Review Summary (dale's wargame blog)
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.