Monday, December 17, 2012

The Raven's Shadow Review

Last week, I received my copy of The Raven's Shadow from Architects of War, and have been absorbing the rules, and playing some solo practice battles.  The second expansion to the SAGA game shows that Studio Tomahawk is willing to take the basic gameplay in some unexpected directions.

Franks: The Battle Pool mechanic was one that I never quite understood when reading the early descriptions.  When reading the book, it is not as complicated as it seemed.  A player of the Franks has the ability to place up to three dice in the Battle Pool.  The effectiveness of other abilities on the Battleboard depend on how many dice were allocated to the Battle Pool.  This faction's challenge lies in the fact that one has to place dice in the Battle Pool, dice on abilities and still have enough dice left over to activate units.  Players using the Franks will probably use larger units and depend on the We Obey rule.  In fact, the Frankish hero Charlemagne can activate up to three units at a L distance as one of his special abilities.  If you are like me, and like to play quick four or five point games, I am afraid the Franks would be of limited use in such situations.

Irish: Similar to the Welsh in that they are lightly protected fighters who must take advantage of the terrain, the Irish faction shows some serious modifications to the rules.  Hero characters called the Curadh are able to operate independently of units and fight as individual warlords to a degree.

Norse Gael - A Viking faction, and like the Jomsvikings from the previous supplement, its variation is in giving the opposing player a choice. Instead of increasing wrath, the choice is a single combat challenge between a Norse Gael figure and an enemy figure.  Winning the combat allows the Norse Gael player to unlock special abilities.

Strathclyde Welsh - a interesting faction choice, for it was a small kingdom that was eventually absorbed into Scotland in the early eleventh century. The units are not all required to be mounted as I previously assumed, but their new abilities depend upon mounted units.  In this case, the new feature is off-table units. With proper activation, they can enter the battlboard from any side, and another ability allows them to make a shooting attack from off the board, if an enemy is within L of the table edge. Should SAGA move into the East, this would be a useful mechanic to handle steppe factions such as Seljuks or the Pechenegs.

The evolution of the rules in The Raven's Shadow does have the potential to slow the game down some, especially with the insertion of more Reaction based abilities, but that should decrease as players become more accustomed to the process.  The faction choices are good, but one must decide what is right for their style of play.  The Franks require an efficient and calculating manager.  The Irish will be favored by the gambling player, who is willing to take a chance on big victories if a "6" can be rolled.  The Norse Gael have some of the most interesting Hero abilities (Brodir of Man's seer powers seem quite fun) but Challenges may be gimmicky like the Jomsviking's wrath.  My preferred faction from this update will most likely be the Strathclyde, because I am eager to see how the off table abilities play out.

Mounted Welsh kit bashed from two boxes of Wargames Factory Ancient Germans with Saxon and Viking heads and weapons. I added javelin quivers and green stuff cloaks to a few.

Not the paint work I am most proud of, but I did manage to complete about 18 mounted figures in a week. Pictured below is all 24, which is three points worth of warriors. Adding in a unit of levies and two hearthguards will be the final warband.

Monday, December 3, 2012


A small confession on the advent of the SAGA expansion, Raven's Shadow - I have not yet played any of the factions from the last expansion, Northern Fury.  When I got back into gaming after a long absence, I filled my shelves with Vikings and Saxons (thank you, Bernard Cornwell).  An itch for Normans hit me after buying SAGA and reading some Jack Ludlow.  After turning some Wargames Factory Ancient Germans into Welsh, I have ended up with at least 6 points of all four original factions.

Then came the Jomsvikings, Anglo-Saxons, Bretons and Scots.  Obviously, the first three are analogous to original factions, with some differences.  The Jomsviking wrath mechanic was interesting, but gimmicky.  The Anglo-Saxon battleboard, with bonuses for large units, does not suit my style of play and the Bretons...liked them, painted a unit of skirmishers, and have every intention of getting them on the table.  Which brings me to the Scots.  The Scots battleboard is intriguing, and seems to demand a bit more forethought and strategic positioning of your forces.  Hopefully, my game next weekend can be a four point match up, with two hearthguards and two warriors.

Above and below, Thanes by Crusader Miniatures

Scots warriors

I was not able to find any conclusive or well documented depiction of pre-heraldic Scottish shield designs on the net.  So I went with vaguely Viking designs with some Celtic influence, borrowing liberally from a few other blogging wargamers.  

Reading Suggestions:

Clarkson, Tim, The Makers of Scotland: Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings. A highly readable look at the evolution of Scotland from pre-Roman times until roughly the year 1000.  The first third of the book suffers a bit from the authors attempt to weigh primary sources and chronicles, and ends up focusing on royal names and succession, rather than on the peoples and cultures promised in the title.  After working through this, Clarkson ends up delivering some valuable information about the development of the Scots, culturally and politically.  As a further inticement to SAGA players, the the forthcoming faction the Strathclyde Welsh also play a prominent role.

Dunnett, Dorothy, King Hereafter. Previously recommended, a historical novel in which Dunnett proposes that Macbeth and Thorfinn of Orkney were not cousins (or half-brothers) but one in the same.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Song of Blades and Bricks

Introduced my daughter (age 8) to wargaming this weekend with a slightly simplified version of Song of Blades and Heroes.  For figures and terrain, we used Lego minifigs and bricks.

The scenario was simple: get across the pond, through the ruins, get the treasure and get out.

My warband was built for power, 2 Minotaurs, 2 dwarves and 1 dwarf magic user.  My daughter went for stealth and magic - 2 wizards (Harry Potter and Hermione), 2 barbarian cave girls, 1 thief (Red Riding Hood) and a crossbow wielding Hagrid.

While the magic users transfixed my fighters, Little Red Riding Hood sneaked into the ruins and got the treasure. 

The "bad" warband did manage to get back on their feet briefly: 

Hermione versus a Minotaur: 

Red takes out a Minotaur that Harry Potter transfixed:

...and that was the game.  A fun afternoon game, and my daughter grasped the concept of activation and combat rolls very well.  I was impressed that she learned on her own some basic tactics and gameplay exploits - her favorite was transfix with a wizard and then attack with the crossbow.  Two additional educational benefits from the game: quick but basic mental math computation and use of the metric system, both of which are skills not sufficiently taught in American primary schools.

Hopefully, I will soon post pics of my recent painting efforts, a few units of Scots that I have been working on for SAGA, and some El Cid Spaniards for a friend and fellow gamer.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Song Dynasty

     The Song Dynasty of China was easily the most wealthy and technologically advanced society in the world in the tenth and eleventh centuries.  Much like their contemporary empire to the west, the Byzantines, the Song Dynasty fought nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who desired the great wealth that abounded in their kingdom.

     To historians and wargamers, the Song Dynasty gets little credit due to its military and diplomatic blunders. After losing territory in the north to the Jurchen people's Jin kingdom, Song policy makers too slavish followed the maxim 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,' and they cultivated an allegiance with the Mongols, who were north of the Jin.  When the Mongols turned their sights on the Song after destroying the Jin, China placed far too much confidence in their defensive walls, and were not prepared for the Mongols' mastery of siege warfare. The Song held out longer than many of the Mongol's enemies, but finally fell in 1279.

On the other hand the Song Dynasty lasted about three centuries, if one counts both the Northern Song and the Southern Song periods.  That Dynasty can also be credited with developing a standing navy and the implementation of primitive gunpowder weapons into its army.

It was my first purchase from The Assault Group (what a great name, by the way).  The sculpts are excellent, and look to be based on some Song-era iron sculptures that are still extant.  A pack of four contains four unique figures, and the conscript spearmen could probably used for most any era of China from the Warring States period through early Qing.  While a bit chunky, they are comparable in terms of size and heft with the Crusader Miniatures line.  

I would love to build a huge army for Clash of Empires, my favorite 'big battle' system, but that is definitely a year away, at least.  In the short term, I imagine adapting the Song into SAGA using a Byzantine battleboard.  After all, both were heavily missile based armies who had adapted their armies to fighting steppe nomads.  Other battleboard abilties should take advantage of China's capacity for levies, as well as some limited abilities based on the psychological effect of firelances or thrown bombs.

Reading Suggestions

Tun Huang by Yasushi Inoue. Inoue, Japanese writer of historical fiction (1907-1991), produced this novel in 1959 about Chao Tsing-te, young Chinese scholar in the early eleventh century. He misses his civil service exam by an accidental nap and after a chance encounter with a woman and a mysterious scroll, he wanders westward towards the title city. Again by accident, Chao finds himself fighting in the Song army against the Xi-Xia.  Like a Japanese woodcut, the beauty of Tun-Huang is in its simplicity; an adventure novel, and the search for meaning in the randomness of life.

Friday, November 2, 2012

SAGA Speculation

The release of Raven's Shadow in late November brings the addition of four more factions to the SAGA game: Hiberno-Norse, Franks, Strathclyde Welsh and the Irish.  As with the first expansion, this second expansion is mostly a variation on the original factions.  If you have one or two different warbands, there's at least one warband in this new release that can allow you to use another battleboard.

Where else can SAGA go from here?  Based on hints from Studio Tomahawk, and references in some recent podcast interviews with Meeples and Miniatures and Historical Wargaming, plans are in place to add factions multiple times a year for the next three years.  

1) Back in Time.  Given the popularity of Dux Bellorum and Dux Britannarium, a SAGA Arthurian expansion would be very successful   This could include four to six new factions (Romano-British, Saxon invaders, Picts, Early Irish and Early Welsh) plus some very interesting hero characters. With the amount of Arthurian miniatures people are picking up right now, adding a third game can get more use out of the same figures.

2) Moving East. The official release of the Byzantine battle board, and the non-official Arab release offers promise of SAGA staying in the ninth and through eleventh centuries, but with a move to the east.  Even if Vikings are the glue that hold SAGA together, their eastern journeys bring in the Rus as a new factions along with the Byzantines, Bulgars and possibly a steppe faction.  The Byzantines connect to Italo-Normans, Lombards and possibly the Seljuk Turks.  

3) Reconquista and First Crusade. I seem to recall an interview with Alex where he mentioned that El Cid era Christians and Moors were a part of their plans.  The Spanish theater alone could provide four or more factions from among the Christian kingdoms of the North and the Taifa kingdoms along with the Almoravids.  A Crusades supplement that focuses on the early Crusades could include the Crusaders, Turk/Abbasid, Armenians and Fatimids.     

Worth noting is that Gripping Beast, Studio Tomahawk's miniature partner, already has lines of miniatures for the Spanish, Moors, Rus, Slavs, Early Crusaders and Arthurians.

I'm excited about the future of SAGA and Dark Age skirmishing in general. This speculation has also inspired me to put together another custom battleboard, one still in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but much further afield than Europe and not likely to be officially released.  More later...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Vikings and Rus

A quick review of some minis from two online retailers that I have used for the first time recently, Black Tree Designs and Magister Militum.

Out of the package, the finish of the Black Tree minis is very good.  There is some flash to remove. Also, the metal on some other (more expensive) companies looks a little cleaner than Black Tree's, but it's all covered by paint anyways.

The sculpting is where Black Tree really impresses me. The poses are lively and natural.  Their line of Vikings is heavy on characters, but the rank fighters are just as good.

I particularly like the wounded fellow below. When I ordered this pack, I did not realize he was bandaged. It's a very good example of some of the detail in their line.

Service from Black Tree has been excellent. Orders were confirmed almost immediately, I was notified of shipping dates, and the package arrived in about one week.

I have been interested in purchasing some Rus for a while.  They are a good opponent for the Byzantines, and combining a few dedicated Rus figures with some traditional Vikings could make a decent SAGA warband.  In light of the recent release of the Byzantine faction, I am willing to bet that a dedicated Rus battleboard is on Studio Tomahawk's three year plan.

These Rus are my first purchase from Magister Militum. I was impressed with their selection of eastern figures, including Slavs, Seljuk Turks and Byzantines.

The finish of Magister's figures is a bit lacking compared to some other miniatures. While the amount of flash was not excessive, the mold lines were prominent and took some effort to remove.  After that, though, these figures were a joy to paint because of their expressive faces, dynamic poses and appropriate details. A pack of six came with four figure variations. 

Service from Magister was excellent, with the packages arriving from the U.K.  about two weeks after I placed the order.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

SAGA Dice Redux

After painting a box of Conquest Norman infantry some Song Chinese crossbowmen last week, I have been giving my increasingly older eyes some rest. So I played a game of SAGA (Normans v. Saxons) and a new card game with my eight year old daughter. In Timeline, players are dealt a certain number of cards, and must discard all of their cards by placing them on the table in the correct order.  As more cards are correctly discarded, the complexity of the timeline increases.

The enthusiasm my daughter has shown for the game was very rewarding, and its a great way to teach  the history of technology.

I also stripped off the paper stickers from my homebrew SAGA dice and replaced them with waterslide decals in color.

Overall, the look is much better than the black and white versions, although a few dice faces show some fuzziness, either from too thin a sealer on the waterslide paper, or too much submersion in water before applying.  

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conquest Norman Infantry, Completed

This week's update is a completed box of Conquest Normans.  Not pictured are four axe-bearers in service as Anglo-Dane huscarls and six figures converted into Breton skirmishers.

Ranked with the chain mail wearing knights at the front:

Pictured below are three of the four command figures.  The small banner is stock from the box, the large banner is from Little Big Man Studios.  

After having finished one box, I would suggest that the quality and variety of the finished product can be improved by having some bits from Conquest's cavalry on hand.  The cavalry box contains different helmets and sword arms that are compatible with the infantry.  This set was definitely a worthwhile addition. It is tempting to purchase another box, even though 44 infantry is more than enough for SAGA purposes.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Works in Progress: Terrain

Terrain is the weak spot in my wargaming layout.  Too many times, I have made the choice to purchase an additional army rather than spend money on houses, trees and other pieces.  Time, as well,  gets spent on painting miniatures rather than some basic scratch building projects.

This week, as a break from all of the plastic Normans I have before me, I decided to work on some terrain projects.  First, a Norman keep made from Hirst Arts plaster blocks.  The top front is almost at the height I am looking for.  I need to bring up the other sides, and maybe do some interior detailing.

My professor of Middle East history and the Crusades often stressed that the castle is better viewed as an offensive military structure rather than a defensive one; as a place from which raiding parties and newly established conquerors can strike out at neighboring enemies and a possibly rebellious populace.   Wargaming scenarios almost always use castles and buildings as defensible targets. It might be possible to come up with a campaign scenario that uses castles or manors in a different way, but one always comes back to limited table space and scale.

Next, is a storage building to be placed near the keep or in a village.  It was built according to the plans at the Too Fat Lardies blog: 

After these are completed, I will need a few more trees - which as much as I would prefer not to make, it's still preferable to buying.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Timeline of Norman Warfare

960 - Theobald of Blois, or Theobald the Trickster invades Normandy.  Duke Richard I of Normandy's army burns Chartres in response.

996 - Death of Duke Richard I of Normandy, succeeded by his son Richard II, or Richard the Good.

1001 - Anglo-Saxons, on orders from King Ethelred, raid Normandy in retaliation for Duke Richard's harboring of Viking raiders and were quickly repelled by Norman cavalry.

1002 - Ethelred marries Duke Richard's sister Emma

1018 - Normans arrive in Italy in 1017, becoming mercenaries to Lombards seeking to oust Byzantine rule. At the Battle of Cannae a year later, Byzantines with a strong contingent of Varangians defeat the Lombards and the Norman ruler was killed.

1026 - Death of Duke Richard II.  He was succeeded by his eldest son Richard III, who died shortly and suspiciously after an insurrection by his younger brother, Robert.

1027 - Robert named Duke of Normandy

1034-1037 - Approximate arrival date in southern Italy of William and Drogo, sons of the minor Norman noble Tancred de Hauteville.

1035  - Duke Robert of Normandy died in Asia Minor, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and leaving an illegitimate minor, William, as his heir.

1047  - Norman barons with the support of King Henry of  France rebel against the tenuous rule of the twenty year old Duke William. William defeats the rebels and French King at Val-des-Dunes.

1052 - King Edward of England, the son of Ethelred and Emma, exiles a number of Normans from his kingdom to appease English nobles bothered by their growing influence at court.  A number of these exiles take up service with MacBeth, King of the Scots.

1053 Battle of Civitate.  Normans defeat a papal army of Italians and Swabians, even capturing Pope Leo IX and extract a peace treaty confirming the right to their Italian holdings. (23 June)

1055 - Earl Ralph of Hereford, Edward's Norman nephew, leads an unsuccessful invasion of Wales, and is repulsed by Welsh King Gruffyd ap Llewellyn

1057 - Robert de Hauteville succeeds his brother Humphrey as Duke of Apulia, preeminent ruler of the Italo-Normans.  For his inventive, and often devious strategies, he earns the nickname Guiscard (the weasel).

1061 - Messina, Sicily captured by Roger de Hauteville.  Italo-Normans spend the next three decades dislodging Saracens from the rest of the island.

1064  - Duke William campaigns against the Bretons, led by Conan II.  Accompanying him is the visiting (?) Harold Godwinsson of England.  Before leaving Normandy, Harold supposedly swears to uphold William's succession to his relative Edward's throne.

1066 - Claiming to be the rightful successor of the English King Edward through his aunt Emma, mother of Edward, William defeats an English army led by the Anglo-Dane King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastins (13 October)

1068 - Rebellion in York against Norman rule. Saxon resistance continued for two more years.

1069 - King William invades Scotland, for harboring English fugitives.  King Malcolm Canmore comes to terms before the Norman army reaches Perth.

1071- Normans led by William FitzOsbern extend their holdings into Wales.

Italian Normans capture the city of Bari

Battle of Manzikert - Byzantine forces are defeated in Asia Minor and the Emperor Romanus Diogenes was captured. The Norman mercenary Roussel de Bailleul avoids the battle and claims his own territory in Ankara. (26 August)

1073 - War between Norman lords in Italy, Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and his brother in law, Richard, Prince of Aversa.

1077 - Roussel de Baileul is defeated by Turks and handed over to the Byzantines, and presumably executed.

1081 - Battle of Dyrrachium (Durazzo), Normans led by Guiscard and his son Bohemund defeat a Byzantine Army with a strong contingent of Anglo-Saxon Varangians.

1083 - Byzantines under Alexius Comnenus defeat Bohemund at Larissa and retake lost possessions on the Adriatic.

1085 - Death of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia.

1087 - Death of William, Duke of Normandy and King of Enlgand.

All together, from 950-1087, the Normans fought Bretons, Franks, Vikings, Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Lombards, Sicilian Arabs, Byzantines and each other.  Strangely enough, they also fought as allies or mercenaries with almost that entire list as well.

For the historical wargamer, a Norman army can be plausibly used in most any historical matchup set in the tenth and eleventh centuries.  With their pioneering use of disciplined cavalry charges, they were highly sought after as mercenaries across Western Europe and the Near East.  Unfortunately for their employers, Normans had a tendency to not remain contented with their role as hired swords and instead seek land and autonomy.  By the end of the eleventh century, Norman kingdoms spanned the breadth of Europe and the Mediterranean, from England to Antioch.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

SAGA Battle Report: Byzantines versus Normans

This kitchen table match up was a quick 4 point variation on the Escort mission scenario.
It was my first playtest of the increased armor and shooting abilities for the Byzantine hearthguard.

The Byzantine army consists of a unit of 8 Khataphractoi, 8 skutatoi, 8 armored archers, and a warlord (general with guards). 

The objective is to escort a Byzantine diplomat and his letters back to Constantinople in the winter of 1081.  The road runs between a farm and small hill.  The end point is the Roman ruins at the end of the table. 

On the other side of the hill, a group of Normans appears, consisting of 8 mounted Sergeants, 4 Knights, 8 spearmen and 8 crossbowmen.  

The mounted units are trying to flank the escort troops, while the foot soldiers are going over the hill (rough terrain).

Best roll of the night.   

The Byzantines make it to the end, with the diplomat, warlord, 3 archers, and 1 Khataphract. 

Conclusions: increasing the armor and adding the shooting rule for the Khataphractoi probably made a difference.  In previous match ups against the Normans, the Byzantines were 0 for 3.   Shooting with two units almost halved a unit of Norman warriors before they charged into the Byzantine infantry. A terrain layout that favored the Greeks also proved advantageous.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Musicians and Priests: House Rules

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. 

- Voltaire 

Well before SAGA, I had two modest sized armies of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Blame Bernard Cornwell. Somewhere along the way,  I added in Normans and Byzantines. Either through the purchase of unit deals or the occasional impulse buy, I have ended up with a number of support figures for each army. WAB made use of such figures, but SAGA does not.

This is a very minor house rule.  It is not intended to alter the game play and/or the outcome of a game.  Its main purpose is to add variety to the table and make some use of the musician and priest figures that I have accumulated.

1) Before starting a match, each player can choose one support character, either a musician or a priest.

2) Musicians and Priests are attached to a unit at the start of the game.  They can attach to any unit, Warlord down to Levy. They cannot switch units once gameplay has begun. Their base must stay within VS distance of at least one figure in the unit.

Each character offers slightly different advantages:

3) Musicians:  If attached to Warlords  musicians increase the range of the We Obey activation rule by an additional S length.

If attached to a group of warriors, hearthguard or levy, the musician increases their attack dice by one.

4) Priests: When attached to a unit, they generate one extra defense die.

5) Priests may not be mounted. Only musicians may attach to mounted units, if they are mounted as well. As an extra benefit, priests and musicians offer one additional casualty for their unit. It is the controlling players decision on whether to remove the musician or priest after suffering casualties.  Once their character has been removed, the benefits they offer are also removed.

All musicans are treated equally.  Drummers and string players are welcome.