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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

SAGA Gameplay/Rules Review

Recently, I've received a request to follow up on my SAGA rulebook review, with a quick gameplay review.  At the time of writing this, I've got about 15 games under my belt.  I'm far from an expert at the game, in fact, I'm pretty bad at the game overall, with only 2 wins.  As I mentioned, I'm far from an expert, but I do have a grasp of the general basics of saga, enough to point out the various interesting aspects of the game and enough to teach a new player how to play.  That said, I'm going to call things like they are in regards to gameplay, if I like something I'll say so, if I don't like something, well I say so as well!  Needless to say, A lot of this will just be my OPINION on the game.  It should also be said, that I'm just going to go over the bare minimum, basics of gameplay.  By no means will be able to just read this and start playing, but I do hope it will at least spark your interest for the game, and overall just be informative.  Let's get started...

In the simplest description, SAGA is a skirmish, historical miniatures game.  It is an easy entry point for those looking branch out into a historical game, as it is often considered "historical-lite", is easy to pick up, and easily accessible.  I've heard new players in our group mention that it is a skirmish game with a large army feeling to it, meaning you feel like you're commanding a large army, when in fact, it's only a handful of units.  There are tons of model options to choose from, and you're not limited to just using the Gripping Beast models, though I highly recommend their plastics range.  An example is my Teutonic Knights that I use as Milites Christi, all from Fireforge, and yet it would be perfectly acceptable to use in a tournament setting.  Their rules are also pretty loose in regards to bases, and pretty much anything is game:  squares, circles, round-lip bases, Cavalry bases, it all fine... Within reason.  Obviously you won't place an entire army on nothing but 60mm bases, but all your basic old GW round/square bases are fine.
Sample 6 pt army, producing 6 saga dice a turn. (Fireforge models)

Another thing that makes this game so accessible, is how standardized all the stats are throughout the game, from army construction, to the general model stats, to the ease of weapon/gear options.  I'll begin with army construction.  Games are typically 4 or 6 pts worth.  Your Warlord comes for free, and for 1 point you get either: 12x Levies, 8x Warriors, or 4x Hearthguard.  An example of a simple 4 pt army could be 24x Warriors (3 units of 8) and 4x Hearthguard, plus your free warlord.  The minimum unit size is 4, the max is 12.  So, in the above example with 24x Warriors, you are free to decide how to divide them up:  2 units with 12x each, 3x units of 8, or even 2 units of 10x and 1 of 4x.  The choice is really up to you, a lot of which comes down to a couple of factors: your battleboard's abilities (more on this later), your Saga dice generation (more later), and the desired hitting power/attrition of the unit.  Some armies may restrict your units, which is the start of where individual armies add in some army-specific flavor.  An example being my Milites Christi army, which cannot take Levies...
Downloaded free via the Studio Tomahawk website...

Stats wise, everything is standardized:  Levies are wounded on 3+, Warriors 4+, and Hearthguard/Warlord on 5+.  (Warlords are SHOT on a 6+, to help reduce the likelihood of him getting sniped).  There are a few adjustments made for gear, but these are few, and easy to remember.  An example being that riders on horseback are easier to hit in the shooting phase, likewise certain heavy, two handed weapons may cause a model to be hit easier in combat. (The trade off being that they likewise hit harder as well.)

As far as gear goes, much like as in which units an army can take, each armylist dictates what gear it can take, and what it can use.  There is no difference between hand weapons, swords, or spears, so the modeler can use whichever they like best or they feel is appropriate to their army.  Your list will dictate which units can carry a bow/crossbow, and how many of them you can take.  The unit list will also dictate whether a unit can be mounted in a horse, or on foot.  I'll go back to the above example of the 24x Warriors we purchased for our example army.  Your list will dictate if they can be mounted or not, and just like how you are free mix and match each units composition, so too are you free to mix/match mounted and foot units.  Of the 24x Warriors, you could do all mounted or all on foot, 12x mounted/12x on foot, or 20x on foot and 4x mounted.  As before, you further decide those choices up into individual units, again, just stay with the 4x-12x min/max unit size.  The only thing you cannot do is mix foot soldiers with mounted one WITHIN a single unit.  The same goes with ranged weapons, you can bring as many as your list will allow, the only thing you cannot do is mix ranged weapons and non-ranged weapons into a single unit.  Just as with ranged options, your list will dictate if it can use any other special weapons, a common one used by several armies are javelins, which allow users to make a ranged attack as part of a movement activation after moving.  Just as with all the other gear options, your list will dictate who can take them, how many etc, and just as before, you cannot mix weapons within a single unit.  So, let's go back to the simple 4 pt list I mentioned earlier, consisting of: Warlord, 4x Hearthguard, and 24x Warriors.  Let's say I then decide to have the Warlord and Hearthguard both be mounted.  For the Warriors, I'll be bring 12x on foot armed with javelins, and I'll mount the final 12x Warriors on horses.  As always, I'll be free divide up the Warriors however I see fit prior to battle as long as I stick to the 4-12 model requirement.

Next up, are the two biggest mechanics within the game that differentiate it from all the others out there, the Battleboards and Saga dice.  Really, I consider these to be a "game within the game", and will be where the majority of each army's flavor comes from.  I'll begin with the saga dice themselves.

Saga dice are generated by your units, of which a max of 6 can rolled at the start of each turn, and they will determine which of your units can activate during your turn, and which abilities you can use based on how you roll and your individual Battleboard.  Your Warlord generates 2 dice, your Hearthguard units and Warriors generate 1 dice each, and your levy units generate no saga dice.  Each round, you'll determine how many dice you get, based on your units currently on the board.  This is where how you divide up your units becomes key, a handful of large 12-man units may hit hard, but you may lack sufficient saga dice to activate your armies and use abilities to their fullest.  Likewise, while a ton of 4-man units will generate a ton of saga dice, you can ever only roll 6 at a time, and your army may lack hitting power.  Likewise, levies don't generate any dice at all, so a levy heavy (hehe, that rhymes) force may struggle generating saga dice unless a player gets creative with their other unit choices.  I think you can start to see where army composition and balance is key.

Each turn, you'll take your available saga dice (again, dictated by the units left standing on the table) and roll those dice to determine what you can do the turn.  Saga dice use special symboled dice, but you can easily use the standard d6.  Personally, the special saga dice are cool, cheap, and does make gameplay a little bit easier, so I highly recommend picking up whichever set matches your army choice.  After rolling your saga dice, you'll place them on your Battleboard, and once again, this is where a majority of your army's special flavor comes from.  Dice are rolled, and physically placed on each box upon the board, and discarded as each ability gets used.  All boards will have a few things in common, some abilities that can be used multiple times in a round and some that are only useable once per turn.  The ones that can be used multiple times basically say: activate your warlord/Hearthguard, or activate a unit of Warriors, or levies.  Most boards also have an ability which allows them to roll additional saga past the initial 6 dice limit.  A majority of the game-changing special abilities are of the "once per turn" variety, and the boards are pretty clear on which is which.  Also it is the unique nature of each board's "once per turn" abilities that differentiate the armies and how they perform on the tabletop.  It is worth noting that the rulebook contain the Battleboards themselves, necessary for play.  There are two rulebooks:  the main saga book focusing on the dark ages, and the crescent & Cross rulebook (which I have) that focuses on the crusades.  There are also a number of supplements each contains a handful of rules and specific boards within them.  Either rulebooks is fine,  just note that main saga book, will lack some of the special rules introduced in the supplements, while the C&C rulebook DOES have all the rule additions within, as it is a more recent printing.  I'd suggest picking up the C&C book as the primarily rulebook so you have all the rules in one spot, unless you plan on playing a specific dark age force whose board only comes in the main saga rulebook.  So, let's go back to the above 4pt army list I mentioned and determine the saga dice we'll generate.  If I go with the Warlord, unit of Hearthguard, 12x Warriors on foot and 12x Mounted Warriors, I'd generate 5 saga dice each turn.  2 + 1 + 1 +1, remembering that the warlord generate turn per turn.  If I split up the mounted Warriors into two units of 6x each, I'd generate 6 saga dice a turn, the Mac I can ever roll at once.  My list would then look like: Warlord, 4x Hearthguard, 12x Javelin Warriors on foot, 6x mounted Warriors, and another unit 6x mounted Warriors.  Still, all pretty easy stuff.

So, now that we have a sense of some of the stats, we know how to construct a basic 4pt army, we've picked out armies, we have our boards, and are ready to go.... Now, let's start looking at the actual rules and gameplay of Saga.  In general, compared with a lot of other games, Saga is relatively simple and streamlined, though there can be a few hang ups in the rules as I continue to encounter every now and then.  Let's start with table, board set up, and terrain. 

A typical "Friday Night Saga Fight".  4x3 Board, 4 terrain pieces.
The typical board is 4x3, so pretty small compared to a lot of other games.  There are also a number of scenarios in each of the rulebooks.  That said, I've yet to actually play a single scenario outside of the first one which more or less a standard fight.  Personally, I'd love to try out all the scenarios, as I feel that games can get really dull if all you ever play is the same straight up fight.  If all you play are the straight up fights, you could end up ignoring several facets of the game, as you get comfortable just building a "fighting list" without taking into account how it will perform in a capture and hold style situation.  My group says that some of the scenarios are just not fun for certain armies, but I'd contend that a straight up fight is not fun for every army either, and some variety would be nice.  A prefect example is mass shooting (which is played a lot in my group) vs an all mounted force like I play.  I tend to get shot to pieces pretty heavily in a straight up fight, where things may go differently in a specific where my all mounted force could eek out a win by playing to an objective.  But, I digress.  After a scenario (or lack there of) is chosen, each player then secretly decides on the amount of terrain that they wish to bring to the table between 1-3 pieces each.  A lot of the boards my group plays on tends to be pretty sparse on terrain compared to a lot of other "terrain heavy" games.  After both players have place their terrain, each side is then allowed to contest a piece terrain, either moving it out of position up to 6 inches, or completely off the board altogether if you roll high enough.  Once that is complete, players alternate placing their armies, unless the scenario dictates differently.  For example, in the straight up fight situation we play, first one plate sets up their warlord, then the other player.  Following that, ranged units, then foot troops, and finally mounted troops.  Once placed, determine who goes first.  The first player rolls his saga dice, while the second gets to roll 3 dice, which lets to defender start out with a couple of options on their board, should their opponent be able to get into melee first turn.  Once overtone has placed their first turn saga dice, we can begin!

"Multiple use per turn" orders are on the left side.
Saga dice are placed during the "orders" phase, after which comes the "activation" phase.  In addition to their being abilities on your Battleboard used during the orders and activations phase, certain ones will also be used during shooting, melee, or as a reaction to the opponent's activations.  One of key things that takes getting used to in Saga is that you won't really ever be activating your whole army every turn, as to do so would require you to put an awful lot of resources solely into the "activate unit X" boxes, which Means you won't properly be utilizing your abilities.  When you activate a unit, you either activate them to rest (to shed fatigue.  More on this later.) to move, shoot, or engage in melee.  There are couple things to keep in mind in regards to activation that easily be forgotten during a turn: first, that you warlord can activate for free once per turn, without spending a saga dice.  They can also extend a free activation to one of your units, provided it was within 4 inches of the warlord, via the "we obey" rule.  Also, you can activate the same unit more than once, although each activation after the first, results in the unit taking a fatigue, with too many fatigue counters resulting in the unit becoming "exhausted".  I'll return to talking about fatigue in greater detail in a bit, but first, let me explain in greater detail about each of the activation options.  First up, the Rest activation.  It's pretty simple, just spend the saga dice to shed a fatigue on a unit, provided that the rest action is the FIRST action the unit had taken.  Units with an option banner black break this rule.  Next up, is movement.  In keeping with the game's standardized stats, movement is standardized as well, with all foot models moving 6 inches, and mounted models moving 12 inches.  One of the uses of fatigue is that if a unit had a fatigue marker on it when you decide to activate it for a move action, the opponent can decide to spend that unit's fatigue token to reduce its movement to 4 inches if on foot, or 6 inches for a mounted model.  (You can only 1 fatigue at a time). This can make charges and subsequent follow up charges pretty interesting.  Likewise, rough terrain will also slow down ALL movement to 4 inches, which brings me to one of the few things I dislike in saga.  If you are ever going to end up moving into rough terrain, the max you can ever move is 4 inches,  if you have a cavalry unit with a 12 inch movement, and you spend 6 inches to get to the woods, you could not enter the woods at all, as doing so means you'd first have to have reduced your movement to 4 inches, which wasn't even enough to get actually TO the woods to begin with!  I would have rather had it stated you can only ever move a max of 4 inches through the woods, allowing you to move up to the woods, then spend what remaining movement points you had left to enter the woods, providing that it did not exceed the 4 inch restriction.  The forced reduction in movement to 4 inches if you are ever going to enter rough terrain, can really create some wonky scenarios where no matter what you do, you won't be able to charge a unit in terrain depending on the distance needed to travel, and if the unit has fatigue on it which the opponent can use to reduce a unit's movement even further down to 2 inches.  Really, it comes down to the wording, that makes this possible.  But again, I've digressed.  Another thing to bear in mind, is that a unit moving must stay outside of 2 inches of an enemy unit or building unless charging, and 4 inches from enemy units if it is a unit's 2nd activation that turn.  That can make things difficult at times, especially when tryout BF to line up a charge or a subsequent follow up charge, another thing that can sometimes bite me in the butt throughout a game.

Next up comes shooting, and with it, our first taste of combat!  The typical range for shooting (depending on weapon and board abilities) is either 6 or 12 inches.  Remember early on when I said that levy units were hit on a 3+, Warriors on 4+, Hearthguard on 5+, and for shooting, your warlord on 6's.  Now, for the firing part, your levy units and Warriors get 1 shot for every 2 models firing (round up), Hearthguard get 1 shot each, and your warlord gets 2 shots.  Keep in mind, crossbows lower the target's armor by 1, if the target's mounted then it is also reduced by 1.  That said, if the SHOOTING UNIT has a fatigue token on it, the defender may spend that focus to raise their own armor up by 1.  (Again, only one can be spent each shooting activation). For each hit, the opponent can toll a defense dice to then cancel it on a 4+. (Unless certain abilities modify that, or the target unit is in terrain).  Pretty easy stuff really.

Finally, there is melee.  Melee is fought with a similar stat line of 3+/4+/5+, this time, your warlord will be hit on a 5+.  Attacks wise, levies get 1 attack for every 3 models, Warriors get 1 attack each, Hearthguard get 2 attacks each, and your warlord gets 5 attacks.  The order of operations looks roughly like this:
- Attacker declares he is charging.
- Defender can "react to the declaration", including spending a fatigue on the attacker (if he has one) to reduce their movement. (Potentially, preventing a charge based on the distance)
- If the attacker successfully engages a unit, first the attacker will generate attack dice.
- Then, the attacker can use melee abilities on his/her board by spending the dice placed there earlier.  He/she can also spend any fatigue on the opponent's units (more on this later)
- Now, the defender does the same, generating attack dice first.
- Then they can use melee abilities on their board and spend any fatigue on the attacking unit.
- Both sides roll attack dice.
- Both sides roll defense dice based on hits (plus any abilities used)
- The side that loses must withdraw 4 inches, unless it was a tie, in which the attacker withdraws.
- Each unit then takes a fatigue.

In close combat, saves are made on a 5+ to cancel out a hit.  As far as fatigue goes, you may spend 1 fatigue to lower the opponent's armor (to hit number) by one, or to raise up your armor by 1, making you harder to hit.  You can also do both in a single melee, both raise your armor and lower your opponent's, but you can NOT spend two fatigue to lower the opponent's armor by two.

There really is no "moral" in this game, however, should a unit get wiped out in a single round, all friendly units within 4 inches of the unit that was lost will take a fatigue.  This is the game's method for representing moral loss.  The lack of psychology in this game really does simplify things, and I don't really miss a ton of rules regarding leadership tests, not checks, and fleeing units.

That more or less brings us to the end of the specific rules.  Basically, each turn people will roll saga dice, plan out their moves for the turn, then start activating based on how they chose to place down their dice.  As you start to lose units, so too will your saga dice generation suffer.  Now, that said, one of my favorite things about saga is just how "swingy" it can be, nothing is ever truly decided until the final tally is done.  You may see a unit get utterly crushed 1 round, only to have that unit crushed in return, and this is a constant back and forth thing.  In some games, I've seen 1/2 and army taken off a board in round 2, or a spell devastate while swaths of troops early on, and you know you've pretty much already statistically lost.  Saga is completely different, and you'll feel "still in the game" to the very end.  In the straight up fight style games we play, one player has to win by 3 VP's or the game is considered a draw, so games can really come down to the wire.

All in all, I feel pretty positive about the game.  It has several unique mechanics not seen in any other game, although I do feel there are a few situations where movement can get bogged down and start to ruin a bit of the immersion for me.  Overall, the game is balanced, and despite being streamlined, there is tons of flavor, tactics, and strategy.  It's easily accessible, and cheap compared to a lot of other wargames out there, especially if you stick to plastics!

I hope those of you who may have been looking at saga, and/or on the fence about the game have found this helpful.  I really merely touched on the basics of Saga here, but you should have a general idea of gameplay.  My group and I consistently play Friday nights out at Tabletop Game & Hobby in Overland Park, KS.  Hit me up here, or on the Facebook group if you are in the area and would like to get in a game, we are more than happy to teach new players the basics, and have access to all the boards within our group and plenty of spare models.  Again, I hope you guys found this helpful!  Feel free to reach out to myself or any member of the saga community you see, we are all nice folks, and for once I can say I have NEVER encountered any negativity within the saga community. Give Saga a go, you won't be sorry!



  1. Great review there, I play Saga and love it, already have 4 different armies

    1. Thanks Mark, glad you liked it! Currently, I only have the Teutonic Knights, but I'm planning to focus on the Baltic Crusades, and picking up a Rus force once Fireforge releases their new Rus models. =)

  2. Replies
    1. Glad you liked it, thanks for stopping by!