Eric Lang is one hell of a prolific designer. Not only has he had a hand in designing games like the Dice Masters series, Chaos in the Old World and Kaosball (chaos is perhaps the most recurring theme in Lang’s games), but he is also the designer of one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns of all time in Rising Sun, a game that raised well over $900,000 in its first day and well over $2 million by the end of the campaign.
Moreover, he was only recently hired as Director of Game Design at Cool Mini or Not. Such success relies on a reputation for persistent quality. So, how did he develop such a reputation? It would be vastly incorrect to assume that only one game was responsible for all his success, however, it could most certainly be said that no other game contributed quite as much to his reputation as the phenomenally popular Blood Rage.
“It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men, paints red the powers' homes with crimson gore.” -Poetic Edda
Blood Rage Overview
Ragnarök has arrived, Midgard is being ripped asunder, all will perish and you must seek glory through battle before you arrive in Valhalla. You and your clan will call on the service of the gods for boons that will be the bane of your opponents as you battle and pillage the burning land. Through the strength of Tyr, the power of Thor, the grace of Frigga, the foresight of Heimdall, and the tricks of Loki you will command your troops and perhaps, even powerful monsters, to death and glory in what little time yet remains.
Blood Rage is a hybrid drafting and area control miniatures war game with beautiful components and a sleek, but open-ended rule set. Players will manage three stats to control their clan, Rage, Axes and Horns, engage in battles and perhaps even nefarious tactics to gain the most glory and the favour of Odin.
2-4 players start the game by selecting one of the four available clans. Each clan is mechanically identical, but each has a distinct aesthetic and all clans have entirely different sculpts, with a few different sculpts for each clan. Once you have selected your clan you will attach your colour coded bases to each figure, take the corresponding clan sheet and then you are ready to begin play.
These figures will be used to control territories, called provinces, on the huge board. One of these provinces is destroyed every Age of the game, and players are aware of which due to the ‘Doom’ marker placed randomly at the beginning of each age. The winner will be the player who has accrued the most ‘Glory’ points at the end of the game.
The game is divided into three rounds, called ‘Ages’. Each Age is composed of five phases:
- The God’s Gifts Phase: This phase is a drafting phase. Take the deck that corresponds to the current Age and deal eight cards to each player. Players choose a single card from their hand and place it on their clan sheet, then pass the remaining cards to the player on your left. You repeat this process until you have six cards on your clan sheet. The last two cards you have been passed will be discarded.
- The Action Phase: The meat of the game. In this phase, you will use your Viking rage (the primary resource of the game) to fund actions. These actions can come from the cards you drafted in the last phase, or they can be actions listed on your clan sheet. Players will take turns performing single actions, until players run out of rage (or calm down, whatever the thematic intent of this mechanic is, you choose, I’m not the boss of you). Once you have used all your rage, you can no longer perform actions, even actions that don’t cost rage, so managing this resource is key to your victory. The actions are many and varied: you can invade a province, march on an adjacent province, upgrade your troops and leaders, commit to a quest which will award glory points should you complete the requirements, pillage a province for its rewards and play cards from your hand.
- The Discard Phase: Players discard remaining cards until they have one in their hand.
- The Quest Phase: Players reveal, then discard, the quests they have committed to and gain rewards for the quests they have completed.
- Ragnarök: The province marked for doom is destroyed. Any clan members or monsters in the area are destroyed and moved to Valhalla.
- Release Valhalla: Everything in Valhalla is returned to its owner.
How Does It Play?
The combination of drafting and area control is a unique one, or rather, it was at the time of this game’s release but now, a couple of years removed, we can see its influence in newer releases such as Matagot’s Inis, which is the only other game in my experience that bears any semblance to this design. If you know of any others please comment below!
The card-driven, deterministic combat has more in common with Cosmic Encounter and Days of Wonder’s Small World than it does Risk, which is most certainly a good thing. It’s a clean and easy to teach system, which is helpful, considering the myriad mechanics already present in the design. Not only that, but thematically, the combat has some brilliantly conceived ideas. This is a game whereby you can benefit by losing all your figures in combat with the powers of trickster-God, Loki. That’s right, losing is beneficial in some cases, so trying to live inside your opponent’s head is of paramount importance.
These are hallmarks of Lang’s design philosophy. He often stitches disparate mechanics together in a tapestry that looks like it shouldn’t work on paper, but somehow, he always manages to weld them together into a cohesive whole. His penchant for ‘ESP Games’ is quite apparent in this design also, something that he will no doubt iterate on in the spiritual successor to Blood Rage, the aforementioned Rising Sun, and there is a carefully crafted balance between this aspect of the game with the more mathematical concepts.
All of this makes for a game that is more rewarding with each play through, especially if played with a consistent group. The emergent strategies are so much fun to execute, and even more fun to explore, that you will be hard pushed to find a better board game about area control elsewhere.
Aesthetically, the game is astoundingly good looking. The layout of the clan sheets, the design of the map and the figurines are of the highest standard, the only downside to the design is the mini-sized cards, but hey, you can’t have it all, right? The monster miniatures* are especially glorious and are sure to pop your friends when you place them on the table, so that should more than make up for the mini card size.
Some of the models, however, smack of artwork from early 80’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition. Chainmail bikinis and exposed midriffs are present in this box, and while you could argue that the male models are just as readily hyper-sexualised, it’s not a valid counter argument in this case.
Male models are covered in practical armour far more than the female models and this is not entirely balanced across genders. Which is not to say that every female mini is some scantily-clad example of model porn, it’s not, and there is a nearly representative proportion of sensibly armoured women but it’s not quite as balanced as I would like.
Call me an SJW all you like, but personally, it breaks the psychology of the game world when these women are not dressed for war, particularly when they are not dressed as Viking women would be dressed for war. For all the care that has gone into curating faithful accuracy to Viking culture and sagas, it seems to stick out a little more than it should. If that has the potential to offend you, perhaps you should refrain from purchasing this one. However, I would warn you that you will be missing out on a wonderful design if you do so.
Final Thoughts on Blood Rage
Blood Rage is an excellent game. It truly is, and herein you can see why Eric Lang is one of the most sought after designers working right now. There are few area control games that can match the depth of play in the time frame this game plays in. El Grande, is perhaps the only exception to this rule. There are few games (not by Cool Mini or Not) that can match its production values. Even less games can match the seamless stitching of so many mechanisms.
It is a masterful design, produced by a designer who seems to be coming into the prime of his design career. If you haven’t played this, and love the sound of participating in the blood-soaked battles of Ragnarök then you absolutely must buy and play this game.
*All of these beautiful miniatures were painted by Gail Gilchrist.