A couple of weekends ago, my friend Steve came over for a day's gaming. I've already described our Black Powder game (the Battle of Grochow, 1809), but that was only a part of the day's activities. For afters, we played a game of SAGA. I took my Scots, whilst Steve opted for a Viking warband.
Since I now have some Dark Age buildings (suitable for northern Scotland, at least), we chose the Homeland scenario. In this game, one side attacks a settlement that is defended by the other. That sounds simple enough, but there's a twist: each player bids for the "privilege" of defending.
Here's how it works: the attacker will use a full 6-point warband. Both players secretly write down the size of the smallest force which they think can hold the buildings until the end of the game (6 turns, from memory). Whoever bids lowest becomes the defender!
In the event, I decided that I would need 4 points of troops to defend, but Steve reckoned he could do it with 3 points worth. So, Steve's Vikings became the defenders, but would have half the force that the attacking Scots would use. I wasn't exactly gloating, but at this point I thought that I would be able to roll right over them and win the game easily. Oh, yeah!
OK, here's the plan:
- My thanes (4 mounted and 8 on foot) will advance up the centre and attack as soon as they're able.
- 2 groups of warriors (10 and 6 strong) will work round the flanks and provide backup in case the nobles cannot defeat the Vikings all on their own. They're marching round the flanks mainly because I don't want to cause a traffic jam in the centre, not because I'm being tactically sophisticated!
- My warlord and 12 chanting monks will stay in the centre and offer moral support. This is partly because they generate a fair number of SAGA dice and partly because if I lose my warlord in this scenario then I lose the game instantly Although I'd love to have him fighting in the front rank, I'm not sure that I dare, at least until the defenders are considerably weakened....
Facing me, the Vikings have decided to abandon one building entirely, place 4 hearthguard in each of the other two (and their warlord in the further one), whilst keeping a reserve of 8 bondi (warriors) behind the village.
So, for the first 2 turns, the Scots rode, walked and (in some cases) jogged forward. Not much else happened, except that the Vikings prepared to die honourably, with as many defensive SAGA abilities as possible. I admit that I was a bit amused by Steve's discomfort on discovering that Vikings don't really have many defensive abilities available, no matter how many SAGA dice they roll!
In turn 3, it was my turn to be frustrated. Carelessly, I put the SAGA dice that I had intended to use to activate the Thanes into the boxes on the chart which activate levies. This was not at all what I had intended, but I'm too honest a player to back out from such an error and so the result stood.
The monks really sprinted ahead, whilst all the Scots thanes stood and watched. Maybe it was the thought of climbing a wall into an enclosure filled with cattle, or perhaps it was the rather fierce-looking chickens pecking about in the centre of the settlement (my cavalry once had a very bad experience with some chickens), but the Scots nobility didn't move on turn 3.
At this point, I suddenly realised that the game was half-way over and none of my warband had even made contact with the Vikings yet. Hmm, perhaps this wasn't going to be so easy after all.
The next turn, the Scots thanes attacked the first house. Firstly the cavalry charged, then (once the defenders were fatigued) the large unit on foot assaulted the building. Now, here's the thing: the Vikings don't really have any defensive measures on their battleboard. But equally, the Scots don't have any offensive abilities. This fight was resolved pretty much without any power-ups from SAGA dice.
So, the Viking hearthguard crouched behind their shields and the thick walls of the building and sacrificed as many attack dice as they were permitted in order to boost their defence. Although the Scots then took no casualties, the Vikings were very hard to hurt; only 2 of the 4 defenders fell to this all-out assault.
To start the attack on the big house at the back, my flanking warriors moved forward. They were countered by the reserve Viking bondi who, although they lost the fight, still inflicted some casualties and fatigue on the Scots. The clock was running out, but I still hadn't managed to get near to the Viking chieftain and his retinue!
In the last 2 turns of the game, the Scots thanes pushed through the cattle and cut down the last 2 defenders of the rightmost hut. However, to win they needed to clear all the buildings and the Viking warlord and his bodyguard still held the central building.
Wave after wave of Scots attacked the last dwelling, but the Vikings just hunkered down and blocked the entrances with shields and the bodies of the fallen. One Viking huscarl fell to an unlucky spear thrust from the mounted Scots nobles, but the cavalry lost one of their own in return.
The Scots warriors at the rear were met by the Viking chieftain himself; they didn't even manage to wound him. Even the monks joined in, frantically tearing at the barricades in their haste to reach the heathen. But their faith didn't protect them and they died just the same.
And so the game ended, with the battered Vikings still holding out...
This scenario didn't play to either side's strengths, really. The Scots' battle board doesn't have much in the way of offensive options; it's more about defence and counter-attack. Equally, the Vikings don't have many defensive boosts. Having said that, my attackers couldn't really have afforded to use many SAGA dice for power-ups anyway; they were all needed just to move the troops across the board. Don't underestimate the effort this takes in a time-limited game and when the enemy doesn't plan on coming to you!
My initial belief in a walkover for the attackers was steadily sapped throughout the game as it became obvious how little progress I was making. Perhaps if I hadn't messed up my activations on turn 3 then the game would have been closer, but this seems to be clutching at straws really. I was thoroughly defeated by a stout defence and lack of time.
I'm already pondering alternate tactics that might have been employed:
- For the attackers, perhaps one or two large, fast-moving elite units could have been used as the assault force whilst multiple small units of less expensive troops cheer them on without stepping from the baseline (i.e. spectators, just to generate the necessary SAGA dice!)
- The defenders might experiment with small, throwaway units to advance and act as speed & fatigue "bumps". By delaying and tiring out the attackers, they might disorganise the attack and buy enough time for the game clock to run out.