SAGA, Simplicity, and Salience
I’ve played many miniature games in over a decade within the hobby: Warhammer, 40k, Lord of the Rings, Warmachine, Guild Ball, Hell Dorado, Relic Knights, Anima Tactics, Muskets and Tomahawks, Judge Dredd, Wild in the Streets, Of Gods and Mortals, X-Wing, Mordheim (plus its fan-created variants), and Infinity for a short list. SAGA will likely never be my primary and only miniature war game. SAGA contains many translation, editorial, and typographical errors to the point of annoyance. Yet, in the past 5 years, SAGA has never left my cycle of games. I’ve never gone more than a few months without pulling out my Jomsviking warlord, Heri Tyrsson, and adding another verse to his poetic epic. Very rarely do I spend as much time, research, and attention to painting an army for any miniature wargame as I did with SAGA. With this medieval-themed game, Studio Tomahawk created a magnum opus that teases the dichotomies of simplicity and complexity, ease of comprehension and strategic planning, and historical accuracy and accessibility.
Firstly, please let me indulge in a bit of biography so you may understand my perspective and reasoning that SAGA rates so highly in my large repertoire of wargames. I entered the war gaming scene, as so many war gamers do, with Games Workshop’s series of games. Sometime in high school, my preferences changed to Privateer Press’s flagship Warmachine. In college my attention and preferences grew to encompass more skirmish-level wargames. I graduated with two Bachelor degrees in 2015, one in Comparative Literature and another in French Modern Language and Literature. To date, I continue my studies through graduate school. I’ve studied Medieval Literature, Scandinavian Sagas, Faroese dance-ballads, the political and social efficacy of the English and French applications of the knight throughout the Middle Ages, among other interests. I write this not brag or a failed attempted to impress the reader but rather to stress the following.
Through my studies and playing many different games, I have thought a lot about this time period (more than any other era), and SAGA provides an unequaled fun and balanced view of the “Dark Ages” without bogging itself down in the unnecessary complexity of other war games. The flavorful, (and at the time of its release) rarely-explored time period and simple gameplay mechanics makes the game easy to learn, simple to remember, yet difficult to completely master.
Heri’s hearthguard face down a Norman charge desperately trying to dislodge the Vikings from their hill.
Why you should play SAGA
This will provide the briefest of introductions to why myself, my friends, and many people I’ve met through the war gaming hobby fall in love with SAGA. All the following points will hopefully be expanded upon in further articles.
The required reading for SAGA rules number less than 50 pages. The game takes less than 3 hours to read, a half-dozen games to comprehend fully, and yet years to master. Most game mechanics are based on a simple progression or equivalence system (one hearth guard is about the equivalent two warriors or three levies, and all three tiers of warrior cost the same in army composition). Each bonus in army composition will likely also net you a penalty (ex: heavy weapons will make it easier to hit your opponent but also means it’s easier to hit the unit). Taking a few months’ break from the game won’t hinder your enjoyment; the basics will be easily remembered and the specifics will return after a 30-minute review of the rules.
The battle boards are probably the most difficult thing in the rules to understand (and it’s just assigning dice to abilities). Most people will understand in just a few games.
I’m a sucker for good looking miniatures. I’m an even bigger sucker for cheap good looking miniatures. This is especially important as I’m a graduate student with only a part-time job in Southern California. Many producers, from our own Footsore, to Deus Vult, Wargames Foundry, Warlord, V&V, and Perry make inexpensive Medieval models in plastic kits, resin individuals, white metal blisters, and everything in between. You can be up and running with a SAGA army for less than a month’s worth of gasoline or a half-dozen meals at a restaurant. If you’re like me, you may start inexpensively with a plastic kit and slowly add characterful units in resin or white metal to differentiate your units and warlord, spreading out the total price for the army over several months or more, and at the same time adding variety to the war band composition. To field the vast majority of battle boards, you can get away with two dozen generic cavalry units and just as many infantry models. How much you spend is entirely up to you, but the frugally-minded can easily obtain a full, tournament worthy 6-point tournament army for 60 USD or less.
Army Size and Time Requirements
The time for both game play and painting are minimal for most SAGA armies. Most players will field 25-40 miniatures. This game belongs to the skirmish-level of wargame which allows minimal effort when compiling and painting a war band. The maximum unit size fielded is 12 models. This means, each unit can be assembled, painted, and fielded with less effort than games where unit composition starts at 10+. Also, due to the simplicity in army composition and game play, the longer SAGA matches will rarely last more than 2 hours. This means that the competitively minded can have a full four round tournaments in a single day and those with limited time can play several games during an evening or weekend.
Jarl Heri Tyrsson leads his fellow Vikings in a Saxon raid. Unfortunately, like his namesake, Heri lost his arm in the pursuit of justice.
I hope this provides a solid introduction to why I play SAGA as both a scholar and hobbyist and why you should too. It is my hope that through my articles, I help you develop your understanding of the game so that when we meet on the battlefield, you may prove a challenge and may prove worthy to become one of Heri’s trophies. To Valhalla, friends!
Author: Gareth O’Neal
Gareth O'Neal is a Southern Californian who has for over a decade glued his fingers to little metal men. He shares his passion for table top miniature games and painting through conventions and hosting tournaments with his local club, Play it Painted. He studies Medieval Literature and History.