Saga of the Northmen Game Review

The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up (publisher suggests 12+)
  • For 2 to 4 players
  • Approximately 40 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Hand/Resource Management
  • Bluffing and Misdirection
  • Worker Placement & Area Control

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Easy
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Conquer the hearts, minds, and lands of Europe in the Dark Ages

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek mixed!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

In the time of the Dark Ages, kingdom borders were drawn with ink and defended by blood. The Northmen traversed the landscape and icy waters to raid the southern kingdoms, forcing new alliances and bloody battles. But wealth was also discovered and the exchange of ideas through trade routes. In the end, the price to be paid for conquest provided the larger whole a better future.

Saga of the Northmen, designed by Scott W. Leibbrandt and published by Minion Games, is comprised of 1 game board, 56 Influence cards, 4 Infamy cards, 20 Trade Route cards, 120 Influence cubes (in 4 different colors, 30 per color), 12 Hero tokens (in 4 different colors, 3 per color), 4 Time tokens (in 4 different colors), 25 Plunder tokens, and 1 Leader token. The game component quality is excellent, with the cards being very durable and the tokens made out of wood or thick cardboard. The illustrations are light, but further the game’s theme, strengthening the overall narrative.

Influence and Infamy

Saga of the Northmen uses a number of game components to track the overall progress of each player’s campaign to influence the surrounding regions to better strengthen their own agendas. Each of these game components is summarized here.

The Influence cards and Cubes

Influence cards depict a specific kingdom (Normans, Rus, Magyars, Saxons, Danes, Byzantines, and Norwegians), a number of troops in an army, and a noted neutral kingdom that contains wealth. These are played during the game by players who want to control these specific kingdoms. The Influence cubes are placed on the game board to indicate who controls each kingdom.

Infamy Cards and Heroes

Infamy cards change Influence cubes to Infamy points which can be used to purchase new cards and acquire heroes. Infamy comes at a cost of losing battles, but even through defeat, players may yet find an advantage.

Trade Route Cards

The Trade Route cards identify specific kingdoms that, if controlled by a player, can be connected by trade routes for the duration of the game. This does not influence the gameplay but does provide the player bonus points at the end of the game. Victory can be earned by warring or by trading.

Plunder Tokens

Plunder tokens are placed in accordance to Influence cards and represent wealth that can be obtained by conquering neutral kingdoms. They also determine the total duration of a round. The faster plunder and wealth is placed, the faster the game will push the players to battle to the end.

Prepare to Raid

To set up the game, first place the game board in the middle of the playing area and within easy reach of all the players.

Second, have each player select a color and give them all the matching colored Influence cubes, Hero tokens, Time token, and Infamy card. Any colors not selected and their matching components may be placed back in the game box. Players should set up their own personal play area so there is a pile of Infamy cubes next to their Infamy card.

Third, shuffle the Influence cards and deal 6 to each player, face-down. The remaining Influence cards should be placed face-down above the game board to create the Influence draw deck. Draw the first 3 influence cards and place them next to the Influence draw deck, face-up, in a row.

Fourth, shuffle the Trade Route cards and deal 2 to each player, face-down. The remaining Trade route cards should be placed face-down above the game board and next to the Influence draw deck to create the Trade Route draw deck. All players should now pick up their dealt cards, but keep them hidden from opponents until such time they are played.

Fifth, divide the Plunder tokens into 3 equal piles of 15 tokens each. Make sure each pile has enough space between it to ensure that they are not accidentally mixed back together. Taken one of the piles and place it next to the game board. Place the 2 remaining piles off to one side of the game playing area.

Sixth, determine who will be the first players and give them the Leader token. Then instruct each player to place a specific number of Infamy cubes on their Infamy card based on the turn order sequence. For example, the first player will get 3 Infamy cubes and the second player will get 6 Infamy cubes.

That’s it for game set up. Begin your saga!

Plundering and Warring

Saga of the Northmen is played in rounds, phases, and turns for a total of 3 rounds of game play. A single round of game play is summarized here. Note that each round uses its own Plunder token pile. Never mix the Plunder token piles together after game set up.

Phase One: Rally the Kingdoms

The first phase of the game focuses on the players attempting to influence the different kingdoms to join their cause. Each player takes a turn, starting with the first player, which is comprised of 5 steps.

Step 1: Play Influence

The player selects 1 Influence card from their hand and plays it face-up in front of them. If they have previously played Influence cards, they place their newest one on top of the previously played Influence cards to create a single face-up pile.

Step 2: Place Influence

The player now takes a number of Influence cubes as specified by their Influence card and places it in the matching kingdom noted on the Influence card. If the player does not have any Influence cubes or is unable to place the full amount of Influence cubes, they place what they can and must ignore the rest. Players can never take Influence cubes during this step from their Infamy card.

Step 3: Bring Forth the Heroes

The player may, optionally, place a Hero token on the same kingdom noted by their Influence card. The player must have enough Influence cubes on their Infamy card to bring the Hero token into play. Removed Influence cubes from the Infamy card are placed in the player’s Influence cube pile.

Step 4: Place Plunder

If the Influence card notes a location for a Plunder token and the right number of players are in the game, one is added to that location now, taken from the pile that is being used for this round.

Step 5: Draw Influence

The player may now draw 1 Influence card either from the face-up row or blindly from the Influence draw deck. If a face-up card is selected, immediately draw a new Influence card to return the total number of face-up Influence cards to 3.

This completes the player’s turn. The Rally phase of the game continues until all 15 of the Plunder tokens are placed on the game board.

Phase 2: March to War

After the players have done their best to rally the different kingdoms to their cause, the game board is evaluated and pieces are moved. This phase of the game is comprised of 7 steps.

Step 1: Determine Kingdom Control

Each kingdom is now reviewed to determine which player controls it. This is done by counting the number of Influence cubes and Hero tokens each player has in the kingdom being reviewed. The player who has the most pieces in the kingdom now controls it. All other players remove their game pieces. Hero tokens return to the player’s supply, but any removed Influence cubes are placed on the player’s Infamy card. These count as Infamy points and can be used right away. Ties are broken by the player who controls the most Hero tokens. If there is still a tie or no Hero tokens are placed in that kingdom, the player closest to the Leader token in turn order sequence wins the kingdom.

This step is completed for each of the different kingdoms.

Step 2: March Your Forces

Located on the game board is the Kingdom chart that shows the order in which the different kingdoms are now resolved for movement. The first kingdom will always be the Normans and the last will always be the Norwegians. Players can optionally play their Time token during the normal order of kingdom movement to temporarily delay their movement.

Influence cubes and Hero tokens are moved to either an adjacent kingdom by land or travel to a kingdom connected by the sea. Influence cubes and Hero tokens are always moved to a neutral kingdom. The number of pieces to be moved per kingdom and on what route is determined by the Influence card previously played. The cards are now fanned out and the player counts how many Influence cubes they may move and how.

Note that a player may have previously played Influence cards that are no longer playable due to the player no longer influencing the noted kingdom. If such is the case, these cards are ignored a the moment.

Step 3: Complete Kingdom Delays

Any player who placed their Time token now complete their movement as normal starting at the top of the Kingdom chart. Cube movement is done exactly the same as step 2.

Step 4: Resolve Battles

Each of the neutral kingdoms is now reviewed to determine which player controls them. This is done in the same manner as determining who controls each kingdom during step 1 of this phase. Players who win the battle leave their Influence cubes and Hero tokens. Players who lose remove their Hero tokens and place any removed Influence cubes on their Infamy card.

Step 5: Collect Plunder

If a player now controls a neutral kingdom after battles are resolved that contains one or more Plunder tokens, they now remove them from the game board and add them to their supply. Any Plunder tokens in neutral kingdoms that are not controlled by a player remain on the game board.

Step 6: Connect Trade Routes

Players now play any Trade Route cards that match kingdoms the player currently controls. Completed Trade Route cards are placed face-up in front of the player.

Step 7: Clear the Game Board

All the Influence cubes and Hero tokens still remaining on the game board are now returned to the player. Removed Influence cubes are NOT placed on the player’s Infamy card. Any Time tokens still on the game board should be returned to their owning player at this time, as well.

Phase 3: Planning and Scheming

Players must now make a few choices. In turn order sequence, each player can take two possible actions (or none, if they believe it to be a wise course of action) by spending their Infamy points.

Action One:  Draw Trade Route Cards

At the cost of Infamy points, the player may purchase new Trade Route cards. Two are drawn, but only one is kept. There is no limit to the number of Trade Route cards a player can hold during the game.

Action Two: Hold Influence

The Influence cards the player used during this round will be lost unless the player wants to pay Infamy points to keep them. For each Infamy point spent, a player may select 1 Influence card to keep for the next round.

Phase 4: Prepare for the Next Round

All unkept Influence cards are now collected and the Influence deck is reshuffled. A maximum of 6 Influence cards is played to each player, with the total number dealt reduced by any Influence cards the player selected to keep. The remaining Influence cards are placed face-down to create the next round’s Influence draw deck and the top 3 Influence cards are drawn and placed face-up in a row.

A new pile of 15 Plunder tokens is placed next to the game board at this time, as well. Finally, the Leader token is given to the next player in the turn order sequence.

A new round now begins.

Conquering All and Winning the Game

At the end of the third and final round, the players determine who won by first counting the total number of Plunder tokens earned. Then the players add to their total number of Plunder tokens the values of any completed Trade Route cards. Finally, the each player counts their Infamy points. The player with the most Infamy points (determined by the total number of Influence cubes on their Infamy card at the end of the game) earns 1 point plus 1 additional point for each Trade Route they completed.

The player with the highest total number of points wins the game.

To learn more about Saga of the Northmen, visit the game’s web page.

Final Word

The Child Geeks understood the gameplay without issue and were quickly battling each other to control different kingdoms. According to one Child Geek, “The game reminds me a little bit of Risk, but there is more thinking involved.” Another Child Geek said, “It’s fun to move the cubes around and pretend to battle others to control the map!” The ease in which each battle is won helped the game keep its pace. It slowed down a great deal when it came time to move the game pieces, however. This is where the Child Geeks spent too much time, in my opinion, and over thought their moves. As one Child Geek put it, “You cannot rush moving  your army or you’ll lose the war.” Possibly, but I still think they were laboring the point. Movement in the game is little more than just renegotiating your cubes and heroes into different piles. Where the Child Geeks should have put more of their time and effort is determine which Influence cards they should have played. They were all over the game board. Regardless, they had a great time and happily awarded Saga of the Northmen their full approval.

The Parent Geeks found the game to be fast and fun, with just enough depth to keep more experienced players happy, but not difficult enough to frighten away the casual and non-gamers. According to one Parent Geek, “The game is easy to understand and to play, but I didn’t really fully grasp how best to play the cards until after the first round was over.” Saga of the Northmen does not have a steep learning curve, but it’s only after the first round that most of our players finally understood the importance of playing their Influence cards. The second and final rounds of gameplay were always more exciting and more competitive. One Parent Geek said, “The game teaches you on the go and then gives you a chance to use what you learned to be a better player. I like that a lot.” When the games were over, the Parent Geeks voted to give Saga of the Northmen their full approval.

The Gamer Geeks, of course, had no problem learning how to play the game and were at each other’s throats from the very first. According to one Gamer Geek, “This game has elements of Risk and Ticket to Ride, which all works together well. It’s easy to learn and has just enough depth to keep me interested.” Interested, but not necessarily entertained. The game’s total game length is not burdensome, but the Gamer Geeks found the repeated rounds of gameplay to be somewhat boring. As one Gamer Geek put it, “The game repeats itself 3 times with the only difference being who breaks ties and what cards you have to play. Of course,  you can always pay for your next hand, but that seems unnecessary in the long run.” The Gamer Geeks liked the game well enough to suggest it would be a good game on an occasional basis and perfect for playing for the family but stopped short of suggesting that Saga of the Northmen was a great game. One Gamer Geek said it best when they told me, “The game is solid, but altogether unremarkable.” The Gamer Geeks gave Saga of the Northmen a mixed level of approval.

Saga of the Northmen is a very solid game and an entertaining one. Gaming elitists will not be as enamored as casual players and non-gamers, but who the heck cares? What’s important is that the game plays smoothly, uses strategy and tactics, and has enough depth to keep everyone on track and engaged. The speed in which the game is played and how it subtly changes gears keeps things moving forward without ever making anything feel dragged out or overplayed.

It’s true that the game play is essentially the same thing repeated 3 times, and that tends to make players feel like they are reliving the same thing over and over again. But don’t be too hasty to believe that is the case. While the game phases and steps may always be the same, the choices to be made are not. Players always get a new hand of Influence cards and get to make new choices based on previous plays. Players can also keep cards from previous rounds if they believe they will have a stronger hand as a result. The game resets itself each round and invites players to try new things using the same rules and adjust their hand accordingly. This allows more than enough room for exploration and experimentation without burdening the players with new rules to consider.

I enjoyed the game and believe it plays best with casual players and non-gamers. All of the gaming elitists who played the game enjoyed it for what it was, but stopped short of suggesting it was a game for them. This tells me Saga of the Northmen is a great game for the majority and should be well received on just about every gaming table. While some of the game play may feel a bit repetitive, it does so in order to ensure that players always feel empowered and embolden to take risks and try something new. Do try Saga of the Northmen with your family and friends when time permits.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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