What led me to Saga, after having ignored numerous articles in Battlegames and Wargames Illustrated, was a series of interviews on the The Historical Wargames Podcast. First let me say that this podcast is excellent, except for his musical interludes. Generally his sound quality is good, and the audio levels consistent. Something that cannot be said of a lot of podcasts out there, as I have been listening to a few of late.
In the two episodes on Saga, one with the game designer, they went into depth on what makes Saga unusual (and possibly unique amongst miniatures rules) with respect to the game mechanics. It largely boils down to one aspect that I really like: the game is full of player choices, and which choices you make has consequences.
Now, that is a pretty simplistic statement on face value. If I am playing Hail Caesar, for example, which unit I roll to activate first is a choice, and that choice has consequences, right? Yes, but Hail Caesar does not offer a choice that allows you to exchange risk for reward. This is why I like Ganesha Games' rules engine so well. The heart of the system is that you roll dice to allow a model to take action, but you (the player) determine whether you will roll one, two, or three dice. The more dice you roll, the more actions you might be able to take (if you are successful), but if you fail on two of those dice, your turn is over. So the player has the basic choice of how much risk they are willing to accept for each and every model's activation. Only need one action, but it is not critical if you get it? Roll one die; you will never fail twice (turn over). Need two successes where one will not do (such as when reloading a musket)? Roll two dice if you have good odds, but three dice to be "sure". Of course, you have now increased your chances of failure too. Saga provides these risk-to-reward choices throughout the game.
So, let's walk the rules, section-by-section.
Saga is a traditional IGO-UGO game where each players takes their actions in turn, with limited ability to react in your opponent's turn. I usually do not like IGO-UGO, but two factors alter the dynamics enough that it does not feel like a traditional IGO-UGO: reactions and weakened 'Alpha Strike'. We will discuss reactions (taking actions in your opponent's turn) later. By 'Alpha Strike', I mean the ability for a player to move up into range, fire on an opponent, then move into close combat range, all before the opponent normally has a chance to do anything. I say this is weakened in Saga because it is possible to do all of that; it just takes a lot of planning and luck and is not the norm. It pulls this off largely by changing one simple thing: there is no traditional Move-Fire-Melee turn sequence. When you take an action you essentially move or fire (there are exceptions, but few) and actions are executed unit-by-unit, not one side all at one time. Let's walk through how that happens.
This is actually a key concept: you can activate a unit more than once, thus allowing it to move, shoot, melee, etc. more than once per turn. Doing this comes at a price (a unit starts to get fatigued), but this is the way that you can make those powerful plays. Like rolling and getting three orders in Hail Caesar, all the sudden the unit can do a lot more actions all at once, which leads to surprises. The difference, however, is that it is not a simple, single die roll that you happened to get lucky at (like ordering in Hail Caesar), but is something you have to plan for. Also, as you are limited to the number of Saga dice that can be used in a single turn (eight), if you are using a lot of dice for one unit, you are taking away options from another unit. It is this management of limited resources that sets it apart from, say, Hail Caesar. With those rules it is possible that all of your units get a lucky roll and all get three orders; with Saga this is not possible as there is a limit for each turn.
The remaining boxes on the battle board are abilities allowed to your faction (which are Vikings, Anglo-Danish, Norman, and Welsh in the basic rules; supplements add even more). The Vikings have abilities to create powerful attacks and shake off fatigue, while the Welsh, for example, have abilities reflecting the 'hit-and-run' nature of their warfare. During the Orders Phase the player places dice on the battle board, allowing them to use those abilities either in their own turn, or in reaction to their opponent's actions during their turn. All of the dice are placed in this phase, and constitutes the battle plan that the player will have for that turn and their opponent's turn. This resource management and planning aspect definitely makes this a thinking man's game, and not just "let's push some lead and roll some dice".
Once you are finished allocating the dice, you execute the battle plan by spending the dice activating units and abilities. Generally it takes the form of spending one of the dice in the three main boxes (upper-left) and then activating an ability during a Shooting or Melee action. Some special abilities, however, allow you to activate one or more units and get some advantage in combat.
In the past I have played Warmachine and I can say that Saga is similar, as a set of miniatures rules. Warmachine combined miniatures with card playing (powering abilities and playing combinations) and Saga is the same in that respect. Saga is simpler in its management mechanics, however. You roll some number of Saga dice which provide resources in the form of symbols. You match the symbol rolled on the die to the symbol(s) on the battle board. When you have the correct number and type for an ability you can play it as indicated in the ability's description. In fact, the rules for the ability are printed right there on the battle board. No flipping through the rule book looking for the special abilities description (as with Flames of War, Warhammer 40K, and even my favorite Song of Drums and Shakos), or having them print out on your army sheet list.
Another innovative game mechanic is fatigue. Basically, fatigue represents physical exertion, stress, and anxiety. Get too many fatigue tokens and your unit becomes Exhausted, which basically means the only action you can take is to Rest (you to remove a single fatigue token for each Rest action). Fatigue are gained in a number of ways, but the basic ones are:
- Too much strenuous activity. If, in a single turn you Move twice, Shoot twice, Move and Shoot, or Shoot and Move, you will gain one fatigue for the second and each subsequent Move or Shoot action.
- Melee. Both sides gain a fatigue token at the end of melee.
- Scary stuff. If a friendly unit is wiped out within 4" of a unit, it gets a fatigue token.
Now, you might be thinking that this is just some dreary bookkeeping you have to do with the game to see when a unit is forced to rest. If the game designer had left the fatigue rules at that, you would be right. But, in Saga your unit's fatigue is used by your opponent, sort of like an ability. For each fatigue token used, your opponent can choose one of the following effects:
- Slow your unit's movement.
- Make your unit easier to hit in melee.
- Make the unit your unit is fighting in melee harder to hit.
- Make the unit your unit is shooting at harder to hit.
Now some of this may sound a little strange, but remember that fatigue represents physical exertion and combat stress.
- Your unit would be slowed in movement because it is tired, or it is reluctant to approach the enemy.
- Your unit is easier to be hit in melee because it is tired.
- Your unit has a harder time hitting mine in melee because it is tired, or it is holding back.
- Your unit has a harder time shooting mine because it is tired.
To me, this is one of the most innovative uses of bookkeeping I have seen in a while. All of these penalties make sense as it applies to fatigue and stress, but rather than simply making them always apply – e.g. if you have 1 FATIGUE you are -1 in combat, -2 at 2 or 3 FATIGUE, etc. – your opponent spends them as a limited resource. That choice of when to spend is yet one more decision that has consequences and tactical implications. I remember reading Brent Nosworthy and others about Napoleonic infantry combat and how the commander would judge when the opposing infantry was about to crack and thus it was time to lower bayonets and charge. The term often used was that the commander saw that the enemy line was 'wavering'. That might be noticed as a slackening of fire from the enemy or a loss of fire control, but something told the commander in his gut "now is the time to strike". This fatigue mechanic can create that same effect. You the player look at your Saga dice roll, the options on your battle board, and the fatigue level of your opponents as resources to be managed in order to develop a plan of battle.
These three areas: Saga dice, the battle boards, and the fatigue tokens, comprise the major game mechanics that distinguish Saga as a set of miniatures rules. I could go into the nitty gritty of movement, distances, how melee and shooting are handled, and how warbands are built, but these really aren't all that innovative (but the rules for them are clean, clear, and comprehensive). I can go into it if there is enough demand, but I think it is simpler to go onto The Miniatures Page and search on "saga" to find a review that will go into that level of detail.
Using the method for reviewing rules that I once talked about, here are the nine aspects of the rules I rate.
Drama - do the rules create tension during play?
The tension starts with the Saga dice roll at the start of every turn. Will you get the roll to get the resources you need? Will your opponent find some way to thwart your plan in a way you did not expect (by using fatigue in an unexpected way, for example, or triggering a special ability that can be used in reaction)? Saga rates 5 out of 5 in Drama.
Uncertainty - are there enough, or too many, elements that introduce uncertainty in the game?
The Saga dice provide the major element of uncertainty, but it is not overpowering. The player has ample choices and can typically move every unit every turn, if he so wishes. However, you are likely to be doing that at the expense of not using your special abilities.
Combat is very uncertain, however. Luck plays a strong roll in both melee and shooting. Lots of dice are rolled and units can, and will, be wiped out in a single combat. It does not always happen that way, but it happens often enough to mention it. Saga has a lot of thinking and maneuvering trying to get into position and get all of the abilities powered up and then can lead to one side committing to the attack and the game being over in a few turns.
I would rate the Uncertainty factor as 3 out of 5. It would be a 4 if combat were not quite so quick and deadly. (I understand why they made it that way, however).
Engaging - do the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences?
Absolutely. This is what Saga excels at. See all of the reasons above. 5 out of 5.
Unobtrusiveness - do the rules get in the way?
What follows is a battle report of the game Don and I played. I went over the rules with Don (who had not read, nor really heard of the game of than passing references on the WWPD podcast) in about 15 minutes and that was pretty comprehensive. Each section – orders, activation, movement, shooting, fatigue, and Warlord abilities – has a summary and it does a pretty good job of distilling the rules down to simple, explainable bullet points.
Mechanically, the steps to shooting and melee and listed out on the Quick Reference Card, and they are logical, meaning once you understand it, you will easily remember it without reference to the rules. The rules really are simple. They abstract a lot of details away that they just don't consider worthy of consideration.
For example, unit coherency. Rather than coming up with rules that specify what unit coherency is, when you can break it, and how you have to maintain it, Saga simply defines coherency and states you must maintain it always. You cannot take an action, such as removing a casualty or moving a figure too far, that will break it. You must always take a legal action that maintains coherency. Period. I like that.
I rate Saga 5 out of 5 on Unobtrusiveness.
Heads Up - are the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet?
Yes, the core mechanics and numbers (to hit, to save, etc.) are memorable. Although Don and I did refer to the QRS more than once a turn, once the action got hot and heavy, this was our first game. I will conservatively rate it as 4 out of 5 until I get more games under my belt. I think it will be referencing the battle board that will ensure Saga does not get a 5 rating.
Appropriately Flavored - do the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played?
Saga injects appropriate flavor in two ways: faction rules and battle board abilities.
Each faction has rules that largely affect how a warband is built (i.e. what it is armed with and whether it has mounted troops or not), but sometimes has special rules. An example would be that the Vikings can purchase a unit type, Berserkers, that are unlike other units in other faction. Another example is that the Welsh Warlord is armed with javelins, can be mounted or on foot, and wears less armor than other Warlords.
The battle boards define what special abilities can be played during the game. If you click on the Norman battle board image above (to see an enlarged view), you can easily get an idea of the 'flavor' of the Normans. The abilities Charge!, Terrified, Crush, Gallop, Stamping, and Pursuit all give bonuses to your charging Knights, which will form an important part of your warband. Abilities like Aimed Volley, Massed Volley, and Storm of Arrows indicate that Normans also have a significant ranged weapon component, which these abilities will boost. You can quickly get a sense of how to build a force, what play style would best be suited to a faction, by reading the battle board abilities. Want to play a brute force, melee-oriented infantry force? Don't pick the Normans then.
These two components define the very flavor in Saga. A number of people, being incurable 'rules tweakers' like me, have already started developing other faction rules and battle board not just for other Dark Ages forces, but for other periods like Napoleonics. Saga rates 5 out of 5 in the Appropriately Flavored rating.
Scalable - can the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or units used or in the number of players – from the 'standard game'?
Saga starts you with a '4 point' game, runs through a '6 point' standard game, and goes up to an '8 point' game. There have been rules published for multi-player Saga, but I have neither read nor tried them, but I suspect that they will work "okay". The Rules As Written (RAW) limit you to a maximum of eight Saga dice to be used, per turn. You can change that number, of course, but the RAW do not suggest that. It intentionally sets an upper limit.
Largely this is due to the major component of the game: the battle board. As you can see in the Normans battle board, the boxes in the left column may be used any number of times per turn, but the boxes in the right two columns may only be used once per turn. Adding more dice will only cause you to hit that upper limit quicker. You could of course change that rule too, but now you are straying into uncharted territory where you are tweaking core elements of the game.
The game is intended to be played with between 25 and 75 figures per side. Reports from other say that the factions play differently at four, six, and eight points and thus you need to change your strategy a bit. But the reality is that the four point game is intended as a quick way to get started, until you can paint up your warband fully. Otherwise you play the standard six point game, or eight points when you have a larger board and more time.
So I rate it 3 out of 5 for Scalability. It does provide some variation, but like De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA), if you really want variation, but more armies, not more figures for your one army.
Fiddly Geometry - do the rules require fiddly measurements or angles?
No. Movement is 6" for infantry and 12" for cavalry and can be in any direction. Figures fight and shoot in any direction. Figures in a unit have to stay within 2" of one another and have to stay further than 2" from the enemy, unless they are charging into melee. Every figure in contact, or within 2" of contact can fight in a melee and every figure within range (6", 12", and sometimes 24") and line of sight of at least one enemy figure can shoot.
Speaking of line of sight, that was an interesting rule. In our test game we had a woods and so the inevitable question of "can I shoot into the woods?" came up. So, do the figures have to be straddling the area terrain edge (a la Flames of War), within 2" of the edge (like many other rules), or can you only see through 6" of woods, but not in and out? Nope. You can see into area terrain, but not through it. Put another way, you can see infinitely throughout the woods, your vision just does not penetrate past the back edge of the area. I like it!
So, no small measurements and no angles whatsoever to consider, Saga rates 4 out of 5. (Only grid-based games get a 5 from me!)
Tournament Tight - are the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the leave the player to 'fill in the blanks'?
If I am playing a set of rules solo, I can deal with games that require you to fill in those holes in the rules that the author intentionally left. The story is always the same: "we can't think of every possible situation you might get yourself into, so roll a die if you cannot agree amongst your mates." To me, that is a cop-out. It is not that I have to be told, that I cannot think for myself; I want to know what your intent was. If the rules are too "loosey-goosey" there really is no way to figure that out.
That is what led me to the attribution Tournament Tight™. Rules that are tournament tight do spell it out. Largely this is possible because they are not written on an exception basis, but it is sometimes that they simply spell it all out. DBA is a good example of rules that spell it all out (or at least try to). Phil Barker does that by using his words carefully and precisely. (Some people may not agree with the precision or definition of some of some of his terms, but for the most part most questions are answered if you simply read his rules carefully and deliberately. Most people do not want to do that, however.) The rules Drums and Shakos Large Battles takes the route of creating a game mechanic – the reaction – that eliminates the need to write large numbers of exceptions to the rules. Saga does it by abstracting away the detail that they (and I) feel does not really matter. Very basic, but effective rules with very few exceptions. Those exceptions they do have tend to be rather simple. Some of the interactions between abilities have had to be FAQ'ed, but so far it is all pretty clean. If they keep grinding out supplements and new rules, however, it could be a problem in the future because the interaction permutations quickly get out of hand.
Until I have more experience with the rules I will reserve 4 out of 5 for Saga. I think the rules are clean, concise, and basic and as long as they do not get into an escalation war of abilities as new supplements come out, they should stay out of trouble.
Test Game of Saga
Sorry, no pictures of the game, or even a map. That is not this kind of a battle report. First off, I don't have any miniatures of Dark Ages troops, much less singly based. So I was using my 25mm Aztecs and Tlaxcalans as Vikings and Welsh, respectively. (Yes, even before I played my first game of Saga, I was trying to make a variant for Aztecs! I just ran out of time and decided to use standard factions.) As I was basing them this weekend, and had not finished painting and flocking the bases, I was not inclined to photograph the game. On top of that the FLGS was running a Warmachine tournament today, so the only remaining table had a bright, white, dry-erase surface (must have been snowing in Mexico!), so I had even less incentive to photograph it. That is okay though. The goal was to learn the game and see where the reality of game play diverged from my impressions from reading the rules. I feel it is important to play the rules, at least once, before giving the final review on a set of rules. Sometimes something that seems insignificant in the rules becomes subtly important, and what seems like a big thing rarely comes into play or works differently than you thought.
Don and I started with starter four point armies. I was surprised when he chose the Welsh (Tlaxcalans), as they are more shooting oriented, over the Vikings (Aztecs), who are oriented towards getting stuck in and breaking some heads. His tendency to charge into close range combat in Memoir '44 apparently does not apply here!
Force selection in Saga is extremely simple. It is not like Flames of War where you agonize over whether to spend your last 10 points on upgrading your German Grenadier platoon commander to an SMG Panzerfaust team, or buying halftracks for your howitzer battery. For one point you get either 4 Hearthguard (elites), 8 Warriors (standard), or 12 Levies (poor). Your faction notes will tell you if you have any options, such as Levy troops can be armed with slings or javelins, or your Hearthguard can be mounted or on foot. You really have very few options here.
I chose 4 Hearthguard (Eagle Knights), 16 Warriors, and 12 Levy (with slings), along with my Warlord (which is free). Don chose 4 Hearthguard (Coyote Knights), 24 Warriors (16 with javelins), and the Warlord. I gave Don the choice equipping his Warriors with melee weapons or javelins, even though the Welsh do not have that option, largely because of the mix of figures I had based, but also because I thought an all-javelin army would get wiped. (Again, playing a game does wonders for checking those assumptions!)
The board was simple, basically hills on each flank on the centerline and a woods offset from the center. This had the effect of creating a nasty choke point in the center of the table. Terrain is classed as either open ground, uneven ground, or impassable. Open ground has no effect on movement while uneven ground slows movement from 6" to 4" (12" to 4" for mounted troops). In addition, terrain could be rated as low or high, with high terrain blocking line of sight for ranged weapons. The woods and hills were rated as uneven ground, and the woods and second contours of the hills were rated as high.
When you setup your forces you create units of 4 to 12 figures each. Each unit must all be of the same type – Hearthguard, Warriors, or Levy – and must be armed with the same weapon. The Warlord is a unit unto itself; it does not 'attach' to other units. So, even though you get 12 Levy for a point, you can still divide them up into more than one unit. Same with Warriors and Hearthguard; you can divide or merge points purchased as long as the units are between 4 and 12 figures each, and each unit has only one type and one weapon.
The number of units you have is pretty important. Each non-Levy unit generates one Saga die to roll each turn, with the Warlord generating two dice. As I had one Hearthguard and two Warrior units, I started with a total of five Saga dice. (Remember, my Levy units do not generate Saga dice.) Don had one Hearthguard and three Warrior units, thus he started with six Saga dice to roll each turn. I intentionally created this disparity in dice rolled, as I wanted to see how great the effect would be on the game. In addition, I split my Levy into two units of six figures, so I had six maneuver units but only five dice per turn, while Don had six dice for five units. I wanted to see what impact this also had. Would quantity have a quality all of its own?
The game started off rather placidly. We really weren't sure what abilities to 'power up', so we both wasted a few dice in the opening moves. As I was dice hungry, I tended to simply allocate dice towards activating units, to try and keep everyone moving forward. Don, on the other hand, could afford to apply dice to abilities and still keep everyone moving.
The interesting dilemma my army faced is that javelin-armed troops can move and shoot in a single activation. As a basic infantry move is 6" and the range of a javelin is 6" I really wanted to keep my troops out of javelin range until I was ready to charge in. But to charge in from outside of javelin range meant that I would have to move twice, taking two precious activations and incurring fatigue. Don's troops would move into 6" range and fire and if I did not have the ability to charge in next turn, or worse, I was moving through uneven ground (which slows your movement to 4"), he could stand off at 6" and keep peppering me with javelins every turn. So ultimately Don was controlling the pace and place of the battles. When he moved in I had to respond, either by backing away or charging in. I could not simply not respond.
The Welsh have some special abilities with regards to uneven ground. One is there ability to (cheaply, in terms of Saga dice costs) ignore its movement deductions. Another is that it can fight better if the battle takes place in uneven ground. Because of this my gut reaction was to avoid uneven ground, especially the woods. Ironically, the woods afforded more protection to me, in terms of restricting missiles coming at me and providing me cover, that I finally realized that I wanted to be in the woods, not out. Unfortunately, I realized that just a bit too late.
Don moved a Warrior unit forward, forcing me to charge the unit up into melee. It then proceeded to get whacked. (My saving throws really were bad though!) He would send up another and it would all repeat. The Welsh have some really good combinations in their favor and, to be honest, I thought I was going to be playing them as I thought Don would want the Vikings, so I had thought more about how to play the Welsh than the Vikings. I suppose, in the end it was more fair this way. Don had not studied either, so for me to get the one I had not studied put us more on a level playing field.
As you may have guessed by now, I got spanked hard. I sent unit after unit and simply got crushed in melee. After losing two units (down to one figure each, actually) things started to go my way, primarily because I got into the woods and had my Warlord lead a Warrior unit in a well-planned and executed charge against his Warrior unit. I wiped the entire unit (8 figures) out in a single round. I was able to activate three abilities and rolled 15 dice in attack, 10 of which could re-roll misses.
I the end I lost because Don's Warlord attacked mine and got the two hits necessary that I could not save. All in all it was an enjoyable game and Don said we needed to try it again so we could make a better assessment of the rules. As usual, I think I liked the rules better than Don, but who knows. There was a little interest from others in the FLGS, but it is hard to grab attention from people who are playing in a tournament. By definition, they are pretty committed to their rules. Saga hits all of the sweet spots for me, so I already went and bought the two supplements that are out, along with some of the special, expensive, completely unnecessary, but cool-looking dice.
Wally Simon's Books
Reader Shaun Travers, of Shaun's Wargaming with Miniatures blog, asked about Wally Simon's books, Secrets of Wargame Design (Vols 1 and 2), which I mentioned in my last blog post. He asks: "What do you think of the Wally Simon's books? I have been tempted numerous times over the last few months to get the first, and then the second when it came out. Just a hint will do – do they look interesting?"
I wondered the same thing too. I used to subscribe to MagWeb (or rather I was a member until it folded) and I read many of Wally's articles from the old The Courier, PW Review, and MWAN magazines. I loved them. Wally was a guy after my own heart. He loved game mechanics are analyzed them. Rather opinionated and vocal about what worked and what didn't too. If you have read my mention of "Gotcha' Gaming" that was a term Wally Simon coined; they call it "Alpha Strike" now and it is epitomized by the rules Warhammer 40K and Flames of War.
Wally was an experimenter and, like me, his writing was more like tapping into his thought process. He wrote as he thought things through. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. The book is full of his articles just like that. Given that you analyze game mechanics and write your own rules Shaun, I really think you will like it. If you want to stick a toe in the water, get the December 2012 issue of Miniature Wargames, which you can buy as a digital edition at Exact Editions, or the paper version from Atlantic Publishers. There is an article in there, straight out of Volume 1 called "Revolutionary Morale", that will give you a really good idea of what is in there. In fact, I think that is one of the better pieces in Volume 1, but not the only one, by far.
My one caveat is that I know shipping to Australia is a bit expensive, so the price per page may be a bit much for what is essentially recycled material. But my understanding is that this these volumes contain material only from PW Review, which Russ Lockhart owns the rights to. So Wally's articles in MWAN and The Courier can still be obtained, in PDF form, from Wargame Vault.