by Buck Surdu
This weekend a bunch of us got together for a comparative play test of three sets of rules for Dark Ages skirmishes. The three sets were Saga, Battle Troll, and Songs of Blades and Heroes. We set up the same scenario on three different boards and ran the scenario with each set of rules three times. The players mostly moved from game to game in order to try the different rules. Because we only had a few people who could GM some of the rules, not everyone had a chance to try all three sets.
The map we used for the scenarios
The scenario involved roughly equal forces. The raiding force was to enter the table, cross the stream at the ford, steal livestock, and exit off the other end of the table. The defending force was to retain control of their livestock and exit the table where the raiding force entered. The two forces had to cross through each other with a bunch of animals, usually cows.
The setup for the Songs of Blades and Heroes game
The setup for the Battle Troll game
The setup for the Saga game
There were too many simultaneous games to detail any blow-by-blow coherent battle reports. Instead I will attempt to record the various players’ impressions and comments on the different rules sets. The intent of this report is not vote on which was the best rule set for Dark Ages gaming; rather, the intent is to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the various rules.
Dave and Nick getting ready to play Battle Troll
Focus of the Rules:
- Saga: Saga is a tournament-oriented Dark Ages skirmish system. It involved the largest forces of any of the games and resolves combat very quickly. Neither the combat nor activation mechanisms are particularly innovative; however, the use of a “battle board” to customize the various armies. An army might have 30 or more figures.
- Battle Troll: Battle Troll is focused on recreating man-to-man fights like those of Norse legends. There are three kinds of figures. Heroes are the focus of the game. They have reputation points that are accumulated for heroic actions. Heroes are usually assisted by some number of huskarls and karls. The karls are designed to die in droves, but the effective use of them to assist the heroes and huskarls during a melee can be decisive. In general our impression is that you wouldn’t have a player control more than about ten figures with these rules.
- Songs of Blades and Heroes: Like Battle Troll, Songs of Blades and Heroes seems best with about 10-15 figures per player. Forces consist of heroes, warriors, and other minions. For this play test, in order to compare apples with apples, we “blandified” the game from its intent by removing all fantasy elements. The combination of attributes enables the most customization of figures and forces and seems to be the most flexible of the rules. This impression is validated by the number of sets of rules in the Songs of… family of rules.
Greg and Don playing Saga
Greg rolled a triple one for activation, losing the initiative.
Raiders fighting across the ford in Songs of Blades and Heroes
Activation and Movement:
- Saga: Saga is turn based. One side goes and then the other side goes. There are opportunities to interrupt or affect the other player’s actions. The gimmick in Saga is the battle board, which customizes the various armies by giving them special “tricks” or abilities during the game. At the beginning of a player’s activation, he rolls a certain number of Saga dice and places them on his battle board to be used during the turn to activate units, perform special actions, etc. For instance, the Vikings have an ability to modify the armor value of a unit when attacked by missile weapons. The battle board makes each army feel different, but in turn, success is highly dependent on being able to effectively manipulate the battle board, relegating maneuver on the table to secondary importance. When a unit activates, generally all of the figures in the unit may either fire or move, but not both. A unit may activate more than once in a player’s turn, accruing a fatigue marker as a result. Movement is generally up to six inches.
- Battle Troll: Forces or sides in Battle Troll are divided into up to four bands, each led by a hero, his huskarls, and karls. Battle Troll uses a card-based activation mechanic with a twist. The twist is that there are two kinds of cards. The first allows everyone in a bad to activate. The second allows a hero and any figures within four inches of him to activate. A figure may move, conduct moving fire with a javelin, fire a bow or other missile weapon, move, or move into contact and conduct hand-to-hand combat. Movement is either at a walk (2d6”) or at a run (3d6”). There is no notion of fatigue.
- Songs of Blades and Heroes: These rules have the most interesting activation system of the three sets. Each figure may roll 1, 2, or 3 dice for activation, trying to beat its activation number. The player may choose the order in which he attempts to activate his figures. If a player fails two activations, initiative switches to the other player. More than one success on the activation roll allows a figure to perform more than one action, including a “powerful blow,” which can cause more damage. There are nuances and strategy to how many dice you roll and the order in which figures are activated. I’m not sure what exactly this mechanic is simulating, but it is interesting and fun and can cause violent shifts of momentum and swings in the fortunes of battle.
A swirling melee in Battle Troll
Jim, Dave, and Nick between games
Greg studying a Saga battle board under the expert tutelage of Don
- Saga: Combat resolution in Saga felt very much like something from Games Workshop. One player rolls to determine hits, and the other side rolls to “save” based on armor. A unit gets to roll a certain number of six-sided dice for combat based on the quality of the troops. Heroes roll five dice. Warriors roll two dice for each figure. Levies roll one die for every three figures. In this sense, it felt a little like the very first release of The Sword and the Flame. As mentioned earlier, a unit’s activity can be modified by “tricks” from the battle board. The combat system was largely unremarkable, but there was one interesting nuance. When an opposing unit has fatigue, a player can spend the enemy’s fatigue to increase his own armor value for that combat. This was an interesting way to have fatigue effect combat. When a figure is hit and does not save, it is killed.
- Battle Troll: Battle Troll has a really interesting and fun combat mechanism; although, since it is more involved than that of the others, I think it really limits the number of figures a player can handle without bogging down. There are five attack cards and five defense cards, each depicting a different type of attack or defense, such as cut, swing, or jest. Heroes choose a maneuver. Other figures randomly pick one of the five. Then the attack and defense maneuver is revealed. They are cross-indexed on a small chart that results in a number of dice rolled by the attacker and the defender. Some attacks and defenses actually result in the defender getting more dice than the attacker. The number of dice can then be modified if one side outnumbers the other, if one figure’s social status is better than the other, etc. The combatants compare the high die each rolls. If one side’s high die is a four and the other side’s high die is a two, that side wins by two. That difference then modifies the result of a damage roll. A figure can have many wounds before being killed. The effect of wounds is to allow the other player to reroll some number of his attack dice. There is an interesting attack, called a “jest.” When an attacker jests and the defender chooses certain defensive maneuvers, the defender can lose reputation points.
- Songs of Blades and Heroes: Combat in Songs of Blades and Heroes uses opposed die rolls. Each figure has a combat value that is added to the roll on a six-sided die. These die rolls are modified by having extra combatants, special abilities, or terrain. The highest roll wins. If the high roll is even, the loser is forced back a short distance. If the high roll is odd, the loser is knocked down. If the high roll is double opponent’s roll, the loser is killed. A high roll that is triple that of the defender indicates a gruesome kill, and models nearby must take morale test.
Fighting for sheep with Saga
A fight across the ford in Battle Troll
- Saga: Even though the rules were the most complex of the ones we tried, the Quick Start sheets were great, and variables were limited. Most players found themselves not needing the GM’s assistance after maybe 3 turns. The players liked the interesting game mechanic of the battle boards (described later) and the individuality between the armies. The rules had great period feel and were the quickest pace. Of the rules we tried, these were by far the most expensive, particularly if you want the special six-sided dice. The battle boards were difficult to master. Saga had the most mainstream feel of the lot, not quite Games Workshop, but a player can exploit rules to “math-hammer” their less experienced opponent.
- Battle Troll: Several players felt that Battle Troll was the lightest hearted and creative set of rules. It is a fun and creative set of rules. The notion of social classes and reputation is interesting and provides a somewhat different twist from a straight up battle game. The rules are based on Viking vs. Viking lore, so the sides were very similar and didn’t provide much variation. There are a number of charts and variation and optional rules for handling karls. Many players found themselves paging through the book and referring to the charts frequently, but others found the rules easy to learn.
- Songs of Blades and Heroes: Of the rules we tried these were the least expensive and required the fewest figures to get started. They were easily learned and highly customizable. While individuals were customizable, the players felt that the rules provided little individuality or flavor between the armies. Also, there was a feeling that there wasn’t much difference between armored and unarmored troops.
David and Michael playing Songs of Blades and Heroes
Michael won the game with his last two raiders defeating David’s defenders
My personal impression is that for a game using just a few figures per side, I think I’d like to use the Songs of Blades and Heroes activation mechanism with the Battle Troll combat resolution mechanism. I found the Songs of Blades and Heroes activation mechanism to be unique, fun, and dramatic. I found the paper/scissors/rock aspect of comparing attacks and defenses in the Battle Troll combat resolution to feel like fighting with swords and shields.