Who’s not drawn to Vikings these days? Vikings are everywhere in pop culture! I can bet if you’re reading this you’ve probably recently watched Thor Ragnarok in the cinema or been following Vikings on TV? Or let’s say you read Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom or was devastated when Minnesota Vikings didn’t make it to Super Bowl LII? Nah, I know! You jumped into God of War when they ditched Greek for Norse Mythology right?
Chances are you also tried at least one Viking related Board Game like Blood Rage, Champions of Midgard or Raiders of the Norse Sea. Am I getting there or have I just been hitting water? I am guilty as charged of almost all of those sins mate. But I tell you what, even if being a viking aficionado is not why you’re here, 878 Vikings - Invasions of England may have something for yourself.
What’s 878 Vikings all About?
This game is in the portfolio of famed educational/historical publisher Academy Games. It’s actually a young sibling to other board games such as 1754 Conquest, 1775 Rebellion and 1812 Invasion of Canada, all three part of the Birth of America trilogy.
What does that entail exactly? Head to head, team area control with lots of dice rolling. Yes, you heard it right, although this game plays with two or even three players, it shines the most on it’s two x two version. This puts this one in a somewhat rare cluster of dudes on map partnership games that I so wanted more publishers to further explore, be it with vikings or not.
Apart from changing non-attractive wooden cubes for faction personalised plastic miniatures this game has perfected mechanics present on the above mentioned games. This probably contributed to it snatching 2017's Golden Geek Best War Game award. War game hun? This game is definitely on the light side and will most likely appeal to people that enjoyed Memoir 44’.
It most certainly will make sense as well to Kemet, Battlelore, Axis & Allies and Commands & Colors series fans. So it doesn’t really matter if you go berserk with vikings or if you’re just a non-discriminatory history buff, stick with me and let’s check this one out.
How Does it Play?
It’s the end of the 9th century and vikings got tired of just raiding English shores. This time around they will be coming to settle and make a life this side of the North Sea! So if you play England you’ll be one of two factions - Thegn or HouseCarl, trying to protect England from Norseman and Berserkers coming from the shores.
Vikings start invading from the North Sea with one of their eight leaders which include names you may know like Ragnar Lodbrok, Rollo or Lagertha. Leaders are drafted through leader cards which come with a specific set of armies from both factions. As you move the pawns around, they will be able to drop troops on the map or bring on board stranded armies.
Your objective is to conquer 14 cities by the game's end, which happens after seven turns unless if you play the Treaty of Wedmore card which ends the game either from turn five, six or seven with a different goal. In that case, if you’re viking you’ll have to be in possession of nine or more cities and if you don’t make it, you lose buddy.
Every round you’ll be drawing reinforcements. If you’re English, the map will tell you which cities spawn new troops, and that will make vikings target target them rest assured. But if you’re a viking the only way you’ll get more troops is by drawing previously mentioned viking leader cards. This creates an interesting dynamic where the English have troops scattered all over the territory and no leaders (till Alfred the Great comes into play by round five) while vikings will come in waves of unstoppable vicious hordes.
Whenever there is a viking attack in a city you will be able to draw a Fyrd card to defend it. This will grant you extra armies up to five units. Each faction will have their own die with different powers going from killer red Beserker dice, to underwhelming yellow Fyrd rolls that reflect untrained and badly equipped common folk troops. There is also an element of luck in regards to turn order. Game starts always with a Norseman invasion but after that you’ll be drawing from a bag who’s playing next, which means it’s not impossible for you to finish one round and be the one to start the next.
878 Vikings also other elements of card drafting beyond Fyrd and Leader cards. You’ll have three cards in your hands and those are either going allow you to move or grant your special powers that may change the course of the game, and so very often do so to your joy or utter despair.
So, is 878 Vikings for me?
I should start by saying that I am currently obsessed with 878 Vikings and I hope this is not clouding my judgement. I think Academy Games managed to create a sleek design that plays fast and is easy to learn and teach. The mix of dice rolling, turn order drawing and card drafting brings a chaotic enough experience preventing you from just “building the machine” and implementing your strategy as it is the case in so many deeper war games. You’ll be working with a much shorter decision making time frame, which is not to say this game is devoid of bigger strategic reasoning.
Having been introduced into board gaming by means of Risk and Axis and Allies, I must say this is very familiar territory for me. I don’t remember, however, experimenting something that plays like this. In 878 Vikings you can actually move your teammate’s units as you will, which at first looked like something that could never work but somehow it does, perfectly.
This partnership mechanics brings about everything that I love about board games, those very cool moments of sharing, conspiring and strategising with your peer while trying to subdue an opponent. In terms of player interaction I honestly don’t think it gets a lot better than this, it’s just the right mix of co-operation and competitiveness.
The game does of course have its improvement opportunities. Cards can be sometimes confusing on its powers and require consulting rule books a lot more often than should. Since there are no objectives apart from game winning conditions, replay-ability can be compromised after a while considering you’ll always be trying to do the same very thing and there are just so many possible macro strategies to do so.
Although card decks come with extra seven cards, allowing some degree of customisation, that won’t take you very far either. If you're not a big fan of the pastel colour palette and if the artwork won’t compromise it, it won’t make you keener in the whole game experience. There is also a slight issue of balancing. Winning as a Viking is a lot more challenging with the treaty of Wedmore which in my experience is always triggered by the English before round five (haven’t managed to play a single game in any other fashion so far). But hey, that’s how history went by right, so I guess it makes sense?
So yeah, not surprisingly this game isn’t any sexier than any other Academy game but it ticks all the boxes for a great gateway war game or medium weight dudes on the matt game. Although this is definitely not a filler I do take it along when playing heavier stuff, but quite honestly this is the type of game I am eager to find a group keen on playing it over and over again as gaming night’s main course. So, if you’re in Edinburgh please let me know, and if not just give it a go and enjoy!