Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bloody Vikings

There are some board games that only grow in my esteem the more I think about them. Then there are games that go the other way. Vikings on Board is an unfortunate case of the latter.

In Vikings on Board, players vie for control of a series of departing ships. Each ship begins the game as a bow and three segments, and will sail at the end of the round in which a stern is attached. The three segments each provide control pips to one of the players: 1, 2, or 3 pips for the player color. Control of the ship goes to the player with the most total pips (with ties being broken in favor of who is frontmost). That control pays off as good tiles are added to the ships throughout the game. The controller of a sailing ship gets to pick the good tile he wants to acquire, with second place getting second choice of the remainder, and so on. There are three types of goods in the game, and players can push which ones they want to be most valuable. The highest total score of goods on hand at the end of the game is the winner.

All of this is achieved through a worker placement system. There are a series of action spots available -- just one spot for each type of action. You can raise the value of a good, manipulate ship sections (within one ship, or from ship-to-ship), choose which ship will gain its stern this round, or bet points on which player you think will control a ship when it departs. Each of these actions is arrayed in an order that also determines worker placement order for the next round. More valuable actions will leave you placing late next round.

I had a lot of problems with this game... and found more the more I thought about it. My experience playing it was a sensation of uncontrollable chaos. I played a 4-player game, which gives everyone only two actions each round (of 11 available, one of which is only to pick first next round). Your opponents were out-actioning you 3-to-1, and it seemed impossible to me to engineer any situation that could help yourself that wouldn't be completely undone by everyone else. It was a game of screw your neighbor; the proudest moments of the game were when you did something that made an opponent's planned action worthless. As a 2-player game (or possibly even a 3-player game), the chaos might be manageable; with 4 players, all you could do was ensure that one player in particular would lose. You couldn't plan your own victory.

Shortly after the game, a friend compared it to Imhotep. It seemed like a fair comparison, and instantly lowered my opinion Vikings on Board another notch. Both games are playing in a space where you can't directly set up your own scoring potential at the same time you can actually cause scoring to happen. But Imhotep didn't have me feeling helpless as this game did. It feels to me like you get more opportunity to act in Imhotep, an easier visualization of how an opponents' choice could change things, and more of an opportunity to "get in on a little of everything" so as not to get shut out of anything.

Later still, I got to thinking about this game's theme, and my opinion dropped further still. I'm usually not one to care deeply about the theme of a game (sure, we're farmers/developers/whatever), but this is a case where the theme feels comically mismatched to the gameplay. The conventional image of Vikings is one of violence: pillaging and conquest. This is a game about loading ships on a dock and trying to control them when they leave port -- it's a game about colonial commerce, political intrigue, or some such. Vikings, it most certainly is not.

...except in one way, ultimately the one great element of the game. It has fantastic components, made of thick punch board pieces that assemble into hefty, fancy looking ship segments complete with dragon heads on the bow. You also get heavy duty coaster-like discs for holding your goods as you accumulate them throughout the game. The game looks great.

I'd consider trying Vikings on Board again just one-on-one. But considering how rarely I play 2-player games, that's tantamount to admitting I'll never play it again. Which would suit me fine. I give the game a D+.

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