Using his axe to support him, Wulfestan rose to his feet. His head throbbed but looking at the broken helm at his feet he was thankful it wasn't much worse.
"Sigered!" He yelled, "What fate has befallen us?"
The Priest walked between the pews, rubbing ointment into his shoulder. Things didn't look good. The pagans had ransacked the church desecrating the holy shrine and removing everything that they considered of worth. Before him lay four bodies. As Wulfestan moved to stand beside the Priest he looked down.
"Ailred?" He gasped. "The pagans will pay for this sacrilege..."
Johan looked over his shoulder. His warband carried chests and herded both animals and slaves. Ulf the berserker looked bleary eyed and although the gash in his stomach had been sealed with a burning brand, it continued to weep and almost seemed to resemble the shape of a Christian cross.
"Best not mention it" thought Johan.
Ahead loomed the forest.
"Let's move lads!"
Kalf winced and held his hand to his ribs.
"That mail will need some attention" remarked Johan.
"Indeed!" replied the trusted veteran of old. "Do we try for the forest or skirt it's edges?"
Johan looked at the smoke rising from the distant church.
"The Saxons won't be far behind. Ox! What say you?"
So we've played our first game of Blood Eagle! Rather than just play a single game we intend to play through the Saga suggested in the rulebook.
One game isn't enough to fully form an opinion of the rules but I thought I'd give an overview and share a few thoughts. In terms of the rule mechanics, Blood Eagle is based on the popular steam punk rules In Her Majesty's Name (IHMN). Anyone who's played INHM before will be right at home. Although I've not yet played IHMN, I do own the book so had a quick look to make a comparison. The rules are indeed very similar, word for word in places.
So how do you play? Each player creates a warband. These can be vanilla historical types (several examples are given in the rules), or they can include Heros (think Beowulf). Warbands can also be legendary - a Frost Giant army sounds like a lot of fun.
To begin with it is recommended that players stick to battles using forces made from 250 points (or Reputation Points if you are playing a campaign). Battles can include larger warbands, but I suspect things may start to get a bit unwieldy at point sizes above 400 or 500. Unlike the unit based SAGA and Lion Rampant, Blood Eagle is based on the actions of individual figures. Figures have various statistics that govern their melee abilities, shooting and speed. They also have a fate value that (as my Saxon Thegn discovered), can help them to survive battlefield injuries.
The game is broken down into a series of phases: movement, shooting and melee. Initiative is determined by a roll of a d10 to which is added the warband's highest Leadership value. The player that wins each turn's initiative makes the first move and play then alternates between players until all figures have moved. Shooting and melee are handled in the same way with the same initiative being followed.
There are some subtleties in this mechanism that only become apparent after the first play. Deciding which figure to move and how to arrange figures for shooting or melee will significantly affect success. Shooting and melee bonuses are provided by different weapons. Shooting is particularly interesting since it is heavily influenced by whether a figure has moved (both the shooter and target). Trying to move a Skirmisher and fire a sling at a running Viking (who ends up behind a hedge), just isn't going to work!
At first I was a little concerned by the mechanism for melee. The fighter with initiative rolls a d10 and adds the figure's fight bonus (if any) + any bonuses from the weapon. This is then compared to the target's armour. Armour values depend on whether the figure is wearing leather or mail, wearing a helm, carrying a shield etc. Figures with no armour have a base value of 7. If the fighter scores equal to or more than the armour, the target is hit. So no opposed die rolls (like in Frostgrave for example) and the target's melee ability doesn't influence whether the figure is successfully hit. But in truth, the mechanism in Blood Eagle is actually quite similar to SAGA (with the inclusion of initiative and a greater range of modifiers). Figures can fumble their attack by rolling a natural 1 (followed by another roll of a 1 to confirm the fumble). Figures can gain more bonuses by outnumbering a target and weaker figures can group together to 'mob' a more powerful (or better armoured) enemy. If a figure is hit, it must make a fate roll. Kyle thought this part of the game to be thrilling. Scoring the same as the figure's fate value on the roll of a d10 means the figure is knocked over. Scoring less means they are out of the game (but not necessarily dead). Although the fate value of leaders can be quite low (3+ for my Thegn), some weapons can alter this quite significantly. Being hit by a Dane axe is definitely nasty! After a couple of fights we found the system to work very well and found the whole process very fluid.
But! There are quite a few values to look up (both for weapons and armour). This game really needs a simple reference sheet and a roster for the warbands where values for armour and weapons can be written to make them clearly visible in the heat of battle.
Terrain is simply covered and categorised by type (rated as a value from 1 to 3). Initially I was a bit confused as to how terrain affects movement. Terrain doesn't affect melee and it's affect on shooting is clearly described. But movement? I had a quick scan of the forums and found a few posts from other similarly confused IHMN players. It turns out that the terrain value is simply subtracted from the figure's movement. Most human figures have a base move of 6". This can be increased by their speed value (eg. the berserker is +2) and whether they are running (another +3 for figures unencumbered by medium/heavy armour). So in open terrain a running berserker could move up to 6+2+3 = 11 inches! But in dense forest (Type 3 terrain), this would be reduced by 3". Some terrain can also be defined as impassable.
The mechanisms for moving, shooting and melee are therefore all quite straightforward (and take up only 9 pages of the 100 page rulebook). Where I think the game shines is in the way it encourages you to build a warband and create your own Saga through linked games.
Leaders can be given individual Traits that help to characterise them. For example they could have bonuses to their Leadership or be skilled in unarmed combat. Seers and Priests can be given magical powers that are defined by whether the figure is Christian or Pagan. The magical powers are are bit like how magic was portrayed by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings (the book NOT the films!). Rather subtle and based on what people in the dark ages actually believed. Although if Kyle's skald had managed to get his bolt of fire off, it would have been the talk of the town!
There are a number of scenarios detailed in the book and these can be played together to create a campaign - or to write a Saga on your blog ;-)
Scenarios range from simple raids to assassinations, rescues and the like. Really what you'd expect, but all given a suitable dark age flavour. The scenario involving Grendel looks like just the excuse needed to invest in a large model Great Hall...
Scenarios can be played in any number of Landscapes that are themselves affected by Complications. Landscapes include the typical forests, villages, henges and marshes but also include the deck of a longship - hmm! I find the inclusion of complications to be particularly interesting. Complications are 'things' that affect how the scenario is played and may be influenced by the landscape. Since it was our first game, I chose not to complicate The Raid (sorry!), but we'll definitely be building these in to future games. Example complications detailed in the rulebook include fog/mist, twilight, stormy weather - that type of thing.
For campaign play, each player starts with 400 Reputation points. From this a warband of 250 points can be created for each game in the campaign. Reputation points are lost when figures are killed (or captured) but can be gained for winning scenario objectives, killing the enemy and ransoming captives.
Figures knocked out of action during a game make an unmodified roll on their fate. Failure means death (and loss of reputation)! But a successful roll means they can return for future battles. At the end of our first game only two of my Saxon warriors remained standing. Fate rolls resulted in the deaths of my Huscarle (poor Ailred!), one warrior and two Skirmishers. Luckily my Thegn and priest survived. Since I knocked out the Viking berserker and one veteran I gained a couple of points, but overall my reputation is down to 311. Kyle's Viking Raiders managed to pass their post game fate rolls so no points were lost. For winning the game and knocking out most of my Saxons (!) his reputation increased by an impressive 30.
Things are not lost yet though. Since only 250 points can be used for each game, I can return without the loss of reputation affecting the next warband that I field. Let's hope it doesn't drop to less than 250 after the next game...
For winning the game, Kyle can choose certain advantages in the next game. Other than mocking his dad, he can choose to deploy the terrain, choose a deployment point (subject to scenario), add or remove a complication or deploy up to three non-leader figures as scouts.
Since it's the Easter holidays I'm hoping to get at least one more game in with Kyle. Now, where did I put that box of trees...
[Update: A reference sheet is now available for download]