Sunday, 4 November 2018

Battle Ravens review

War rages in Viking Age Britain (the ninth to eleventh centuries AD). Two opposing armies – Anglo-Saxon and Norse shieldwalls – are about to come into contact. Arrows will fly overhead; spears will jab out from behind shields; swords and knives will hack at the legs and fleetingly-glimpsed faces of the enemy; and both sides will attempt to shove one another back. When a gap opens – a warrior has recoiled from a heavy blow or has fallen wounded – your warriors will surge through, breaking their enemy’s tightly formed line of shields, and cutting and stabbing their way to victory. Above the chaos and fear swoop ravens, waiting impatiently to feast on the war carrion.

I was really honoured recently when Dan Mersey - author of Song of Arthur and Merlin, Dux Bellorum, Lion Rampant and more - approached me to do a review of his new game, Battle Ravens. Unlike his previous games, this one is a boardgame rather than a miniatures game. Like all of his games, the rules are relatively simple but elegantly managed: the game board is divided into twelve zones (two rows of six) which represent two armies in shieldwall formation. To win, your warriors must capture three of the enemy's six areas. Who was I to say no to such an offer?

The game is published by PSC Games and will initially be made available through a Kickstarter launching 20th November 2018, at £30 (including three armies) with an estimated release date in April 2019. The full retail price will be set at £35.

The game is designed for two players, (they suggest an age range of 14+), and games are designed to last 45-60 minutes.

The rules - I was sent a link to a digital preview before I got my hands on a hard copy - are beautifully, if simply, presented. As usual, Dan shows that he is really familiar and comfortable with this period. The game is notionally set in the 'Dark Ages' - or Early Medieval period to the enlightened gamer - although the artwork puts it pretty firmly in the 11th century. The rules are splashed with characterful language which is nevertheless easily understood, and quotes from various sagas and annals appear throughout.

And thus, (surprisingly quickly), PSC Games sent me my preview copy and I set about the unboxing with delight. What I received was a pre-production copy which includes some of the upgrades that will hopefully be unlocked during the Kickstarter. All of my comments relate to this pre-production copy and not the final release.

Inside the box were a 20 page rule book, a beautifully finished mounted board, four thick card punch boards with all the units and raven tokens needed for two armies, 78 plastic clip-on stands for the units, nine dice and 20 Tactics Cards.

Here is the board opened up - with a water bottle thrown in for scale. You can see that there are twelve zones for the battle, six occupied by each player at the start of the game, and a little reserve zone for placing your reserve of bow-armed thralls. The mounted board in my pre-production copy of the game has a lovely finish to it, and the artwork is certainly atmospheric.

The dice are lovely and chunky (15mm) and have a great weight to them. I believe five come as part of the basic game, but that a Kickstarter stretch goal will boost that up to the nine that I received.

The Tactics Cards are also intended to be a Kickstarter stretch goal. Each faction has their own unique set of cards and, if using them (they are not necessary), they will really differentiate the forces under your command. There are 10 cards per faction. Each player randomly selects five of their army’s cards at the start of each game. This allows both players to choose the same army, should they wish to, taking five random cards each. The cards are professionally produced and poker-sized, with clear instructions as to whom can use them, and when.

The pre-production copy of the game I received contained two Anglo-Saxon punch boards, and two Norse punch boards which provide each army with 18 hirdmen units, 18 bondi units, four groups of thralls (one of which is superfluous) and 20 raven counters.

Three other factions will also be available, each with their own artwork and Tactics Cards - Normans, Welsh and Scots. The Scots will be included free in the core game during the Kickstarter, while the others will be available as add-on purchases.

Each unit is double sided - showing front and back - and has the faction name and unit type written at the bottom of the piece. They clip firmly into clear plastic stands allowing them to sit upright.

While the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons have unique artwork to differentiate them, both have a white background. I wonder whether it would be a little easier for players if there were different coloured strips at the bottom (where the faction and unit name is written) to further differentiate them. That would certainly make it easier to identify the two forces for beginners.

Out of the 80 units I punched out of the boards, I only had a single casualty - and that was quite minor. The bow on one of my thralls started to de-laminate. It is not a big deal as there are two spare thralls, and if there were not, it is nothing a spot of glue wouldn't fix. Perhaps something for PSC Games to be aware of though.
 
Here are all the components - including 78 units with their plastic bases attached - in the box. They certainly fill the box as it is, so I don't know how you would fit more armies unless they came in their own box, or the final box was made bigger, or you unclipped all the bases. Now, each unit is pretty robust, but I suspect clipping and unclipping the bases each game would eventually have a detrimental affect on the units, not to mention being a bit time consuming, but I guess I'll have to wait and see what decisions they end up taking.

We played two games before writing up this review. The first took just over an hour, including the setup and a quick summary of the rules to my opponent, Brett. We didn't use the Tactics Cards in the first game, so the two sides handled exactly the same way. The photo above shows the game board at the end of the first raven placement. The game looks great - it would be even better with miniatures, but the card counters give a nice mass effect.

This next shot shows the two shieldwalls after raven placement at the start of turn four - ie, after three turns of pretty brutal culling. The basic premise sees three different aspects of play: warriors (a mix of two hit point hirdmen and one hit point bondi), thralls (allowing rerolls on attacks), and ravens. While your warriors are really the capacity of your shieldwall to soak up enemy attacks, it is the ravens (placed by the player in the areas where the action is to be the most fierce in the turn) that determine how aggressively the warriors fight. 

Effectively, the game rewards good resource management (shifting your warriors around the shieldwall to strengthen weak points), and out-thinking your opposing warlord. As mentioned above, to win you need to capture three of the six enemy zones. Above, the photo shows the end of our first game. Brett, leading the Norse to slaughter, took a single zone of my shieldwall, while my Anglo-Saxons managed to punch through and capture the three zones required for victory.

Our second game was quite a bit faster - around 40 minutes. We used the Tactics Cards in the second game and found them intuitive to use and full of period flavour. The Norse cards really push the idea of brutal raiders while the Anglo-Saxon cards focus more on defence.

We both really enjoyed our games. Battle Ravens is an easy to learn rule set which feels like a shieldwall game should. There are some really challenging decisions to make and you do feel (sort of) like a warlord frantically trying to shore up your flagging shieldwall, while encouraging your warriors to great feats worthy of the sagas.

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