Sunday, November 11, 2007

Board Game Review: Fire & Axe




Being a Viking had to be the worst job ever. Sure, there were perks, like running off with all the women and pillaging at random, but the commute was hell. You think you have it bad getting stuck in traffic? Try doing it in a boat with no roof on it, rowing to your next raid, while freezing rain soaks through your clothes and your beard crusts over with salt from all the waves crashing on your face. And then when you get to work, instead of boring memos and bad coffee, you've got angry villagers throwing all manner of sharp things at you to get you to leave.

On the other hand, Viking stuff makes great stories. And in Fire & Axe from Asmodee US, it also makes a really cool game.

Fire & Axe is a beautiful game. The board is all illustrated - none of the computer generated slop you see on some game boards these days, with its complete lack of soul. It's a map of Europe, but with some parts slightly exaggerated. For instance, the physical distance between England and North America is less than the distance between Rome and Paris. But you can still tell where everything belongs, and since there are names at all the ports, you can also figure out where they put the coast of Spain.

The pieces in the box are fantastic. The cards are decorated with gorgeous paintings. The little plastic Vikings and their kick-ass long boat are excellent little sculpts. The money markers, the plastic cities and towns, and the round boat card are all some of the highest quality art you'll ever see in board games.

Game play is just as sweet. Each Viking leader (you know him as 'the player') gets seven days every turn, and he can spend this time loading Vikings or trade goods, sailing around Europe, or drawing up Rune cards. Once he gets to a port, the Viking leader can elect to trade, settle or raid, and each has its benefits.

(Quick aside - the astute reader will notice that I've used the male third-person pronoun instead of the more politically-correct 'he or she'. See, female Vikings didn't ride in the longboats - have you ever heard of Janice the Purple? No, because she was home having babies and dodging axes thrown by hairy psychopaths. The Vikings who were storming the castles and riding off on the women were dudes.)

Since you only have seven actions every turn, you have decisions to make. Do you get loaded for bear, but then spend the turn in port, or do you run lean so you can make it all the way to Ireland this turn? Do you sit around Denmark drawing Rune cards, or do you get underway and go sack Constantinople (not Istanbul - that's nobody's business but the Turks)? In this way, the game somewhat resembles a Euro game, but no Euro game I ever played had this much killer theme.

Raiding, settling and trading all have different requirements. Trading is the easiest - just take a trade good off your boat and put it on the port, then collect your cash. Settling and raiding can be trickier, because you can lose perfectly good Vikings that way. You have to roll dice to see if you can pull it off, and if you're unlucky, you could get the deck wiped with your ass before you ever set foot in Rome. And that kind of theme means that I love this game.

The goal of all this raiding and pillaging (then, in some cases, burning, which everyone knows must come after pillaging) is to get the bards back home to sing songs about you. And you get those bards singing by completing Sagas. These cards give you goals - settle three cities in Eastern Europe, trade with some ice-hole in Russia, or burn Antioch. Complete the mission on the card, and it's yours, and the bards have to start tuning up.

The game goes until all the Saga cards have been collected, and this can take a couple hours. It might take more with more than three people, and then again it might be faster, as you have more people to do those hits on Scotland and Nova Scotia. I couldn't tell you, because I've only ever played with three. But if you don't have two hours to play a game, this is not the game you're looking for. Try Politico - you can finish that in 15 minutes.

Up to this point, Fire & Axe is a total blast. You're sailing, trading, settling and raiding. You're the baddest Viking of them all, you just sacked Rome, you've got Janice the Purple sitting in your lap and you're spilling a huge wooden mug of mead all through your braided beard hair. And then the last Saga card is gone, and the game ends, and it's time to figure out who won.

Then everything comes to a screeching halt, because scoring this game is like cold water in your lap. Like you're making out with Keidi Klum, and then she tells you she's really a dude. The entire celebration of manly misdeeds comes to a screeching halt as you call in the best accountant in the room to tally up the score for you.

See, you get points for every spot you settled. Then you get points for every town you raided. Then you get points for completing Sagas. Then you get points for still being awake, because at this point you've been doing math like a nerd at a calculator show. Then you add up any points that you've earned so far, from stuff like trading or stealing underwear from hot Roman chicks (who may or may not have been wearing underwear).

Once all the points are totaled up (this will take a while), the one with the most points wins. It's a little anticlimactic to have all this bloodletting and ocean-going end with a financial report, but it's not that big a deal. Yes, the scoring is a pain. I won't lie to you. Well, I will, but not about this. But the game is really fun, and as long as someone at the table can do math in his head (or her head, we're out of character now and there may be girls present), it's not that hard to add up points.

Fire & Axe is not the perfect game for any player. You have to love the theme of pillaging and settling and sailing. You have to be ready to play for a couple hours. If you're a huge Euro gamer with a disdain for luck in your games, you won't like this one at all. But if you can spew lines from Beowulf and 13th Warrior, or if you just always wanted to braid your beard, this game can be two hours of pure fun. And then half an hour of math.

Summary

Pros:
Great theme
Beautiful pieces
Exciting play
You get to talk like Vikings

Cons:
The game ends in lots of math
Thick-ass rule book means you'll play wrong the first time

Never mind the calculus, I love this game, and can't wait to play it again. You can get your own copy here:

http://www.thoughthammer.com/fire-axe-viking-saga-p-3309.html

2 comments:

Chris said...

OK any game where you can tie in "They Might be Giants" is worth checking out.

By the way what is the MSRP on this and where can I find it?

Matt Drake said...

There's a link to Thoughthammer's listing for the game at the bottom of the review. It usually goes for about $50, but Thoughthammer has games way cheaper than that. I would link to the publisher, but Asmodee US is sold out.