The SAGA saga: introduction


Hi everyone, I’m beat ronin.

After years of being on the other side of the comments section here at the House of Paincakes, I have at last slipped through the looking glass. I’m down the rabbit hole and thus, glad to be equipped with my imaginary anthropomorphic samurai rabbit head. Please note that it is a generic samurai rabbit. Definitely not a fan-picture of Usagi Yojimbo I got off someone’s website without asking in the ancient era of Geocities. Yes… I have been a wanderer on these electric ley-lines for that long.

Anyway, long story short: Warlock said there were snazzy free robes, purses were brandished, and I was told that the manacles would be relatively chafe-free. I’m not going to talk about what I bring to the amazing line-up here, in case you all notice that I’m just a considerably less English Von. Or Thuloid without the Cleric spells. Or Sinsynn only with… nah forget it. He’s definitely unique.

What I will do is every couple of weeks, talk about things that interest me (and hopefully you, too) in the realm of our hobby. Oh and not leave 650-word replies to every single comment. I know, I have a problem. I’m working on it but DC keeps enabling me.

Right, now the intro is done for (this is the only time you’ll have to suffer through it, I promise), our fearless leader Loquacious has asked me to talk a bit about the popular dark ages skirmish game SAGA. Into (unto?) which I have recently forayed from the world of fantasy and SF wargames. I’m really enjoying it, and I’m discovering that historicals actually offer freedom in some ways that F&SF games do not right now. Maybe you’re a little curious about SAGA too? Or perhaps you just like hot Viking action (and come on, who doesn’t)? If so, this series is for you.


I might still be coming to grips with this whole fantasy versus history thing. Natalie Portman may not be pictured wearing accurate Norse garb. At least Your Highness was a true story though, so I’m getting there.

I have dragged my little brother Chris into the dark ages with me (I say “little,” but *sigh* I suppose he’s a thirty-three year old man with a beard, who thinks he is slightly taller than me). It’ll be just like when we played Crossbows and Catapults on the kitchen floor, I said. You can even be the Vikings. Oh and I will provide (some) beer. Better bring some, on second thought.

Mum was still finding Battle Caroms behind the couch a decade later.

I don’t have a lot of experience with historical wargames. I was always more of a Warhammer and SF guy. But just recently I’ve begun to appreciate F&SF wargaming’s cranky old grandpa. How did this happen, you may wonder?

I’m a bit hazy on the details but as I remember it, it went something like this: first, I read all of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles back to back. Then, I binge-watched seasons one and two of the History Channel show Vikings. Somewhere around the middle of season two, I looked down and there, on my coffee table, was the SAGA rulebook and a starter box of Gripping Beast’s Vikings. Obviously mighty Odin himself had put them there. And who am I to tangle with the gods?

The cruel Norse gods had a voracious appetite for shirts, coveting them above all other forms of sacrifice.

So yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. This article is going to be a brief (ha!) introduction. I’ve actually written about this before on my own imaginatively-named blog, so I’ll try not to plaigiarise myself too much. No promises though.

SAGA (that’s how they write it, all caps – I don’t know why) is a skirmish wargame played with 28mm models on a 3’ x 4’ table, with a standard game numbering between twenty five and seventy three models per side. Those strangely specific numbers will become clear later.

The main SAGA book is set in Europe between the late 8th and mid 11th centuries CE, roughly between the sacking of Lindisfarne monastery by the Danes and the battle of Hastings. That’s the basic game – there are quite a few supplements and many official (and unofficial) lists covering different locations and time periods, for example Byzantium, the crusades, various Slavic peoples, steppe nomads, and Skraelings (Native Americans). There are even some sort of mythological/fantasy models on the horizon, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Right now I’m just going to talk about the basic game.

The book costs about $50-$55 Australian, so is not super-cheap, but it’s not too bad either. It’s a full colour softcover with lots of pics of models. The actual rules (not counting factions and scenarios) are only about 30 pages long.

Probably should show you a picture of the cover, I guess.

The main thing I like about this game is the rules, which is funny because normally that’s a secondary consideration for me. They are very modern: refreshingly brief, tightly worded and elegant, and also allow for quite a bit of tactical depth. They work on several simple but deep general principles rather than a principle diluted by a bazillion exceptions. You all know who I’m talking about *cough* GW *cough*. There’s a reason SAGA is pretty popular and is starting to creep outside the ranks of traditional historical gamers, like Flames of War before it. Chris read and felt confident with the rules in a couple of days, and he hates reading and I reckon hasn’t played a wargame since about 1994.

I should probably mention then that SAGA is not a simulation. It is quite abstract and cinematic, so if you want a lot of realism you might want to look elsewhere. There’s a reason for the abstraction though: it allows the rules to be balanced, thought-provoking, and fast moving, while capturing the flavour of dark ages/early medieval warfare. I like it, very much.

Now, about army lists and factions: In SAGA these don’t work the way you might expect if you’re used to F&SF games. Instead of a bewildering array of troop types and equipment unique to various factions, there are only four “classes” for everyone. Your army must have one Warlord – no more, no less – who got to where he is by basically being the meanest mofo in the area. He represents you, the player. You then have three other types of troops, in order of general ass-kickitude: hearthguard (professional fighters, your warlord’s mates); warriors (free men who can stand in a shieldwall); and levies (slaves rounded up and shoved out onto the battlefield, and often – but not always – your only dedicated missile troops).

There you have it. All troops are the same across all factions. They might have some minor variations in weaponry but that’s it. The thing that’s really great about this, at least from my perspective, is that you can’t really win the game in the list-building phase. It’s all about what you do on the table.

Anyway, the thing that differentiates the factions is the battleboard, your list equivalent, which has two things on it: a collection of “powers” unique to that faction, and spaces for each of the troop types I mentioned above. The basic book has four boards in it: Vikings, Normans, Anglo-Danes, and Welsh. Seems to me these represent the main players in England at the time, minus the Anglo-Saxons who are in the first supplement, Northern Fury. Each supplement (and the main book) comes with the boards for the factions described therein.

Starter games are recommended to be four points a side; standard games are six. For every point you spend, you can pick a certain number of models of each class. Four hearthguard, eight warriors, or twelve levies. Your Warlord is free.  And that’s list building. That’s it. No deciding if the extra ten points is worth it for your General to have an axe, or paying extra for one guy to have a banner, or anything like that. I love this.

You then decide how you want to organise your models for the looming battle into units, which must have a minimum of four and a maximum of twelve models. As you can imagine, how you compose your army is a simple but tense exercise in resource management. Do I take a terrifying gang of sixteen Viking hearthguard? Sure, they’re skull-splitting, crow-feeding, evil bastards, but what if I’m fighting the treacherous Welsh, and they have two dozen warriors on ponies with javelins, running about in small groups?

Once you’ve got your army picked, or more accurately “organised,” it’s time to go out there and gut some cowards, make the rivers run with blood etc. You’ve all probably heard of or seen the SAGA dice, the game’s main… uh… screw it I’m just going to go ahead and say “gimmick.” These are fancy dice with a variety of thematic pictures on them. Each turn you roll a number of SAGA dice based on the number and type of units in your warband. If you don’t want to fork out for fancy dice (I haven’t yet) there is a conversion chart for using D6s in the book. Since it’s based on your units, the number you get to roll fluctuates during the game.

I’ve seen people on forums complain that their SAGA dice don’t roll well, but to be honest I reckon if you want thematic immersion grab the SAGA dice, if you want laser-like accuracy get some casino dice. Simple solution, no bitching required.

Next, you assign the dice to the spaces on the battleboard to activate units or powers for that turn. Different units and powers need different combinations of symbols. Levies for example need rarer symbols to activate them than hearthguard, as they don’t take orders as well. The powers function as both the fluff and the crunch differentiating each faction, and having to choose between them each turn forces you to have an adaptive strategy to what’s going on. The dice are one of two major resources that need to be managed and balanced during the game, the other being Fatigue: push your warriors too far and they rack up Fatigue points, which need to be removed by resting.

In a standard head-to-head game, called a “Clash of Steel,” the death of one player’s Warlord signals the end of the game. If no-one’s Warlord is dead after six turns, then Victory Points are used to determine the winner. The main book also includes seven other scenarios, and advice for adapting the rules for larger games.

On that, people say it scales upwards well. It seems to be a very adaptable system. I’ve not seen, but I’ve heard in my travels of people adapting SAGA succesfully to much later time periods and to fantasy gaming too. It’s an interesting game in terms of scale actually: it’s designed from the ground up for twenty five to seventy three models in a standard game. So it’s somewhere between what I would normally consider skirmish and full scale battle. Perhaps you could say it deliberately inhabits the scale that Warmahordes has evolved into.

One last thing I feel I should mention. SAGA is written in a slightly tongue-in-cheek style, and assumes that the players have a sense of humour and are interested in playing like gentlemen/ladies as they metaphorically smash each other’s teeth out with sword hilts and shield rims. I have seen people say they don’t like this tone. I love it, and I think it fits the earthiness of the time period in question, but if it’s not your cup of tea then fair enough. You have been warned.

Right. So I’ve deliberately left this article pretty vague on actual mechanics so as not to BORE YOU TO DEATH WITH TEN THOUSAND WORDS. Even so it’s longer than I intended. So uh, cheers for reading this far. If you’d like me to elaborate on anything I’ve said, for example you’re burning to know how measuring works, or the ins-and-outs of combat, then ask me in the comments below and I’ll do my best. Seriously you can ask me anything, about anything (not just SAGA). It could be funny.

Next time I’m going to talk about basing, models, how and where you might get them, how realistic your paint job should be, and how much it will cost you – all the physical hobby stuff. After that, a battle report between my Irish and Chris’s Vikings to show you how it all comes together.

Till then, have a good one!

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