09 September 2017

Board Game Review: Blood Rage

I've been able to play Blood Rage twice now, and I enjoyed it both times, so the time has come for me to write a review of it. Guess what? We start with the ratings.
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 2 Hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: High
Ragnarok has come! As the gods fight and die in the ultimate battle for the world, your clan must fulfill its destiny to gain glory by dying in combat!

A group of beige figurines and one pale blue-grey figurine, all resembling the stereotypical image of Vikings, with red, yellow, or dark brown bases to differentiate player factions, in the central space of the game board. The board represents an island divided into various provinces, painted to look like generic Nordic terrain. A square token can be seen in each province with one of three symbols: a hand holding lightning bolts, an axe head, and a stereotypical Viking helmet complete with anachronistic horns. The tile in the center province contains all three of these symbols.

An Overview of Blood Rage

Each player controls a 'Viking' clan (of course, these are the stereotypical Vikings with horned helmets, comically oversized axes, and far too much fur). Over the course of the game, which takes place in three rounds called 'Ages,' they must invade and pillage an island representing the Nine Worlds. The winner will be the player whose clan is able to gain the most glory points by winning battles, completing quests, pillaging villages, or using the Gods' Gifts to their advantage.

Each player starts with eight warriors, one ship, and one leader. In the course of the game, they can recruit up to two 'monsters,' which include everything from dwarves and dark elves to frost giants. Yes, I know it sounds like a romp through the D&D Monster Manual, but these are actually creatures from Norse mythology. Especially when you add in beings like Valkyries.

At the start of your turn, you have all of your characters in your supply, and each player receives six cards (called 'Gods' Gifts') through a pick-and-pass mechanism to make up your hand. The bulk of each round is taken up with the Action phase, in which players may Invade, March, Quest, Upgrade, or Pillage. Then players discard all but one of their remaining cards before gaining Glory Points for their completed Quests. The next step is to destroy one of the provinces on the board as Ragnarok continues to ravage the world, before the final phase of the round: Release from Valhalla, in which all dead characters return to their owner's supply.

At the end of the Third Age, players calculate their final Glory Point total, and the player with the most is declared the winner.

The Play Area

Most of the game takes place in the action phase, so that's where I'll concentrate my descriptions. However, in order for that to make sense, I need to describe the board and the player mats.

The Board

The game board represents an island divided into nine provinces. Eight of these provinces are arranged in a circle around the edge of the island, with the ninth province, Yggdrasil, landlocked in the centre. The eight outer provinces are grouped into three Regions. There are also four fjords, areas of the ocean which may contain your ships, which are marked out as being adjacent to two of the coastal provinces. Each province except Yggdrasil has between three and five villages, and no province may contain more characters than it has villages (Yggdrasil, which has no villages, can contain any number of characters).

Player Mats

Each player mat has several areas:
  • A Rage track: a red bar numbered to twelve where you keep track of how many Rage points you have remaining this round.
  • Stats: three rows of round spaces indicating how much Rage, how many Axes, and how many Horns your clan has. These all start at the lowest level, and each clan is identical at the start of the game.
  • Upgrade Spaces: you may play one card to upgrade your leader, one to upgrade your ship, one to upgrade your warriors, and up to three to upgrade your entire clan (this gives you a bonus or special ability which applies to all of your characters). Additionally, there are two spaces where you can 'upgrade' a monster, but this essentially boils down to recruiting. By playing a monster upgrade card, you take the appropriate monster figure from the box, put one of your coloured bases on it, and put it into play as a member of your clan.
Player mats also have an overview of the actions available to you in each Action Phase.

The Action Phase

There are five actions available:
  1. Invade. By spending Rage points equal to the strength of one of your characters, you may place that character in one of the outer provinces of the board. Leaders are special; they may invade for free.
  2. March. By spending a single Rage point, you may take as many of your characters from a single province and move them to a single other province, so long as your destination has room to hold them all. Provinces do not need to be adjacent. Ships cannot be moved in this manner.
  3. Upgrade. You may pay the cost in Rage points listed on an upgrade card to place it in the appropriate place on your player mat. If there is already a card in that space, it is discarded. The upgrade so placed applies to all characters of the given type so long as that card remains in play.
  4. Quest. Place a quest card face down on your player mat. You may have any number of quest cards, and during the Quest phase of each age, when all players reveal and score their quest cards, all cards that have been completed are scored, even if you have duplicates. It does not cost any Rage to take this action.
  5. Pillage. You may declare that you are going to pillage a province in which you have at least one character. Other players may move into the province to engage in combat, but if you are victorious in that combat, you gain the pillage bonus of that province. Each province has a tile that indicates what that province's pillage bonus is; most of these tiles show one of the three stat symbols from your player mat: Rage, Axes, and Horns. One tile instead shows 5 Glory points, and the tile in Yggdrasil has one each of all three stats. When you successfully pillage a province, you increase your clans rating in the indicated stat (or all three, if it was Yggdrasil) by one level, moving the appropriate marker on your player mat up on the corresponding track (or, if it was the province with a Glory point bonus instead of a stat bonus, obviously you move your scoring marker up instead). In any case, the pillage tile is then turned face down to indicate that the province has already been pillaged this round, and cannot be pillaged again until next round. This action also costs no Rage points.
Players take turns taking a single action each until all players have no Rage points remaining. Note that once you reach zero on your Rage point track, you may no longer take any actions at all, not even the free actions. Once you have passed, you move your Rage point marker to zero, indicating that you can no longer take actions this round.

Players with no Rage points remaining may still join combat if another player takes a Pillage action, however. And that brings us to the final point of description of this game:


When a player declares that he intends to pillage a province, all other players are given a chance to attempt to prevent this action from being successful Here's how it works:
  1. Starting with the player to the left of the active player, each player has an opportunity to move one character at a time from an adjacent province into the province being pillaged. Once it gets around to the active player, he or she also may move a character from an adjacent province into the province being pillaged.
  2. Once all players who are able to move characters into the combat have elected not to move in any more characters, or the province being pillaged is full, every player who has at least one character in that province chooses a single card from their hand to play as their combat card. Note that, because Yggdrasil has no limit on the number of characters it can hold, battles here can become ludicrously oversized. The photo above, in fact, shows one such battle in Yggdrasil from a game that we played.
  3. Each player reveals the card from their hand simultaneously. Usually, this will be a battle card, which increases the Strength rating of your clan in the current combat. Combat cards tend to be a single number, such as +2, but they may also have text which describes a special effect that the card has. For example, the 'Odin's Tide' card requires all players involved in the combat to destroy all but one of the characters from their clan involved in the current battle. If you don't have a combat card (or don't wish to use one of the ones you have), you can play any card from your hand. It counts as value zero. If you have no cards, then you simply don't play a card.
  4. Each player adds the strength of all characters from their clan in the combat, plus the value of the combat card they played (if any).
  5. The clan with the highest total is the winner. All characters from all other clans are killed. The winner gains Glory points equal to his clan's current Axes rating. If the winner was the person who took the Pillage action, he or she also gets the pillage bonus from the province (if any). In the event of a tie, nobody is declared the winner, and all characters are killed.
  6. All killed characters are moved to Valhalla (a special mat beside the board where dead characters are kept until the end of the round, when they return to their owner's supply). The winner (if there is one) discards the card used in the combat; players who were not the winner of a combat get to keep their cards.
Battles can sometimes be huge and bloody, especially in Yggdrasil, where there is a sizeable pillage bonus and no limit on the number of characters that can occupy the province. But sometimes, they can be tiny as well. I've seen plenty of battles between two one-point warriors.

Final Thoughts on Blood Rage

For my taste, I'm a little disappointed that this game plays into the stereotypical view of Vikings as savage barbarians with horns on their helmets, bare chests, and fur on their shoulders. Having lived for several years in a city that was once a stronghold of Viking civilization, a city that is proud of its heritage, and is familiar with the more subtle and nuanced reality of Vikings not only as pillagers, but also as skilled traders, explorers, and craftsmen, I have a tendency to balk at non-historical depictions of the Norsemen.

That said, I must admit that the game is very well designed, aesthetically speaking. The miniatures are well crafted, the artwork is lavish and tonally appropriate, and all the pieces have a satisfying tactile component. The pieces are nice to hold, nice to look at, nice to feel and manipulate. My one complaint is that all the miniatures are plain beige or blue-grey, but given the number of them, it would likely be prohibitively expensive if they were pre-painted. Not surprisingly, many people have posted photos on Board Game Geek of their own custom-painted miniatures, which they have lovingly painted themselves.

As for the game itself? Well, in looking at the entry I wrote recently on what makes a game good, I'd say it definitely fulfills at least five of the six requirements I listed. There is no player elimination, it's fun to lose, it has plenty of player agency, it ends decisively, and it allows for upsets. The last one, 'Relatively simple,' is arguable. I feel that once you've played it once, it all makes sense, and it's very easy to remember the rules in future games. However, for your first game, some of the subtle complexities may take some getting used to. So you can argue this point either way.

Still, I enjoyed the game quite a lot. It turned out to have a lot more depth than I was expecting. In my experience, many games of this type usually emphasise direct conflict; especially with a name like Blood Rage, I was expecting victory to be entirely (or almost entirely) dependent on dominance through combat. However, early on in my first game, I discovered that there are many cards which allow you to gain Glory points by being defeated in combat. For the rest of the game, I greedily hoarded all such cards and intentionally initiated combats (or joined existing ones) that I had no intention of winning. I was firmly in the lead until the very end of the game, and the only reason I didn't win is because John recognised my strategy and took a card that I needed, preventing me from gaining Glory points from the death of my characters. Had he let me acquire that card, I would have won the game through the shrewd tactic of getting my ass kicked.

Any game in which losing combat is a viable path to victory is a worthwhile game, in my opinion.

In my second game, I decided to be more aggressive, trying to win through strength and dominance in combat. I didn't win, but I did much better than I normally do with that strategy. I tend to fail miserably when I attempt to use a fighty approach. Which, in my opinion, is a testament to the accessibility and flexibility of this game. 

But, as I always say, that's just my opinion. By all means, examine my ratings above, read my description, and decide for yourself if this is your sort of game. In the meantime, have fun playing games, and whatever you do, never forget to

Game on!

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