Saturday, February 20, 2016

Blood Rage and Warrior Knights reviews

Blood Rage (released in 2015, published by CoolMiniOrNot) and Warrior Knights (originally released in 1985 by Games Workshop and then cleaned-up and re-released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2006) are two games that at a glance seem very similar. Both have elements of area control, some type of worker placement, collecting and playing cards, and miniatures. They are also both about war. Or are they...?

Warrior Knights is considered by many to be a classic Ameritrash game. That is to say it focuses on direct conflict between players, has a ton of colourful components, and has a strong theme. You hire armies, conquer and fortify cities, send your nobles on crusades and sponsor expeditions to distant and exotic lands. The game is played until either one player controls half of unrazed cities on the board or all the influence tokens have been claimed. Gathering influence also strongly depends on controlling as much cities as possible as each city - at the end of the round - provides some influence tokens to the controlling player. Meanwhile players also jokey for positions such as Head of the Church and Chairman of the Council to get additional powers. The game features a rather unusual way of resolving player actions and triggering different major events. Each player has a deck of cards and every card represents a different action (or actions) that a player can take on his turn. In the beginning of each round, each player selects six cards that will go into three stacks (so two cards into each stack), as well as two secret neutral cards that will go into each stack as well. Then each stack is shuffled and resolved one card at a time (so the first stack must be resolved first, then the second and then the third). It creates an interesting dynamic whereby each player knows which of his actions will happen, but it not completely sure WHEN the actions will happen or in which specific order. Now, these cards are further divided into three categories: Taxation, Assembly and Levying (I may be wrong about the name of that last one). When enough cards have been played in either of those three categories, a special phase occurs (Taxation, Assembly or Levying - duh!). This might be good for some players (yay! I finally get some money!) or bad for some players (crap! I have to pay my troops and I don't have enough money!), so that's a pretty interesting, but at times very frustrating mechanic. Meanwhile there are also interesting things happening like voting for different laws, jockeying for offices that upgrade your nobles, sponsoring expeditions that might bring a big financial reward (or fail utterly and waste your investments), or sending your armies across the sea on crusades.

What Warrior Knights does well are its often unique mechanics. I haven't seen some of its mechanics, like turn order resolution and special phase triggering, in  any other game. The Council phase where players can vote on different laws, offices, private motions and so on is also very interesting and has clearly influenced other FFG games like the Game of Thrones board game. The other thing that Warrior Knights does very well is that for such a sprawling board game there is very little downtime for the players. The turns can be resolved quite quickly and you're always paying attention because either your card gets drawn, your opponent's card might trigger a special phase in which you can participate, or a neutral card that affects everyone is drawn. So unlike some other 'heavy' board games, Warrior Knights actually resolves player turns quite quickly.
My not-so-winning strategy focused on expanding overseas on various crusades.

However, there are some rather significant problems with WK that prevent me from recommending this classic wholeheartedly. For one the manual is (as is typical with FFG) atrocious and there are many rules that you'll have to look up an FAQ or errata for on FFG's website. Some rules flat out contradict each other, many terms are used interchangeably or are not defined at all and many examples of play in the manual contradict the rules. Another HUGE problem in my opinion is that it's very hard to actually plan in Warrior Knights. Put the wrong card in the wrong stack and you're going to waste that turn and not even get that card back for a while so you can play it again. Get your card drawn at the wrong time and you might not reap the benefits of your action. Maybe you were hoping to get some money so you could hire more troops or pay the troops you already have, but another player snagged the troops you wanted to hire, or even worse the Wages phase had been triggers and now you have to pay your troops but you haven't gotten your tax money yet and now your entire ROUND is ruined! The other problem is that it is so easy for one player to snowball the game, especially if the player in the lead also grabs the title Chairman of the Committee. In these type of games, such as Risk, Forbidden Stars, Game of Thrones or even Munchkin (especially Munchkin!), usually if one player is doing very well the rest of the players will gang up on him/her, but in WK it is more difficult to do due to how the map is laid out and the fact that you can only field up to 4 armies and the defenders usually have an advantage. Furthermore, a role of the Head of the Church is actually actively penalized because the Head of the Church has to constantly spend actions to gain Faith tokens to spend on either avoiding negative events or gaining positive events and that limits the scope of the game for that player (until another player decides to snag that title - which apparently doesn't happen all that often). Finally, we played a 4 player game and the game finished just as the almost all the cities got claimed. It was a very anti-climatic conclusion and our game actually featured very little combat between players. I freely admit that I finally triggered an actual war with another player more out of boredom than out of some winning strategy. So there you have it, Warrior Knights is a war game that has a lot of fascinating political intrigue but not a heck of a lot of actual fighting, combined with frequently confusing rules.

One would think that Blood Rage, by contrast, would be even more furious and, well, bloody than Warrior Knights. But you'd be wrong! A-ha! Gotcha! Indeed, Blood Rage - one of the best-selling and critically-acclaimed games of 2015 - has a very strong theme of combat and Norse mythology, but underneath its raging exterior is actually a very calculating excellent Eurogame. You see, while you may be fooled by the absolutely gorgeous and hugely varied miniatures (it is published by Cool Mini Or Not after all), at its heart Blood Rage is a game of area control, worker placement and card drafting. It has gorgeous art and minis (seriously, the minis are amazingly awesome, each clan has three unique miniature sculpts as well as a ship, then there are five neutral heroes and four gigantic monsters), but these are just trappings for a game that combines some of the best game mechanics of the last few years.

The game is divided into three Ages (basically rounds), and each round proceeds in the same way. Players take actions such as paying and placing their minis on the board, playing Quest cards (secret objectives akin to Ticket to Ride), moving their minis around the board, pillaging (more on that in a bit) or playing different upgrade cards to differentiate their clan from other players. Then the players discard any remaining unplayed cards (except one that they can keep for the next age), then they score points for their secret Quests and then Ragnarok wipes out one of the random provinces on the board along with any minis that are in that province. However, that last one is actually a good thing as any troops that are wiped out in Ragnarok actually score points for their owners, they go to Valhalla and then you get them back in your pool. There are really two main mechanics in Blood Rage. One is placing your warriors in different provinces on the board and then pillaging the province. Now, when you declare pillaging, other players who have troops in adjacent provinces can come and join your pillaging with their troops provided there is space in the province-to-be-pillaged. This allows for some devious play where you bait the other players to move their troops into a province you really have no interest in so that you can pillage a province that they are no longer adjacent to. It also creates for some hilarious situations as a pillage announcement (inevitably done in a loud and booming voice) sucks in everything like some kind of rage-powered tornado. In a pillage, the players each select a battle card face-down and then reveal them simultaneously and resolve the effects. However, to prevent snowballing, the winner discards the card he played, while the losers get to keep theirs! Brilliant! Furthermore, the winner's minis are now in that province while the losers' troops go to Valhalla and there are many secret objectives for being the one to send warriors to Valhalla, or having the most warriors to Valhalla, and there are clan upgrades that give you points if your troops (or any troops) go to Valhalla during a pillage. So deciding where and when to pillage, and deciding if you'll actually gain more by losing the battle is very important.
We are uhhhh pillaging something, Probably.

The other mechanic of note is drafting cards. Each player gets 8 cards at the beginning of each age, picks two, then passes cards to the next player, receives cards, selects 1 card and so on until each player has 8 cards. Then he discards 2 cards face down. That way each player has a rough idea of what cards will be played during the Age, what secret Quests and battle cards might be floating around the table. Ideally each player will try to draft a good mix of upgrades, quests and battle cards, and it's a good idea to base your strategy around a particular god. You see, most cards are themes around different gods and each god provides a clear strategy to pursue. Tyr is all about big numbers in battle, Odin is all about leveling the playing field by indiscriminately wiping all most of the warriors participating in a battle, Thor is all about winning the battle, Heimdall's cards are centered on sneaky 'play out of your turn' situations, while Loki is all about losing battles on purpose. Each Age has a different deck to be drafted so that players' abilities in battle, upgrades and quest rewards become progressively more powerful with each Age.
Blood for the Blood God! Victory points for the victory throne!

There is much to recommend about Blood Rage. It's gorgeous, has interesting mechanics. It is actually quite fast-paced and there is very little downtime. The pillaging mechanic and card draft mechanic are very fun. Moreover, there is a ton of replayability because the provinces that start the game razed or the provinces that will be destroyed in each Age are randomized, and the rewards for pillaging are likewise randomized. There are already quite a few small expansions for the game that I can't wait to get. If I had any negative things to say about the game it would have to be two complaints. The first complaint is that a new player is at a disadvantage because he wouldn't have a good idea of what cards become available in each age and his drafted deck wouldn't be as powerful. Fortunately after just one playthrough the players grasp deck drafting mechanic very easily and form an idea of what cards are available. The second complaint is the big disconnect between theme and mechanics. The game has a very strong theme, but it's still a Eurogame at heart. Some people who are drawn in by the theme might be put off by the type of game it actually is. Personally however I have now played Blood Rage more than half a dozen times and I can't wait to play more!

P.S. I tried to make a semi-drunken unboxing video of Blood Rage. I hope to put it up soon! I apologize in advance!