Friday, November 23, 2012

Review of The Raven's Shadow

Raven's Shadow is the latest expansion from Studio Tomahawk for the Saga wargame.

The expansion gives the Saga universe four more Factions to choose from. The Franks, Irish, Norse-Gaels and Strathclyde. The booklet weighs in at 27 pages along with four full colour card battle boards.

In addition, there is section at the start covering new rules; a 'Ragnar Answers' section at the end; along with an errata. There are no new scenarios in this booklet.

New Rules - This section adds some detail on a couple of changes....

Firstly, these new factions introduce us to Melee/Reaction abilities. These are abilities that take place before step 1 of the Melee phase (think of it as step 0 of the Melee phase). Both sides get to react to each other if they have dice on these abilities with the Attacker going first. When both have used up their Melee/Reactions or choose not to use any more, you go to step 1 of the melee as usual. Simple!
For example in the Irish Faction, there is an Ability on their battleboard called 'Sidh' which is a Melee/Reaction and allows the user a chance to prevent some of their opponents troops from generating Attack dice later in that Melee phase. Very useful.

Secondly areWar Banners. These are an option for units of either six plus Hearthguards or 10 plus Warriors. One soldier in the unit with a physical banner modelled on it may be declared the War Banner Bearer. This model does not generate Attack dice but can avoid being a casualty as long as it is not the only model in the unit. The War Banner allows any number of Rest activations in a turn for the wielders unit. Again, useful.

The Battleboards abilities boxes have also lost the text about "discard this/these dice..." as this is a given for an ability and allows for space for description in the ability boxes.

The Franks use the Norman Saga dice. Their faction rules are different in that they vary slightly according to whether you choose to run Carolingians, Capetians or Merovingian Franks. The use of Warlords, Hearthguard (Caballarii), Warriror (Miles) and Levies also change a little from warband to warband....

Carolingian Frank warbands may have cavalry for some troop types (Warlord & Hearthguard), Warriors may have bows and Levies have javelins.

Capetian Frank warbands must have the Warlord and Hearthguard mounted, one unit may have crossbows and levies have bows.

Merovingian Frank warbands may have some units mounted (Warlord / Hearthguard) with javelins, levies have bows and the option of one warrior unit upgraded to Saxons (giving poorer armour but a bonus to melee).

Frank Heroes include Charlemagne, Emperor of the West, and Roland the Brave, Comes of the Marches of Brittany. Charlemagne must lead a Carolingian warband. Roland can only be fielded as a leader of a Carolingian warband and costs two points. His death does not necessarily mean the end of the game, and causes four additional points of Hearthguard to be fielded from the player's next Activation phase (!)

The Frank battleboard has one key difference to other boards. Instead of an Activation Pool ability they have a Battle Pool. The number of dice in the Battle Pool can affect some of the other Frank abilities. The more dice (up to three) you place in this pool the more effect certain abilities can get. For example, the ability to affect X number of units for Activation or to be able to discard X Fatigue points or gain X defence dice in melee or ignore X hits.

Many of the Frank abilities deal with the Orders phase and Activation and the Reaction to your enemy. This seems to appeal to a player who likes to see what the enemy is doing and be able to react appropriately. This seems to be an opposite to a 'get in and fight battleboard' like the Vikings.

The Irish use the Scots dice. Their faction rules include the ability to include a unit of Wolfhounds and their handler which which really appeals to me as someone who likes to see different types of models being painted and used.

The Irish warband can include cavalry and Dane axes for some units. Hearthguards (Fianna) suffer from the lack of chainmail and have a lower armour value than normal. Warriors (Bonnachts) fight on foot with javelins and lower armour. One warrior unit can be classed as Wolfhounds (pack and master).  Wolfhounds have a long move in open and uneven ground. Levies (Kerns) can have slings or javelins.

The real flavour here comes from the ability to upgrade up to two Hearthguard to be 'Curaidh' (Champions). These special warriors gain more attack dice than usual, armour similar to a Warlord, javelins, and may be mounted. They gain Determination and can ignore the first hit in combat (a kind of limited Resilience rule). On the downside, they are worth two victory points as they are considered a Hearthguard unit.

Heroes include Brian Boruma mac Cennetig, High King of the Irish and Ulf the Quarrelsome, Avenging Brother. On name alone they sound highly appealing! Ulf counts as a champion and is a unit himself and may not be your Warlord.

The Irish battleboard is the 'standard' layout. There is a split of various phase activations, mainly shooting but with a slight bias to reaction abilities.. The Irish abilities can take account of uneven terrain, shoot slightly more effectively and mainly react to the enemy melee. One ability of note is 'Blade of Truth' (in your enemies melee phase this ability stops him using his own melee abilities or spending your fatigue!).

On the whole, the flavour in the Irish faction comes from having Champions. The Wolfhounds add a small bonus in speed to a unit, if fielded. One plus point to the battleboard is the relative lack of abilities that require combinations of Saga dice. One point of caution would be that in order to be effective a couple of abilities require you or your opponent to be in or near uneven terrain. If your opponent steers away from this, you are losing out a little on the effectiveness of your abilities.

The Norse-Gaels use a slightly modified battleboard. The combat pool is replaced with a Challenge Pool. Challenges are a major part of the attraction of this faction.

Troops are fielded on foot, not mounted.
The Warlord and the Hearthguards (Ostmen) and the Warriors (Bonnachts) can all use use Dane Axes, but this is optional, not mandatory.
Warriors must alternatively have javelins with a slight reduction in armour versus shooting.
Levies (Slaves) must have javelins. these troops are considered the lowest of the low to the Norse-Gaels. Thralls for the grinder so to speak.

Heroes include Brodir of Man, The One Steel Cannot Bite, Sorceror and Kingslayer and Sigurd Hlodvisson, Jarl of the Orkneys. Neither trip off the tongue. Sigurd has a Raven banner bearer, a separate unit that generates Saga dice but is doomed to die and so suffers in combat a bit. If Sigurd does not take up the banner the opponent gets extra Victory Points.
Brodir is a bit of a change as his abilities are a bit mystical. He has a kind of magic armour that grants improved abilities and also has a set of divination tokens to determine which game turn he is likely to die by suffering more damage than usual. Lovely! His 'Black Crew' ability also allows his hearthguard to gain fatigue in order to get a movement activation.

The battleboard is built around the Challenge. There are several abilities that trigger a challenge. Challenges are fought between units. Each side nominates (but does not move) a champion. A challenge can be refused but  has drawbacks to the ability that called it into being. Careful and clever use of the challenge and ability is required beforehand. You can gain an edge with the ability 'How Brave Are You?' spending a dice can add a bonus to the challenge roll. The Challenge Pool dice can be added to the ones you need to roll during a challenge, these boost your chances further. Each player then rolls attack dice for each side in the challenge plus any bonus dice for the Norse-Gaels. The loser dies. A tie adds fatigue to both units and the challenge goes on.

The abilities that work through successful challenges include adding/removing fatigue, forcibly disengaging enemy unit from combat, re-rolling combat dice in the melee, reducing enemy attack dice in the combat or causing three of the enemy models not to be able to fight in the melee if you win. You can see that some thought and a bit of finesse are probably needed to get the best out of a Norse-Gael army. Otherwise you will probably resort to the using your axes in combat.

Other notable abilities are: 'Howling Axes'. This gives extra attack die to a unit in melee. If the unit has Dane Axes this bonus is greater(!)  'Like Stones', an Order phase ability, causes all your units Fatigues to not be spent or removed for the turn. Thinking about this you can see some uses for melee!

Also of note on this list are the number of abilities that require combinations of saga dice to work. Four abilities have this drawback, unlike the other three factions who only have two such abilities each.

Finally, the Kingdom of Strathclyde are mainly a mounted force. They use a standard battleboard layout but their abilities are focused on Activation and Melee. Their speciality is in being able to keep small mounted units "off-table" and using cavalry a lot!

The Warlord must be mounted.
The Hearthguard (Teulu) must be mounted and if the unit is six or less models they may be kept off table in deployment .
Warriors may be mounted and again a small unit may be kept off table.
Levies are equipped with javelins.

Off-table units cannot only be targeted by specific abilities that say so. It takes specific abilities to enter the table. If a unit is still off-table at the end of the game it counts for Victory Points.

Heroes include Artgal, King of Alt Clut and Owen I, King of Strathclyde. Artgal can call in off-table reserves at the cost of fatigue. He also has faster horses in movement for himself and his Hearthguard. Owen can lead a force that MUST be on foot and with NO levies. His close infantry formations increase his troops armour versus shooting. In the case of using Owen, he CAN use all the battleboard abilities including the 'mounted only' ones, but he may NOT leave units off-table.

The battleboard is clearly built around cavalry units with six abilities for them specifically. The 'Flanking Manoeuvre' brings in off-table reserves. 'The Doomriders' give you a combat bonus for being near the edge of the table with off-table reserves.

Other abilities include being able to lose all fatigue gained by a unit at the end of a melee and if forced to disengage moves 'L' and another ability being able to gain you Attack dice at the cost of Armour in a melee.

This battleboard seems to appeal to the player who likes a mobile force with a reserve element. It is very much for the cavalry general I think. Watch where your opponent goes on the table and use your abilities to weaken and surprise him. The fact that you can use the Hero Owen to give a foot based faction seems to lose some of these key abilities but at the gain of some protection versus shooting.

Ragnar Answers: This section deals with common questions that come about from player feedback. It seeks to clarify each of the phases for players. It then covers each of the previous factions, the scenarios (e.g. baggage generating Saga dice in the Escort scenario) and then goes into an errata.

There is a note on an optional scenario start where you agree to let the non-first player(s) get (and roll) three Saga dice to start with on any ability they can make use of them. This evens up the first player advantage of no opponent reactions.

One interesting area is the ruling on base sizes. That being 2cm minimum bases for foot and 4cm for cavalry. Presumably 4cm for the length of the base! This means limiting the support from behind to two foot troops and one cavalry.


Overall I think this expansion is exciting and well presented. The colour pictures only get better, with closer images of the warbands from Gripping Beasts line of models (closer than the faction images in the main rulebook).

Each faction has its own flavour that comes from special rules rather than just rearranging the abilities a little. This should be a challenge for opponents the first time or two they face one of these lists.  I am left wondering where the next publication will go for ideas!

Another great effort from Studio Tomahawk and the artists and publishers at Gripping Beast.

About the Author: "ambler" / Mike lives in the North West of the UK. After years of RPG's and GW wargaming he now plays in a long running Amber Diceless RPG and plays Flames of War at the NWGC in Stockport. Saga is a recent addition to the games-under-the-belt collection. Check out his blog: www.not2oldtowargame.wordpress.com


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