Last week I wrote about people giving up on games because they don't think they have time to get them on the table often. This week, I'm writing about a similar issue: people who give up on a game because it contains one or two mechanics they don't like. You've heard the bitching: "Oh, that has player elimination, we don't do that," or "Roll and move, what are you, a muggle?" Of course, this particular whine isn't just for the eurogamers out there. Plenty of ameritrashers have probably said "not another worker placement game."
I am not without sin; I have my pet hated mechanics too. One thing I have ranted about are games where the only interaction is getting stuff before the other players. OOh! take that, I chose the wood, now you will have to wait until next turn to choose wood! A-hahaha! This isn't really interaction, any more than going to the grocery store and buying the last loaf of bread is me interacting with the guy behind me.
BUT, having said all that, 1000 monkeys with 1000 typewriters will eventually write war and peace. 1000 eurogame designers with 1000 low interaction game designs will eventually turn out a good one. So, I'm reviewing a game that takes this style of interaction and actually does it right.
Fire and Axe: A Viking Saga is a eurogame with some trashy elements where you race the other players to various cities on the board to trade, raid, and settle them. You score VPs for doing so. It isn't perfect, but it is a really solid design that has cross-genre appeal for eurogamers and Ameritrashers alike. AND it is the "I grabbed it before you" game done right.
The components look distinctly ameritrash. The little viking figures and boats are pretty sweet. The city markers are grey plastic with a VP token in the bottom of them, and look good. The art on the cards is very high quality and the board is pretty. The victory point chits are a little annoying, so be careful not to sit near the pile so you don't have to play banker.
The game is pretty simple. On your turn you get seven sailing days. Basically, seven actions. You can load your ship with vikings or goods to trade, one day per viking and one day per good. You can move across the ocean and into ports, each space takes one day (colder weather areas put a penalty on movement and there is a wind dial that effects it too). Once in port, you can trade, raid, or settle the port. I'll explain those in a minute. You can also draw a rune card by spending a day. The cards allow you to break the rules in various ways, including knocking other players off their settlements.
Each of the ports has a points value printed next to it. Some of the ports are part of a geographic set and are color coded. To trade, you drop off your goods and score VPs equal to the port's value. No one else can trade with that port. To raid, you start rolling a six sided die. If you roll equal or less than the port's rating, your viking dies, if you roll more, successful raid. If the city has been traded with in the past, its rating is -1 for raiding. Successfully raiding means you take the city figure, which has a VP amount on the bottom. To settle, you determine how many vikings you are sending down and roll all the dice at once. Again, you have to get one over the port rating. For settlements, you score at the end of the game. You receive the port value of the city, multiplied by how many cities of that set are settled. So, settling in areas that end up heavily populated scores more points than settling in the boonies.
In addition to scoring the settlement points at the end, you also get a bonus (the bloody axe bonus) for raiding the most cities, which is equal to three times the number of cities you raided. This is pretty huge, and there are usually a couple of players fighting for the bonus at the end of the game.
Bonus points are also handed out for the Saga cards at the end of the game. Saga cards are the game's timing mechanism. These cards flip up and function as sort of missions you complete. The faster they are being completed, the faster the game goes by. At the end of the game, players score bonus points for having completed the most of three different types of these saga cards. You can see some of the saga cards in the top of this picture.
1. Deep for how simple it is. The mechanics are easy, but you can hurt your brain each turn working things out. On top of the tactical planning of each turn, there is also a lot of long term planning that goes on. Are you trying for the bloody axe bonus? Doing the mission based thing and trying to get lots of saga cards? Or my personal favorite, the settlement strategy, where you try to spread your viking seed among all the fair maidens of the world? Do you try to plan the highest scoring single turn you can, or a two turn longer plan that scores even more points? What if someone else beats you to it? All of the possible methods to score are viable, and I'm always surprised at how close the scores are at the end. Even the guy who seemed unfocused all game, doing a little of everything, can come in pretty close if his turns are well planned.
2. Sweet components, on par with a DoW or FFG release.
3. Solid use of dice, a rarity for this type of game. Even with occasional dice screwage, the game is very balanced. Our games there is usually about 15 points between first place and last place, which is superb balance for a game where the final scores are typically 200 or more.
4. Mix of a clearly euro-style game with ameritrash components and ameritrash style "roll a 6 sider" mechanics gives it a wide appeal. It is a good game to pull out with a mixed group of gamers.
1. What kind of half-assed Viking game doesn't include some vikings killing each other? This is a huge gripe, and is probably the reason I don't own a copy of this game. Because I have bitched about this so much, my gaming group now has canned responses. First, it is thematic (they know how to push my buttons) because in real life, Vikings rarely attacked each other and mostly went after easier prey. This is backed up by interviews with the game's designers, the ragnar brothers. Second, you can attack other players with the special cards. Third, if you could attack another Viking, it would create a situation where A and B fight and the only winner is C. Due to the tight balance of the game, it would just be too difficult to work in. I don't know if I agree with these three counterarguments, but I thought I would share them. I still think any Viking game worth its salt needs a player on player combat mechanism. This game ends up feeling more like a combo pick up and deliver, set collection, VP game.
2. Anti-climactic, like most VP scoring games. You run around doing cool stuff all game, but at the end you count up VP chips, assign some bonuses, and it is over. Blah! The end game feels a bit like "Viking Accountants!" instead of viking raiders.
3. Low interaction. Unless you draw the appropriate rune cards, your only method of effecting what the other players are doing is by doing things before they do. The Rune cards do let you have some fun, by killing opponent's vikings or destroying their settlements, but it is pretty weak interaction. Moving the wind dial to screw people gives a little more interaction, and racing to finish certain saga cards can cause some interaction as you move to block people from entering ports. Try to concentrate on drawing extra rune cards for more take that and you can increase the interaction a bit. Overall, it is low interaction fare though.
Fire and Axe is a solid game, but not one I am going to run out and buy since a friend owns it. It is a good example of how "get it before you" style interaction is actually worked into an interesting game. Not something I would play every game night, but definitely a game to pull out 2 or 3 times a year and have a good time with. I did not think I would like it when I read comments about the game's low interaction level, but it is pretty fun, and at times it is tense- Is that boat full of vikings heading for Paris to raid, like me, or are they going elsewhere? Fire and Axe is a solid eurogame with just enough dice rolling and good components to draw the interest of ameritrashers too.
My point is,we shouldn't write off games just because they use a mechanic we don't like. There might be a gem out there you are missing because of your prejudices. Fire and Axe was a gem like that for me.