Some 20 years ago or so, in one of many expensive ‘wouldn’t that be a great wargames project’ moments, I bought and painted a heap of Gripping Beast 28mm Saxons, Roman-British, Late Romans and Welsh. This was partly because I liked the look of the armies, but mostly because I love the Arthurian Trilogy of books by Bernard Cornwell (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur). I thought I’d use Warhammer Ancient Battles, as ‘everyone’ plays Warhammer…
The trouble is that, despite there being a truly excellent Warhammer Ancient Battles supplement for the Age of Arthur, it remains a bloody awful set of wargame rules… We did a few deeply unsatisfying games and even did an Arthurian participation game at Partizan, but then the troops went into a cupboard, never to see the light of day for 20 years.
However, in recent years, there has been a buzz regarding a new set of rules called ‘Saga’ (now actually into its 2nd Edition), which sounded as though they might fit the bill. So I bit the bullet, bought the rules (and the ‘Aetius & Arthur’ supplement) and opened the crypt to release my old models.
The core of the ‘Saga’ game system is the ‘Battle Board’ (more of which later). You can’t play a game of Saga without a Battle Board for each side and for that reason you have to buy a game supplement for your chosen period – in my case the ‘Aetius & Arthur’ supplement, which is supplied with Battle Boards for Late Romans, Romano-British, Saxons, Huns, Goths and Picts.
You will need a set of ‘Saga Sticks’, which are used for measuring all shooting, movement and command & control distances in the game. These sticks are Large (12 inches), Medium (6 inches), Small (4 inches) and Very Small (2 inches). You can of course use a tape-measure, but the sticks seem to make the game flow far more quickly.
Lastly, you also need two sets of ‘Saga Dice’. These are a set of eight six-sided dice featuring national/factional symbols: One symbol appears once on each die, while a second symbol appears twice and the last symbol appears three times (I’ll refer to them as Rare, Uncommon and Common respectively). For example, the Roman/British set has a helmet as the Common symbol, a Draco banner as the Uncommon symbol and a Chi-Ro cross as the Rare symbol. The corresponding Saxon symbols are an axe, a horse and the Sutton Hoo helmet. The makers of Saga seem to have cottoned on to an excellent marketing opportunity here, as they are surprisingly expensive to buy (£12 for eight dice). However, you can make your own from blank dice or simply use ordinary dice, substituting 1, 2 & 3 for the Common symbol, 4 & 5 for the Uncommon symbol and 6 for the Rare symbol.
However, being a lazy sod with possibly more money than sense, I just bought the dice (discounted!), though I have made my own Saga Sticks!
Army lists (often the bane of Ancient wargaming and certainly so with Warhammer) could not be simpler! Very simply, each army has a Warlord (who is assumed to come with their own bodyguards and is a unit in their own right) and can spend a remarkably small number of points (6 points seems typical) on their army. 1 point buys you a unit of four Hearthguards (elite troops), eight Warriors (general rank and file) or twelve Levy (peasant rabble). The army lists for each army then tell you if the units can be mounted, armed with missile weapons or other special abilities. In most lists, an additional Hero can be fielded in lieu of a unit of troops. Units may also be combined to form larger units, though this reduces the number of Saga Dice that your army generates (see below).
Saga Dice are critical to activating units, performing actions adding bonuses to combat factors. They are generated in the following manner: The Warlord generates 1x Saga Die, as does each Hero, each unit of Hearthguards with at least 1 surviving figure, each unit of Warriors with at least 4 figures and each unit of Levies with at least 6 figures, for a maximum of eight Saga Dice. The Saga Dice are then rolled and are then placed on the army’s Battle Board to indicate available actions. The most basic actions are simply to enable a unit to move, fight and shoot, though others give bonuses to attack or defence, allow you to interrupt the enemy’s actions, etc, etc. Here is the Saxon Battle Board by way of example:
Dice of the appropriate symbol are placed on the sections of the Battle Board to unlock those units or abilities. Normally, only one die is required on each section, though sections with a ‘+’ symbol require both of the dice shown (e.g. ‘Profanation’ requires an axe OR a horse, while ‘Death is Nothing’ requires an axe AND a horse). You can of course place several dice in one section, to allow multiple activations of the same section.
Once you’ve placed the Saga Dice, you then ‘spend’ those dice to activate as many units as the dice allow until you’ve had your fill. You can opt to keep dice on the board for your next turn or in order to react to the enemy (if your Battle Board allows).
It goes without saying that it pays to have a good look at the Battle Board before you start to play!
Individual units can be activated multiple times in one turn, though will accumulate fatigue and will run out of steam after two or three activations in the same turn. The enemy can also use YOUR fatigue points to increase his combat bonuses or reduce your own, so it pays not to over-exert your troops unnecessarily.
I won’t bore you with the details of the combat system, as it’s very straightforward. The real beauty of Saga is in the innovative Saga Dice/Battle Board/activation system described above, which really does give that feel of Dark Age heroic warfare.
In the next instalment, the heroic defenders of Britannia face off against the Saesneg…