[REVIEW] Champions of Midgard
[Originally published on www.tabletoptribe.com]
It turns out I’m a Viking.
Well okay, I’m obviously not an actual Viking, but having had my DNA tested on a whim last year it transpires that most of my ancestors, for at least the past 28,000 years, hailed from Scandinavia.
Seeing as my family has lived in England for as far back as we can trace it, chances are that at some point towards the end of the first millenium, a hairy, bearded, axe-wielding forebear of mine rocked up on these shores in a longship for a spot of pillage and plunder.
I guess it would explain the red rages, a fondness for mead and the urge every time I pass a church, to steal all its shiny things and burn the place to the ground.
But I digress.
I feel like a total schmuck, because Champions of Midgard from Grey Fox Games sat unplayed on my shelf for several months after purchase and when I did finally get it to the table everyone had an absolute ball, and it’s become a firm favourite.
So what makes it able to shine from under the shadow of Blood Rage, that other game vying for Viking Game of the Year 2015?
The first thing you find in the box is the board, which sits quite loosely on top of the component tray. While this does make it easy to extract, you’ll want to minimise the box getting shaken around too much if you’re taking the game anywhere or it could potentially damage it.
It’s a lovely board too. Big without being unwieldy. Thematic without being cluttered. The card deck areas are logically placed and there are no problems seeing what resources are available at which locations.
The box insert is well-designed and comes supplied with baggies for the punched components. It won’t take sleeved cards but there’s only one shuffle per deck for each game, so there’s not much need to sleeve, and they’re a durable fabric quality anyway.
There are three colours of custom dice in the box (more on how these work later) and they’re a good size with engraved not printed symbols. Apart from that it’s your expected euro-style worker placement components: five meeple in four colours; two wooden tokens in the same colours for keeping score; wooden cubes in two colours to represent food and wood and a smattering of cardboard counters. They’re all good quality but there’s nothing spectacular here. Blood Rage it is not.
Now I’ll admit I wasn’t an immediate fan of the box/component artwork, plus I’m one of those pedants who bores you with “Vikings never wore horned helmets blah, blah, blah”. But not only has the artwork grown on me, but the horned helmets serve to remind that this is a game of viking mythology and heroic sagas not some historical hex-bound chit-shuffling.
In other words this is about one thing: GLORY! Victory and defeat are all the same so long as there’s a place in Valhalla at the end of it!
As you might expect, strip away the Viking theme and this is similar to lots of other worker placement games, the most obvious being Stone Age and Lords of Waterdeep. The theme itself isn’t all sacking churches and pillaging towns: the players are would-be Jarls trying to balance protecting the town of Midgard from marauding dangers with gaining personal glory for themselves in quests that often take them away from the town and over the sea.
Players start with three worker meeple each (four in a two player game) and take turns placing them at various locations around the board in order to fight Trolls and Draugr (like uber-creepy Dark Elves), recruit Warriors, gain Rune and Destiny cards, gain food, wood, gold or favours (rerolls), build a ship or go on a sea journey to fight Monsters. Up to four of the locations on the board (depending on player count) will be randomly drawn from a stack of Military and Economic sites at set up, meaning that each game is played on a subtly different board.
You can add one more worker to your supply during the game, but it will cost you and the earlier you try to acquire it the more expensive it will be. Once all workers have been placed, the locations are resolved in pretty much a top to bottom of the board order.
First there’s a general Hunting action (one of the few places where multiple players can place workers). This is a chance to use some of your Warriors to get potentially large amounts of food to trade for other stuff or feed your crew on a long journey, but be prepared to be ridiculed by other players for buggering off hunting while they’re doing ‘proper’ work. Expect whoever is fighting the Troll to be most vocal in this regard.
Dealing with the Troll each turn is fairly important. If left unchecked it will go on a bit of a rampage, leaving the inhabitants of Midgard understandably pissed at you for swanning off fighting Monsters overseas (worth much more Glory than a crappy old Troll of course) instead of doing your job protecting them. This displeasure is represented by Blame tokens which are dished out to the players and can hugely affect your Glory come the end of the game if you amass too many.
If you do decide to take on the Troll then no one gets Blame, whether you succeed or fail, but if you do succeed in killing it, you get to remove one of your own Blame tokens… and give it to someone else (one of the few Take That mechanics in the game), taking the opportunity while you’re at it to cast aspersions regarding their courage/manhood/bone-idleness etc.
Next up is the combat of whoever is fighting the Draugr before finally resolving the dangerous journeys by sea. For these you need some Warriors, some food to feed them with and a ship (either a public one or one you’ve built with wood and gold at the shipwright — such a prize piece of Viking bling also wins you glory at the end).
You flip over a journey card before you can face the Monster you’re after, which can reveal anything from calm, safe waters, to whirlpools, sea monsters and starvation. The ocean is a fickle place, but it’s worth it as the Monsters at the journey’s end provide you with the most Glory in the game.
At this point we should probably talk about how all this fighting occurs. Your Warriors are represented by dice in three colours: Swordsmen (white), Spearmen (red) and Axemen (black). Die faces have either the weapon concerned (a hit), two of that weapon (two hits), a shield (cancels one enemy hit) or a blank face (miss!).
Swordsmen are the most readily available but the weakest overall. Spearmen are a good mix of attack and defence and Axemen are most powerful but have no defences. Your selection of troops will be dictated by what’s available, the special power of your character and the foe you’re trying to tackle, as many prohibit the use of a single weapon type in combat.
You can possess a total of eight warriors at any one time, but expect them to be dropping like flies as you throw them at horrific foes with little prospect of survival, smug in the knowledge that you’ve granted them a glorious death. Enemies do a set amount of damage per combat round, so your guys are going to die unless you roll shields — so Axemen are obviously always doomed unless you have some plucky sword or spear wielders to try and nullify attacks… or simply soak up the damage.
Once everyone’s combat (or cowardly hunting) is over there’s a clean-up phase where workers are retrieved, cards and Warrior dice refreshed, and gold is added to undefeated overseas Monsters. Repeat this for eight rounds, and whoever has the most Glory is hailed as the new Jarl and wins the game.
There are a couple more ways to win some Glory, or give you an edge in the game. Rune cards allow you a special action that could be anything from doubling your gold to looking at journey cards before you set off on a sea voyage. Destiny cards (available from the Sage although you get one to start with) list a condition that must be met by the game end in order to bag you more Glory, such as killing the most Trolls or even garnering the most Blame.
As I said at the beginning, Champions of Midgard is inevitably going to be (unfairly) compared to Blood Rage, and whilst it can’t compete with the miniatures bling, Champions of Midgard still looks great on the table and immerses you satisfyingly in the theme, and in terms of game play it’s a lot less serious and players are a lot more animated. If I had to grab one of them off the shelf for an impromptu gaming session with a group of varied experience levels, it would have to be Champions of Midgard.
It’s just fun. It doesn’t have the Take That element of Blood Rage which can put off the non-confrontational player (are you a Viking or what??), apart from the apportioning of Blame after a successful foray against the Troll. It doesn’t have a drafting mechanism that requires a knowledge of the cards. It has a little smattering of luck with dice rolling, which can offset the advantage of the experienced player. Best of all, games always seem to run to a very reasonable length without either dragging or ending just as you feel things are getting started.
Champions of Midgard feels as though it was made with a lot of love. It’s a game the designers seem to have taken very seriously, without ending up taking itself too seriously, and I for one can’t wait for the two expansions that have just been successfully Kickstarted. An additional player, Archer dice, more monsters to fight… sign me up for the longship crew! Skål!
Easy to teach
Good game length and scales well from 2 to 4 players
The right amount of luck thrown in
Random draws of Military and Economic locations make each game subtly different
The art style palette may be too colourful for some
Some worker placement purists may not like the inclusion of dice at all
The board could fit a little more snugly into an otherwise good insert