|Champions of Midgard (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
What’s your favourite way to fail to carry out a plan in a board game?
For me, I prefer it when my failure is something inherent in my inability – that the low-grade incompetence that infects every facet of my life can be blamed for the inevitable shellacking I’m about to receive. It means I can look at a flawed strategy and say ‘Yep, that was totally down to me. My inadequacy will sure be something enjoyable to brood on in the dark of some sleepless night. Games are awesome’.
Some people though prefer to put their success and failure in the hands of the Gods – with a roll of dice that adds massive error bars to the outcome of tactical planning. A good roll can compensate for bad strategy, and a bad roll can undermine good strategy. In the end the outcomes are as much about chance as they are about competence and that can be both exciting and comforting. I think of Champions of Midgard as a version of Lords of Waterdeep that’s designed for those people.
I accept that perhaps comes across as a little dismissive. It makes Champions of Midgard sound like an utterly derivative product but honestly it’s hard for me to think of it in any other way. I spent an hour before writing the introduction to this review trying to find something that didn’t resolve down to ‘This is what happens when you aggressively cross breed Lords of Waterdeep with a game of Craps’. The best I could come up with was what you see above. Honestly if I said, ‘Lords of Waterdeep except your cubes are dice and you roll them to complete quests’ you’d get be 90% of the way towards understanding if this game was for you. The other 10% is handled by the statement ‘And it’s not quite as good’.
That’s where I would end the review if you knew what Lords of Waterdeep was. If you do, you can bunk off early from the review. For everyone else – let’s talk about Champions of Midgard.
You’re going to take on the role of one of the leaders of an important Viking clan. Your job is to protect a sleepy Viking village from rampaging trolls like it just got an internet connection and a Reddit account. To accomplish this goal you assign a meagre poll of workers to an impoverished selection of locations around the land and gain the benefits associated. Going to the hafter gets you warriors laden down with spears. The blacksmith will outfit a unit with swords. The smokehouse gets you food, and you can use food to send warriors on distant quests to battle mythological monsters. Alternatively, you can send your warriors to fight the draugr that have awoken from their deathly slumber. Defeating draugr and dragons earns you glory, money and occasionally marks of favour from the gods. Defeating trolls absolves you of blame, and also permits you to pass some of the blame for your historical misdeeds onto your opponents. Some enemies are resilient to particular kinds of attack, and the farther away they are the more food you’ll need to pack along with your warriors to survive the risky journey. Most glory at the end wins the game.
However, there are some things that shake up the way this all works. At the start of each game two or more random locations are dealt out – approximately half of these will have military benefits and the others will be economic. They change the exact nature of how the internal infrastructure of the village will function. A ‘wealthy stranger’ injects more money into the game, and the Varyags permits you to spend gold for extra troops. The Aumingi allows you to trade food for favours of the gods, and these can be used for rerolls. The order in which the merchant ships will disgorge goods too changes every game, as does the availability of destiny cards (essentially secret scoring conditions) and the magical one-use runes that can empower your clan to great acts of accomplishment against even the most discouraging odds.
But do you notice how I said ‘rerolls’ there? This is the thing that really sets the nature of Champions of Midgard in stone. When you claim your troops you don’t take collection of reliable cubes – instead your armies are made up of hefty dice that may, or may not, roll in your favour when they’re actually called into action. You assign a pile of warriors to a troll, roll the dice, and hope that you roll enough hits and shields to break its defences and protect your warriors. If both you and your foe remain standing at the end of the round, you roll again and keep rolling until one side has decisively won the engagement. Only the survivors return home to their families.
That’s all there is to the core of Champions of Midgard – claim troops and occasional preferential powers that might let you influence results. Dump them on a boat and send them to foreign shores to fight dragons and fire demons. Or send them off to battle the troll and protect the village, or send them off to defeat the draugr and claim their burial treasures. Send as many as you can possibly spare. Roll them. Count the dead, and then count your blessings.
There’s a little more to it here than just sending your troops after the lowest hanging fruits on the enemy vine. Enemies aside from the trolls have colours associated, and you get extra points for each set of these you collect. Hidden victory conditions will cause you to favour certain enemies over others. The scarcity or otherwise of warriors will influence which foe you think you can realistically defeat. Foreign adventure requires the use of public longboats – kind of like a Viking Uber – or longboats that you construct yourself at the cost of other opportunities. Sending Vikings off to other lands also involves resolving a ‘journey’ card which may say anything from ‘Yeah, everything was fine’ to ‘everyone is gonna have to fight a Kraken before you even get to the Lindwurm at the journey’s end’.
There’s also a nice brinksmanship that goes into dealing with the trol. It’s a source of negative point tokens that acquires additional toxicity the more that you have in front of you. However, trolls don’t contribute much to scoring in comparison to other options, so they’re often a less desirable way to spend your warrior resources. On the other hand, everyone that didn’t kill the troll gets a blame token and the person that does can distribute one of their tokens to someone else. As such, Viking society seems to have been imbued with such a strong culture of blame management that it seems impossible to imagine any of them ever working together for any ends. As such you and your opponents may be working at cross purposes, or complementary purposes, at different points in the game and it’s hard to predict which way it’s going to go ahead of time.
All of this works well enough – there’s a proper sense of anticipation when your warriors are called upon to do battle and the nature of the troop limits everyone has to deal with have profound implications for the randomness. The interesting thing about dice is that they become less random the more of them you have to roll. A single dice has a flat distribution – every number is equally likely, assuming balanced dice. Two dice exhibit a rough bell curve and the more dice you add the more precisely that bell curve will be obeyed. You never roll so many dice here that the results are predictable, and so it’s possible to send a veritable army and have it entirely wiped out… or send a couple of plucky warriors to an inevitable defeat and find they somehow manage to come through victorious. It spices things up – there’s no dull accounting of resources to obligation. Instead victory and defeat feels somewhat more… visceral. It feels more human that merely converting cubes into victory points and I can understand why champions of Champion of Midgard will say this is what elevates it over Lords of Waterdeep and other more algorithmic worker placement games.
The thing is, it just doesn’t really do all that much for me because the trade-offs for that excitement are considerable and the payoff isn’t actually sufficiently electric to justify it.
Let’s talk about the trade-off first.
The ships require food to feed each of your warriors but the arithmetic of that is dully predictable. You can’t load up a ship with as much of both you have available – the capacity is fixed and thus so too are the ratios of food to dice. Visiting the seer even permits you to resolve ambiguity regarding the nature of the voyage you’ll have on the way to a particular monster. You fit the most warriors you can safely feed onto the boat that will hold enough to fight the monster you can most likely defeat. In larger player games it’s unlikely that you’ll be in a position of having to fight on multiple fronts at a time. Play largely becomes ‘collect all the warriors I can’ and ‘throw as many as I can at an opponent’.
In lower player count games, you’ll usually have enough warriors to relatively safely fight two (and sometimes more) battles at a time and that at least adds in a new factor – working out how many dice to allocate to each fight. But even there you can be driven by percentages and the relative strength of enemies. ‘This troll has an attack of two and a defence of two, so I probably need five dice’. ‘This draugr has an attack of one and a defence of one so I probably need three dice’. There’s your eight dice allocated and it was done with all the cool dispassion of a insurance claims adjuster.
Here’s the main issue: those dice are unpredictable, but each die you allocate to a battle is a way to reduce that unpredictability in your favour. Every die is a new chance to roll hits and shields, so there is never a reason to not add dice to a battle if it’s possible. Even if it leads to a massive overkill, every shield you roll prevents a death. Add in the favour tokens that permit selective rerolls and a large army will steamroller any opposition with absolutely no real risk of significant losses. It’s the equivalent of being the Persians meeting the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and finding that the Spartans lent their spears and shields to their neighbours for an evening. The reliability of retaining troops is considerable – if you roll three dice in a battle and save all your troops, it’s the equivalent of saving yourself a full three actions in the rest of the game. Resources are hard to come by in Champions of Midgard so saving yourself the indignity of having to scrounge up warriors after every combat gives you a lot of advantage. The resources that you likely won’t acquire in bulk as a result of this strategy (wood and gold) are also the ones least important for your tactics.
The relative weakness of the monsters (which rarely need more than three hits to kill or three shields to fully absorb) exacerbates this. The risks of sending small armies to multiple foes where they can be easily wiped out isn’t actually counterbalanced by an equivalent reward for those risks. It’s always safer to send everyone you can to one big foe than some of your troops to multiple foes.
Sure, that means you might not kill as many things as possible every round but you’ll reliably be in a position to kill again, and again, and again while more reckless souls play aggressively with the odds. The only moderator here is that not every dice works with every foe, but since usually get to pick the foe that’s less of an issue than it might first appear.
‘Sure’, I hear you say, ‘But if someone throws massive armies at the troll every time they’ll lose’. And that’s true, but the blame mechanisms here also undermine the risk of that. The penalties of never fighting the troll aren’t all that severe, and if you fight the troll every few rounds they become largely insignificant. If you have six or more blame tokens you lose 21 points, and that’s a lot. But it’s not as much as, say, two monsters on the distant shore and they come with favour tokens that are also worth points at the end. If you take a few turns at killing the troll you’ll have even less to worry about. The rewards for killing monsters, both in terms of direct glory points and the sets bonuses they offer, feel much more substantive.
For all the uncertainty the dice add to the outcome, they sacrifice an awful lot of tactical, strategic and logistical complexity. I’m not saying that ‘vast armies, sent as monolithic slaughtering machines’ is an optimal or even dominant strategy. It will, on occasion, fail. It’s just the only one that’s sensible. When you are betting on dice rolls, always bet on the most favourable possible scenario. To get the thrill of the dice you need to play in a way the game never really encourages. Even the scant engineering it does to disincentivise this approach (prohibited warrior types on monsters and the food costs of journeys) are lackluster. Just take the dice you can’t assign to a monster and send them hunting for food for the next journey.
And that leads into the second and more substantive problem – those dice aren’t all that exciting. The rewards rarely feel like anything worth celebrating and the losses rarely feel worth mourning. If I send eight dice and lose them all, that would be devastating – but you get so many favour tokens from fighting monsters that you can usually discount the chances of that completely. What you get in return is ‘points’ and points are rarely very exciting. Nothing ever really feels significantly on the line. It never feels like you are rewarded for being lucky – just that you weren’t penalised for being unlucky.
Nothing in Champions of Midgard really moves me in any way. I have passably enjoyed playing it because it’s a competently executed game with occasional satisfying moments. But short of its somewhat brisker playing time, I can’t imagine a scenario in which I would choose to play it over Lords of Waterdeep or any number of other more strategic worker placement games. The randomness adds a bit of spice, but it takes away so much more than it injects into the experience. It gets rid of some of the dryness of predictability, but the flavours of unpredictability it gives in their place is dully predictable in its own way. A game like this needs to make you agonize over where your dice go and I don’t feel at all like Champions of Midgard succeeds in that design goal.