Champions of Midgard Review – Grab An Axe, It’s Monster Slaying Time

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Designed by: Ole Steiness
Published by: Grey Fox Games
Players: 2-4
Age: 10+
Play time: 60-90 minutes.

Review copy supplied free of charge.

Sometimes when you’re writing your mind simply switches off, like someone pulled the power cord out of the socket. This is exactly what happened when I was writing this opening paragraph, therefore allow me to just spout out some words; flibble. Codswallop. Bamboozled. Now let us get on with this review, eh?

The goal is to play for eight rather fast rounds and come out the other side with the most Glory points, achieved by fighting monsters, fulfilling your destiny and sometimes yelling at other players for stealing that one spot you wanted. If you finish up with the most Glory then you’ll be hailed as the new Jarl.

The theme is vikings, which is awesome. Where I’m a little unsure is the fact that fantasy has been tossed into the mix so that you’re battling Fenrir cubs, killing trolls and dealing with magical runes. I mean, I adore fantasy, but vikings are amazing enough on their own, aren’t they? But this minor gripe of mine quickly became irrelevant because GOD DAMN IT ALL LOOKS SO GOOD! Just look at that beautiful artwork, would you? Ooft. The component quality is pretty damn good, too.

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Champions of Midgard is a worker-placement game, which means each round players will take it in turns to put one of their little playing pieces on a space to take the corresponding action, like getting food for a long sea voyage, recruiting more warriors or visiting a sage to see what your destiny may be. With all but one of the spaces being occupiable by a single worker it’s a fight to claim the things you need, especially with all four players crowding the board, each trying to snag those lovely points. Every player has the option of getting their extra worker by visiting the worker hut and spending some gold, but the catch is that the earlier you are the more expensive it is. The first player to expand their team has to pay five gold, with the second paying four and so on. This creates an interesting scenario because that extra worker can be vital, especially if you get him/her early, but nobody wants to be the first one if they can help it.

Most of the spaces are exactly what you might expect, like gather some food, a marketplace for trading things at a 1:1 ratio and areas to grab yourself some warriors. There are a couple of randomized spaces, too, that get filled by tiles at the start of the game based on how many players there are. Plus there’s a merchant ship space which changes each round. None of these are worth going into much detail about.

Some areas of the do need chatting about, though. Take the Sage’s Hut, for example, an area where you can draw new Destiny cards. These give you Glory at the end of the game for meeting certain conditions, like killing the most trolls, stockpiling the most food or hording all the wood like some sort of demented beaver who wants to make one hell of a dam. The Sage’s Hut also let’s you take a peek at a face-down journey card, which is a mechanic we’ll get back to later on.

There’s another space where you can pay wood to claim one of the two Runes currently available. These are basically magic, letting you do stuff like score a Destiny card immediately or negate any damage taken during combat. It’s tame stuff, mind you, so don’t expect to be summoning dragons or anything like that. If you want to do that you’ll have to break out the drugs. Rune cards are worth some bonus Glory at the end of the game, too. Still, despite this I did find that Rune cards often got ignored as most players felt that wasting one of their three starting workers wasn’t worth it compared to other moves they could make.

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Speaking of special abilities the five playable characters all have their own as well. One doesn’t have to pay when taking things from the merchant ship, so he’s presumably a thief and therefore is a dishonorable punk who should never be Jarl, while another can earn extra Glory during combat. These abilities don’t radically change how you approach each game, but they will push you a little toward doing certain things.

Meanwhile hanging around near the top of the board is a troll. A new one will be drawn every round from the handy-dandy deck ‘o trolls and will the proceed to trample through the local village, which unsurprisingly does not make the villagers very happy. If nobody manages to kill the beast by the end of the round every player gets a blame token which damages their final scores. However, if someone kills the troll then they get to remove a blame token from themselves, if possible, and assign one to another player. Yup, those villagers sure are fickle about who they blame, aren’t they? I saw a few people go with a simple strategy of grabbing the first player token by visiting the appropriate space on the board, and then using that advantage of getting to place a worker first to claim the troll every round and assign blame tokens to everyone. It’s actually quite a good tactic.

Next to the Troll is a couple of Draugrs, a familiar name to my videogaming audience, or at least those that have played Skyrim. Which is all of you, right? Alongside a smattering of victory points they offer gold for their defeat, so feel free to imagine this as villagers giving you a contract to hunt and kill Draugr who are roaming the lands. These guys tend to be worth 4-6 Glory apiece, and so while they aren’t the biggest scorers around a smart player can keep plugging away at them while everybody else goes in long journeys.

Long journeys? Yup. The single biggest source of Glory are the monsters occupying distant shores, and to get to them you’ll need a boat, warriors and food to survive the trip. There are a few different ways to acquire a vessel in Champions of Midgard, the simplest being to hop on one of the two public longboats that are always returned to the board at the end of the round. The other option is to visit the shipwright and pay wood and gold to build your own personal longboat, which also scores you some bonus Glory because as everybody knows owning a longboat is a major milestone in life, like owning a car or not chugging that last pint. With either your public vessel or your private one at hand you choose which monster to go after and plop the boat down in the appropriate space. At the end of the round its time to resolve the journey, so first you have to decide how many warriors are going on the trip. Every boat has a maximum capacity, and every warrior and food cube takes up one slot. Notice that I said food, and that’s because your vikings have to be fed along the way, or else they’ll starve. Depending on how far the journey is, as indicated by the slot your boat is in, each food cube will feed either two vikings or just one. You then flip over the journey card below the ship slot and resolve it. Usually these are storms or other such things that cause you to lose food or warriors, adding an extra layer of luck that might make you want to pack a little extra food or even another viking. However, you can mitigate this by visiting the sage’s hut which lets you look at a single journey card.  Should you manage to get everybody through the journey it’s time to go kill a beastie.

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I’ve talked about slaying monsters quite a bit throughout this review, but not how combat actually plays out. Perhaps one of the most often used criticisms of worker-placement games is that player’s can become locked in their own little worlds of logic, constantly parsing all the cardboard data before them. While this is usually the source of enjoyment it can on occasion lead to what is known as analysis paralysis, which is just a fancy way of saying a player is having a brain-fart. They’ve become too absorbed in figuring everything out rather than having fun, and now every other player is drumming their fingers on the table because ohmygodhowlongaretheygoingtotakeonthisdamnturn! Champions of Midgard attempts to compensate by tossing in a random element in the form of combat. The warriors you gather from the board aren’t just tokens that you spend to kill a monster. Nope, they’re dice that must be rolled, and that means there’s always a chance for failure or success.

Here’s how it works; during the combat phase players assign what dice they are sending out to deal with the monsters lurking around the board. Do you just toss everything at a single beast to make sure its dead? Do you perhaps send just one warrior who will absolutely die, but might strike the killing blow and score you those lovely Glory Points? or maybe splitting forces might be a good idea so you can try to murder two creatures at once? Much of that decision will come down to the troops you have. The black berserker dice are all about outright attack, while red dice have reasonable attack and defence, and the white dice are the weakest but most plentiful. When you’ve chosen who is going to fight for glory you roll the dice and note the results. Each enemy card lists their defense and attack, and to kill it you need to score enough hits to exceed its defense. The attack stat, meanwhile, is how many of your viking dice will die in the ensuing carnage, with every shield rolled saving one of them. We come back to that important question, then; how many troops do you assign to combat? If a monster is capable of wiping out three dice but has quite weak defense it may be better dispatching a lone warrior rather than risking a whole squad. It’s a little bit of gambling in a game that is otherwise all about careful play, and I love that.

When you bring everything together it’s just brilliant. There’s a pleasingly fast pace to the game thanks to having just eight rounds and only three workers each (four in a two player game) and that helps make every decision you make feel important. It also means the game never drags on for too long.

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Final scoring includes quite a lot. Not only will you get extra points for completing Destiny cards, but you’ll also earn points for gold you have left, albeit quite a small amount, glory tokens and runes, whether they’ve been used or not. There’s also bonus points for having sets of enemy cards, which is to say one yellow, one blue and one red, which is a really cool idea as it brings a little extra depth to selecting which beasties to go after. Plus there’s the blame tokens to consider, so even someone with a good lead can find themselves going backwards quickly.

Truthfully there’s very little I don’t like about Champions of Midgard. If I had to level a criticism at the game it would be that it does tend to feel like there’s only one strategy for victory; kill monsters, and lots of ’em. Admittedly there’s quite a few different beasts to chase down and murderize, but at the end of the day you’re all doing the same thing. The destiny cards could have helped change this, but the amount of glory they offer isn’t worth the effort it often takes. They give you direction, but chasing the monsters is still the path to victory.

It’s a small complaint, really, and hasn’t stopped Champions of Midgard becoming one of my favorite worker placement games. I love it. I think you might love it, too.

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