It continues to amaze me how modern-era game designers can still come up with ideas for games that “feel” as though they could have been created a few centuries ago.
And the games offer mechanics which work and provide a fun gaming experience.
Which brings us to designer Jon Hather and Gothic Green Oak. Gothic Green Oak is the publisher of a number of games that truly have an old feel, akin to a mix of checkers, chess, and hnefatafl, all created by Hather.
At its heart, Vikings vs. Saxons is a pure abstract strategy game, but one with a very specific focus.
“Several hundred years before the Norman conquest, England was re-populated by the Angles and Saxons who came to the country after the Romans left in the 5th century. Their immigration was probably not entirely peaceful but, unlike the Romans before and the Normans afterwards, it was slow and not at all organized. Over many years though, the post-Roman population became one dominated by the Anglo Saxons. Then, toward the end of the 8th century, from the North, the Vikings came, initially plundering and then settling. The Vikings soon dominated the north of the country. Their threat resulted in alliances further south between different Anglo Saxon kingdoms, though heavy losses resulted in payment being made to hold off further Viking incursion. Though details are few, there were many clashes between the Saxons and the Vikings, with the Vikings remaining dominant until King Alfred’s success at Ashdown in 871,” explains the game ruleset, which is on two sides of an eight-by-11 sheet of paper, and that includes the game background.
“Our battle represents a small conflict at a bridge. The Saxons and Vikings are similarly armed, with most fighting with axes and spears. Men with swords were few; combat was close and bloody.”
From a player perspective, having a bit of the history of a game in terms of its inspiration works for me. I can understand some of the thinking that went into mechanics.
So with Vikings vs Saxons both sides have five men armed with spears, three armed with axes, and two with swords.
The aim is to capture the enemy to a point where it surrenders or is entirely defeated.
At the start of the game each side assembles their army by placing two men at a time on the board on the first two rows.
The random placement of pieces provides some tactical depth to explore, but also mimics nicely the idea of a random medieval battle. Not every soldier would march to the bridge in the same way.
As you might expect the different pieces have different movements.
Swordsmen move up to three squares orthogonally or two squares diagonally. Axe men move up to two squares orthogonally or one square diagonally. Spear bears move knight’s move.
The result here is a sort of limited chess feel.
Capture is by replacement, again like chess, and is not compulsory.
If one side can capture all their opponent’s men, they have won a Greater Victory.
If, however, one side is reduced to a single man and can surrender by getting this man to this opponent’s back row before being captured, then the winner has won a Lesser Victory only. If both sides are reduced to one man then neither side has won any sort of Victory and can decide to chase each other round the board or agree to a draw.
The standout element here, at least for me, is that the game board, made of leather which aesthetically is awesome, and the board squeezes narrower in the middle leaving the players feeling as if they are truly advancing on, and battling over a bridge.
Pieces start on sections of the board that are seven squares wide, but much of the “battle” is contested on a three-by-three bridge. That key bridge area congests quickly and every move can be deadly.
The game pieces are simple wooden ones, but in combo with the leather board, the feeling of something old is very much reinforced.
This is a game so simple to learn, easy to take with you to a friend’s, and such fun to explore it made an immediate Jon Hather fan out of me.
Thanks to fellow gamer Adam Daniels for his help in running through this game for review.