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878 VIKINGS: INVASIONS OF ENGLAND from Academy Games If you've read my thoughts on games of 2017 and the year to come, you...







Academy Games

If you've read my thoughts on games of 2017 and the year to come, you'll have had a brief glimpse of what will be my opening statement.  This game has been on my radar from the moment it was announced.  Having lived for the last 43 years in a town called Ormskirk in northern England whose name is allegedly derived from a Viking settler called Orm is but one reason for this fascination.

But I suspect the real reason is the age old allure from childhood onwards of stories both historical and mythic of the one word that struck fear and trembling into hearts - Vikings.  I am quite sure Academy Games would have been assured of success just by putting out that one word both as the title and as the only information needed about the game.  Still it helped that the name Academy Games was also part of the package!

Not only did that guarantee a quality production, but the little subscription on the box: Birth of Europe signalled that this was undoubtedly linked to an already well-established series, Birth of America.  If you are familiar with that series you'll have a good idea of what to expect.  So, without more ado, let's head for the back of the box [well you've seen the front already] and its contents.

If you are familiar with the Birth of America series, you may be surprised to see that the small cubes that represent the different forces units in these games are now little plastic figures.  They are very small indeed, but perfectly formed.  How you will view them is very much a matter of taste.  Personally, I much prefer them to the wooden cubes.  Others have expressed their liking for cubes. Chacun a son gout!

On the right are the red Viking Berserkers, to the rear the black Viking Norsemen, centre are blue English Housecarls, fronted by green English Thegns and finally on the left yellow Fyrd.  I do not intend to get in to any arguments about the use of the anachronistic  word English or the Housecarls rather than Huscarls or even why we've got one group purely of Berserkers.  No doubt there will be some of you out there doing just that, but for me this is a broad-brush game rather than an historical simulation.  As the advert for the Birth of America series proclaims - "Simple & Fun" and 878 Vikings continues that happy pronouncement with great success.

Though wooden cubes do the job well, I rather like this move to something that gives a little more visual appeal and all the other components add plenty of that.  The map of England continues the trend for pastel rather than strong primary colours.
As can be seen, the areas [called shires in the rules] stand out very clearly divided by their white borders, a small, but welcome detail and the set up for the two English factions at the beginning of the game are clearly marked too.  The pale blue circle at top right is used for placing units that flee from battle.

A set of customized dice and deck of cards for each faction and cardboard Leader standees constitute most of the remaining play components, along with a wooden Round marker, a series of cardboard discs and a large black bag and 4 large plastic cubes, one for each faction.
Nice large, customised dice
 Leader standees, with a rather red-nosed Alfred to the fore

Leader sheet, plus Viking markers for controlled cities

As with the high standard of so many games in current times, the many cards that are central to game play are of good quality and add a strong vibrant colour to the game.  [Some buyers have been unfortunate regarding inconsistency in the colours and poor alignment, but my own copy showed none of these problems. Also, Academy Games have a fine customer record on dealing with any problem.]

Each faction has their own set of cards.  The white cards seen below form the deck of Leader cards lettered from A to C and drawn in alphabetical order and the yellow cards are the Fyrd cards that are randomly drawn from in every battle where the English are defending a city.

Here you can see them in the perfectly constructed tray that not only holds all the components when packed away, but is designed to hold each faction's deck at an easily accessible angle for drawing.  Even the dice are neatly accommodated too, though you will want those permanently out on the table in easy reach, as there is plenty of dice-rolling to come. 

All this is backed by a very well laid out and detailed Rule Book, which opens with a first class depiction of the opening set-up.

Clearly labeled and numbered it takes you carefully through many key points that will augment your understanding of the rules.  Though there is an index to the whole set of rules, it is virtually superfluous to needs as the rules are very straightforward and accompanied at each key point by excellent examples, such as the full page one that accompanies the rules for the Battle Phase.

Only the presentation of the distinction between Leaders moving and battling first, followed by Armies without leaders moving and then battling has caused some confusion.

Following the rules section there is a substantial 2 page explanation of many of the different types of cards in the game, two short scenarios [Northumbrian Raids and the advanced scenario:Alfred's Gambit] and everything is rounded off with 5 pages of an Historical Overview.  This latter opens with an extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Perhaps if I'd had a copy of 878 Vikings back in my dim and distant university days, translating chunks of the above Chronicle might have been less dry and dusty!  Accompanying this historical outline are brief, pen-portraits of the significant Viking leaders [plus one female character, thought not included as a leader in the core game] and, of course, Alfred The Great, who makes his appearance on Turn 5. 

From physical components, I'll turn to how game plays, starting with an image of the set up of my most recent game, which was every bit as breathless and exciting as all that I've played so far.

The game can be played by 2- 4 players [and, like many other such games, solitaire, if you can be suitably mentally compartmentalised].  With two players one takes the Housecarls and Thegns and the other the Berserkers and the Norsemen, with 3 players one player takes both factions of one side and with four players each player takes one of the four factions.  The game play is admirably suited to whichever number of players you have, as communication between allied players is total team work, with both players on one team being able to look at their fellow player's cards and discuss and suggest actions and card play.  

There are seven Rounds maximum.  The game has the potential to end immediately if the Viking side has captured 14 cities or there is an even more likely ending.  At the end of any Round [from Round 5 onwards] that both factions of one side have played their movement card called the Treaty of Wedmore, then the game finishes and the Vikings are the victors if they have captured at least 9 cities - if not, the English are the victors.

In each Round the order in which each faction will take their turn is randomly decided by the draw of one faction cube at a time from a large black bag!  The only exception to this at the beginning of Round one when the black cube of the Norsemen faction must  automatically be first.

Each faction's turn begins with the placement of reinforcements.  This a very asymmetrical process with very different rules for each of the two sides.  For the Viking side, the first of their team's faction cube that comes out of the black bag will draw a new Leader card that determines on which coast his forces will land and the number of units that will accompany him.  A very important concept is that, provided an Army contains units of both factions of one side, then either player on that side can move such an Army when it is their turn. i.e. if an Army has Berserker and Norsemen units in it, then the Berserker player can move and battle with them on his/her turn and the Norsemen player can similarly move and battle with them when it is his/her turn.  Obviously the same is true for the Thegns and the Housecarls.
The consequences of this rule can be seen in this photo taken on Round one.  The first cube has to be black so the Norsemen begin the game and the very first Leader card is always the same as their is only one Leader card with the letter A.  As it happened, in the game I took shots of for this review, the next faction cube to be drawn was the red Berserkers.  So, with the Viking team getting two turns in a row, they made substantial inroads right across the north.

This is one of the hugely enjoyable aspects of game play.  As you wait to see which faction is drawn from the bag next, tension and anticipation constantly runs high for this and so many other reasons in the game.  Viking reinforcements are always significantly more than the English ones, as they are determined by the number of reinforcements on the Leader card.  For example, that very first Viking Leader brings 17 Norsemen and 8 Berserkers with him. 
[Notice how the Vikings have continued  their sweeping success - for the moment.]

When English reinforcements arrive, one is placed in each Reinforcement city for each icon of that faction's units.  As a result these reinforcement cities are prime Viking targets from the very beginning of the game to help diminish their sources.  They are also along with ordinary cities the goals for victory.  Reinforcements also include units that have fled from earlier battles. 

This is one of the very best inspirations of the game both for reinforcements and for battle resolution.  The specialised dice for rolling in battle include symbols of a fleeing soldier. For each one rolled a unit is removed to the blue circle I mentioned earlier.  Often the English player gets most of his/her supplementary reinforcements from this source, as the various English faction dice contain more fleeing symbols than on the Viking dice.  Far be it from me to comment on this bias, historical or not!

After the Reinforcement Phase, you play one of your cards that shows how many Armies you may move and how far each army may move.  Very simply a card that shows 3/2 means that a maximum of three Armies may each be moved up to 2 areas.  An Army constitutes any member of units in one area either with a Leader or without. 
Typical Movement cards

What follows is the one point that has caused some confusion, mainly because the Rule book divides play into the Leader Phase, the Movement Phase and the Battle Phase. If you choose an Army with a Leader, it must move first and resolve any battles that occur immediately. The Leader may pick up and drop off units as he is moved. If a battle is won by the Leader's Army and he has movement points left he can continue to move and partake in further battles, but with one point of movement lost if the battle isn't won on the first round of dice rolling.   [For the first four turns, the Vikings have free reign as they are the only ones with Leaders, until Alfred arrives with a comparatively feeble Army of 7 units - still every little helps.]

Then any Armies without a Leader can be selected. So, continuing the example above where the card showed a maximum of three Armies, you would now be able to move 2 Armies that didn't have a Leader.  But these leaderless Armies may not pick up or drop off units and must all be moved before any battles, caused by them entering an enemy occupied area, are resolved.
[A later stage of the game shows central England largely occupied by the native English with part of southern England having fallen under Viking sway.  It also dramatically shows how fortunes can change.]

These small nuances of play are very successful and innovative, as is the Battle sequence.  Each faction rolls its own special dice: this combined with specific limits on how many dice can be rolled are for me more of the quality concepts of the game.  Berserkers may roll a maximum of two, as can Housecarls, while Thegns roll a maximum of three dice.  An additional feature is that whenever the English are attacked in an area containing a city, they draw a Fyrd card which will add from two to five yellow temporary Fyrd units to the battle.  These are marvellous canon fodder for helping protect your other units, though they do have a tendency to flee! Also at the end of a battle, even if the English win, any surviving Fyrd units are removed from the board.
Here are the two extremes of what you might get to supplement your defending English battle line: a solid five units, nicely illustrated with an older, clearly better armed individual or a paltry two units with a picture of a feeble, lanky individual who's clearly incubating a dark-age dose of  something nasty!

Adding to the uncertainty of battle and other elements of the game are the Event cards.  In total each faction has a deck of 19 cards of which you will only ever play with 12.  You always include cards numbered 1-7 that are movement cards.  In the base game, you then add Event cards 8 -12.   When you feel comfortable with game play [or if you're a daring type, right from the start], you choose 5 Event cards from the whole set of cards 8 - 19 to craft your hand.

Again, I rate this highly.  But there are pros and cons depending on your temperament and especially on your attitude to randomness.  I've chosen that last word very carefully, because a few who have reacted less favourably to 878 Vikings have done so on the cry that there's too much luck involved.   I would agree that there is a fair number of random elements;  starting with the play order being determined by blind draw, battle dice [if you can't live with dice, then as they say, "if you can't stand the heat, better get out of the kitchen"] and Event cards.  Frankly, only the random player order seems any different from the majority of board wargames, whether light like 878 Vikings or heavy like the Napoleonic La Battaille series.

I like the uncertainty of choosing five from the full range of Event cards, as I'm very happy to play a game in which my actions react both to the known determinants, but try to plan to cope with the unknown as well.  However, if you do prefer more control, either just play with the initial first five Event cards [or show you opponent the five you have chosen before shuffling them into your final deck of 12 cards].  That way you do not know exactly when these Events will occur, but know what you will eventually have to face and, as the Rounds progress, you know that the likelihood of the appearance of those not yet played is growing stronger and stronger.

This is obviously not the intention of the game, but I offer it as a suggestion for those who want less uncertainty.  Whatever your preference, the cards are very well designed and strikingly visual, illustrated in dominant colours that I hope will  please those who thought the map a little too pale in palette.  They contain clear instructions, backed by an additional two pages of explanation of many of them in the rule book.  They also have attractive side banners that are colour-coded to each faction so that you know exactly in which player's turn they can be played and text tells you in which Phase they can be played.  

Above are two such Event Cards: both belonging to the Norsemen player.  The Black side-banner showing the Norsemen player can play it in his own turn, while the blue/green side-banner indicates the Norsemen player can play it during either the Thegns' turn or the Berserkers' turn. Below the title of the Event you can see which Phase it is played in.

The resulting combination of all that I have described of gameplay provides a swift flowing game of action and reaction.  There is very little downtime, even with four players. In battles, all players who have units involved will be rolling dice and possibly playing an Event card, while discussion of tactics, which Armies to move and where, how many units to drop off or pick up, what targets to prioritise, will flow freely throughout the game.

All in all, a fun game with plenty of action and one whose subtleties of strategy reveal themselves the more you play.  This first in the series entitled Birth of Europe contains many of the features found in its parent series Birth of America, but for me 878 Vikings is the best in the line to date.  I would love to see this system brought to the Wars of the Roses or the 100 Years War.  So, Academy Games I hope you might be listening!