" attitude typical of most historical mini makers and is quite open to players using minis from other companies. Hell, the photographs in the official first edition rulebooks contained minis from Perry Brothers, Comitatus, North Star, and Musketeer Miniatures. (The first edition rulebook even had advertisments for these other companies on the last page!) As a longtime Games Workshop player this is mind-blowing. Historical miniatures manufacturers tend to be about the same price per model as GW or Privateer Press when you're looking at the more elaborate single metal models (for that special sculpt for your warlord) and a little bit cheaper when looking at blister-packed groups of metal models (an elite unit or a command group) and a whole hell of a lot cheaper when looking at boxes of plastic rank and file!

Saga sells itself as a skirmish game and they mean it. Due to the way armies are constructed, it is actually impossible in a standard game to have more than 73 men in your force. To have that many also requires you to select nothing but the worst possible units available to your faction, which is basically suicide outside of a few very niche combinations of faction and special warlord. For the most part, you're going to be seeing standard games with thirty to forty men per player. A little less if you focus a lot on elite troops, a little more if you go the horde of peons route. Select the right box of plastic rank and file and you can probably get an entire Saga army for less than the price of a single Warhammer 40,000 squad!

Of course, as with any war game, you can always proxy figures in a casual game if your opponent doesn't mind. Go ahead and use your High Elf Silver Helms as Norman Calvary and square off against his Dwarf Rangers that are pretending to be Viking Warriors.

Army selection is simple and straight-forward. Every army gets one Warlord, for free; this is your standard wargame leadership figure and probably the best fighter in your army. A very simple point system is used to buy the rest of your men. Standard games use six points, introductory or faster-paced games use a recommended four points, and they include some optional rules for really big games using eight, ten, or a mighty twelve points. Here's the point system: one point buys four top-quality troops called Hearthguard; one point buys eight mid-tier troops called Warriors; or, one point buys twelve low-quality troops called Levies. Got that? One point equals four elite troops, eight average troops, or twelve lousy troops. That's it. No fuss, no muss.

The Warlord, Hearthguard, Warriors, and Levies of each faction have the same basic stats game wide, but these will have be modified different options and slightly different rules for each faction. For example, Saracen Hearthguard must always be mounted on horses and have the option to use bows. Vikings don't have any mounted options at all, but can designate a unit of up to four Hearthguard as Berserkers who can— well, I think it's obvious what berserkers do! Once you've figured out how many troops of each type you have you need to organize them into units. This is easy too; you just need to obey a few rules: no unit can have less than four figures or more than twelve. All the models in the unit have to be the same class of troop. If optional equipment is taken, then everybody has to take the same option.

So let's say I wanted to make a simple, four-point starting Viking Warband: I'd get my warlord for free, spend one points to get four Hearthguard, a second and third point on a total of sixteen Warriors, and the final point to buy twelve Levies. I'll use the option to equip the Levies with bows and organize them into a single unit. The Hearthguard are made into berserkers and form their own unit. I'll split the warriors into two units of five and one unit of six. Done.

How do you play Saga? (So what about those special Dice?)
At the most basic level Saga plays like most war games, you move you toy soldiers across the kitchen table, roll dice trying to get certain results based on the unit's stats, and try to roll enough high results on your dice to kill your friend’s toy soldiers before he can kill all of yours or the cat jumps on the table causing ragnarok. 

Saga diverges from the standard war game model by its use of the Battle Boards and Saga Dice. Every player's turn opens with an Orders Phase, where you will roll a number of these special dice generated by your army (usually six, but this may fall as your soldiers start to get killed) and assign them to your Battle Board based on what you hope to accomplish that turn. The Saga Dice are six-sided like regular dice but marked with symbols in lieu of numbers. Mechanically all the dice are the same, with one common result (1,2,3), one uncommon result (4,5), and one rare result (6), but to add a little bit of flair to the game the symbols are different for the various factions, the Vikings all have Nordic runes on theirs and the welsh have Celtic knots and a rampant dragon. The abilities on your Battle Board allow you to do things like activate a unit so it can move, shoot, or fight; buff a unit's combat abilities; make an out-of-sequence shooting attack to interrupt your opponent; and all those other sorts of special abilities that most war games would make a unit specific rule.

Thus the Battle Boards of the various factions combined with the unit options available (or not available) to the faction are what create its unique flavor. The Scots are a strongly defensive/reactive force, the Welsh are a swiftly moving hit-and-run bunch, and the Mutatawwi'a have a unique martyrdom mechanic, and so forth.

Some of the abilities on your Battle Board aren't even played during your turn, but instead will be used in reaction to something your opponent does during his turn. Defending your troops, debuffing his, or even outright canceling certain abilities. But any Saga Dice you have left on the board from a prior turn cannot be rolled in the current turn, and you never seem to have quite enough dice to go round...

Thus Saga combines a nice risk/reward element with a resource management element along with anticipatory strategic element and good old fashioned unit maneuvering war gaming. Players need to stay engaged even during (especially during) the other players turn. But without all the flowcharts and whacky if/then logic stacks of Infinity.

After your Orders have been assigned to the Battle Board, you activate any of your units that you have paid to activate that turn. Once Activated, a unit may move, shoot, or fight in melee as needed. There isn't a separate "Shooting Phase" or "Melee Phase," you can do it in whatever order you need and can even activate a unit multiple times... but doing so carries the risk of Fatigue.

Fatigue, along with the Saga Dice, is Saga's other risk/reward management element. Certain activity, like fighting a prolonged melee or being activated too many times in a row with cause your unit to earn a Fatigue Token. These tokens are a unique twist on standard war game design as they aren't a static penalty to you but instead are a spendable resource that offers a bonus to your opponent! Spent Fatigue Token can have a couple of different effects, but suffice it to say they usually aren't healthy for your toy soldiers!

Saga recommends that you play on a 48" x 36" table for typically sized games, moving up to a 48" x 48" or 48" x 72" table for the very biggest games. Saga uses the terrain types that most war gamers will already be familiar with and probably already own a bunch of: area terrain (i.e., forests, marshes, and hills), linear obstacles (i.e., walls, hedges), buildings, rivers, and so forth. You may have to chisel Sigmar's mug of the church or explain away the presence of a ruined Aquilla Lander in a 12th Century North African desert... But odds are your existing table and terrain collection will suit you just fine.

If you've never played war games before, Saga is remarkably friendly to the budgets of new hobbyists. Not only are the toy soldiers cheap the amount of terrain required is minimal, widely available, and/or easily scratch-built. A 36" x 48" bit of green felt from Wal-Mart, some model railroad trees glued to a bit of cardboard, some foam hills, and a fistful of lava rocks pinched from your neighbor's garden. Bang, presto, you've just created the northern shores of Brittany for $3. Time to pillage!

In most of the standard scenarios, victory is achieved by either victory points or achieving an objective. None of the scenarios require 40K style objective makers, but one of the scenarios does require the use of special "baggage pieces," which should each be between 40 x 40 mm and 50 x 100 mm. Ox carts, piles of boxes and crates, groups of women and children, or whatever else you can think of make great baggage trains. Models to represent these can usually be found pretty cheap and making a themed baggage train for your force is a fun project. (Or you can just use some blank pieces of appropriately sized card or just re-roll this scenario when it comes up. We won't judge you. [Coward!])

As is usually the case with table top wargames, speed of game play will depend a lot on how well the players know the basic rules and the particular quirks of their faction. I'm still personally learning the rules and am the sort of person that is usually willing to take my time while playing: joking, chatting, and just generally lollygagging. Even then, most of my four-point learning games all lasted only a little over an hour. I would estimate that in a competitive environment where both players were using full-sized, six point armies, and engaged actively in the best strategic games play each phase, you could probably finish most games in well under two hours. This would be excellent for tourneys, as three or four rounds could be reasonably fit into a single full day. With plenty of time for mead and revelry afterward!

I haven't yet found any flaws in the mechanics of the game; although I'm sure with time and experience I'll be able to identify a few rough spots. Every game has them, after all. So I don't have any problems with the game from a crunch perspective, but I do have a problem with it from a fluffy one. Namely, there really isn't any fluff. At all. Each of the various factions will have a quarter-page to a half-page of summary as to the who, where, and when, of the faction. The special characters personalities, like El Cid or Harald Hardrada, are given a paragraph or three. The background for the games' settings is summed up with slightly less than a full page of text.

Now, don't get me wrong, there are easily millions of books out there that cover these topics, I know that. Wikipedia has plenty of well-written articles on every named personality, every faction's culture, and so forth. Heck, you can find History Channel and National Geographic documentaries about these on Netflix or just watch fictionalized stories like Kingdom of Heaven or The Thirteenth Warrior. Finding background information about the Viking Period or the Crusades isn't hard... But, yeah, I think it would have been nice to have a little more to go on in the books. I majored in history at university and the period between the Norman Conquest and the end of Third Crusade was my particular area of interest. So while I may know this period quite well, it’s a little tricky to explain to someone whose only knowledge of Viking culture is the Space Wolves just who Jarl Sigvaldi Strut-Haraldsson is…

Of course, this would have led to greater page counts and higher prices. Catch-22 I guess.

Saga is a great game for anyone looking for a fast-paced, tactically engaging, skirmish war game with a wide range of factions, models, and eras to chose from.

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