I purchased Vikings on a whim, since I had a Barnes & Noble gift card and wanted to add one board game to the pile of books I ordered through their site: Vikings was one of the only German-style games they offered that I didn’t already own. It turned out to be a great purchase and a new favorite for us, and a rare game that plays well with two players and with more than two.
Vikings’ concept is that each player represents a tribe of Vikings sailing west to settle new islands, but rather than a game of exploration it’s a game of placement and resource management. Players must construct islands using left, middle, and right island tiles; place boats worth points or coins; and gather and place six kinds of viking meeples, each serving a different purpose in the game. Some viking types earn you points, some prevent you from losing points, and one kind (boatmen) allow you to ferry meeples from your main island to your tiles.
The game comprises six rounds, and on each rounds, eleven random tiles are placed around the game board’s wheel on spaces numbered 0 through 10, each tile paired with a viking drawn at random from the supply. Ship tiles go to the highest numbered spaces, while island tiles start at 0. The vikings are also placed in a specific order – first fisherman (used to feed your people at game end), then goldsmiths, scouts (score points for goldsmiths and fishermen in the same column), nobles (two points apiece), and warriors. Goldsmiths are worth 3 gold coins at the end of every round. Warriors allow you to score points for ships placed directly above them, and an “unprotected” ship prevents you from scoring for some tiles in its column. Unprotected ships will also cost you points or gold at game end. Warriors are important, if you didn’t catch on.
The number of the space a tile/viking pair occupies represents its cost, but the 0-cost tile is unavailable unless its viking is the only one left of its color, or the player whose turn it is to choose has no coins remaining. When a player takes the 0-cost tile, the wheel turns until the 0 is next to the lowest remaining tile/viking combination, so tiles become cheaper as each round goes on. But players can always choose to spend big to acquire a choice tile or a needed viking (e.g., a warrior to protect a five-point ship), so there’s no guarantee the tile will still be there when the wheel turns.
I generally don’t like games with a lot of random elements, but Vikings’ randomness is much more controlled: All 72 island tiles are used, and with only a few types, you rarely have to wait long or spend too much for a tile type you might need. There are 78 meeples, so only a few are left out of any single game, and again you’re rarely left up a creek. It’s variation without huge swings in luck, and you can build a coherent strategy around it once you have a sense of how the game flows.
We’ve played Vikings with two players and with three (it plays up to four) and found no significant difference in game play. Your strategy shifts slightly with three players from two to consider where you’ll make a sacrifice; the competition for warriors, boatsmen, and fishermen becomes more intense, and you’ll probably have to accept a point loss somewhere. Minimizing those and/or maximizing point gains elsewhere is key.
It’s the wheel that sets Vikings apart in my mind; it’s an elegant compromise between the egalitarian but time-consuming auction method (think Power Grid) and the straight assignment method where players can be helped or hurt by fortunate tile draws. Since the start player rotates from round to round, every player will have his or her chance to get the tile or Viking s/he needs, given the willingness to pay for it.
Typical game time was under an hour for us once we got the hang of it, and the rules are well-written. There’s a more complex variation/expansion included that we haven’t tried yet, in part because we like the simplicity of the core game so much. I’m certainly puzzled to see it ranked outside the top 100 on Boardgamegeek; it’s worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of not-too-complex strategy games as I am.
I received a review copy of a new deck-building game called Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, which seems like a cross between Dominion and the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, based on what I know of the latter game (I’ve never played it). Ascension takes the core Dominion mechanic – shuffle your deck, deal yourself five cards, acquire new cards, place them all in the discard pile, shuffle again when your deck runs out – and marries it to the fantasy elements of Magic, with one substantial twist: You can use your cards to defeat monster cards and earn “honor” points. You also earn points for certain cards in your deck, and when the game ends, the player with the most such points wins.
The mechanics do vary from Dominion’s in a few ways. The most significant is that you can only purchase cards or fight monsters currently in the center row of five cards, as opposed to Dominion, where all ten Kingdom cards in use in the game are available until their supplies run out. Ascension also adds three cards – a basic money card, a basic warrior card, and a weak monster – that you can purchase/fight when you can’t do anything with the five cards in the center, thus largely eliminating the chance of a turn where you can’t do anything at all.
The limited choice in cards to buy or monsters to fight means that the game has a much higher randomness element and less strategic planning than Dominion; it’s hard to build a cohesive deck when you’re at the mercy of the cards in the market when your turn arrives. But we also found that the game ended so quickly that there was barely time for strategic deck-building. (By that, I mean acquiring cards that work well together, so that when you draw two or more into your hand you can increase your buying or fighting power.) We tested Ascension with three players and I was the only player who managed to pull off this trick (once!) before the game ended.
Other concerns not affecting gameplay are a very badly written rulebook, spawning several threads on Boardgamegeek that address these questions, such as whether the Cultist is available throughout the game for players to defeat (it is); and some horrible artwork on cards that looks like what you might find in the social studies notebook of a teenaged boy obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve never been a huge fan of fantasy literature or a player of Magic or D&D and can see why this might appeal more to those audiences. However, my wife and I agreed that we preferred Dominion and I can’t see us reaching for Ascension over that game.