Introduction To Lords Of Ragnarok
The first thing that will strike you about Lords of Ragnarok is the visuals- the box is stunning, and suggests a turned-up-to-11 gaming experience: heavy metal for gamers. The massive miniatures and colourful map split into zones suggests epic combat and WARRRR!!
But that’s not quite the game you get. Lords of Ragnarok is excellent, but it’s not what you might expect from its surface appearance.
How is the game structured?
Don’t get me wrong. Lords of Ragnarok is a ‘dudes on a map’ game to its bones. There are, effectively, 4 ways of winning, three involve controlling territory and one slaying monsters with your increasingly powerful hero.
The best way to explain the game is to think of it as occurring at three levels, each layered on the map and interacting with each other in specific, limited ways.
The first layer is that of territories and armies. The board is divided into Lands, each of which consists of 3-4 Regions. Each region in turn may contain settlements, temples and shrines, each of which have their own uses and advantages. Players will build up armies (cleverly represented in miniatures who have a power dial embedded in their base) to conquer neutral territories and, once space runs out, launch assaults against each other with an elegant card-based battle system.
The second layer is the domain of monuments and priests. This mainly exists as an engine to upgrade each faction’s hero, and as the game progresses and the monuments to the gods are slowly built up, these upgrades become more powerful and wide-ranging. The priests, gained by building shrines across the board, are sent to the monuments to gain the upgrades, but you need to contribute to the building of monuments to keep using them!
The final layer is that of heroes and monsters. Heroes will roam the land, making alliances with mystical realms, gaining magical runes and, once sufficiently powerful, fighting fearsome monsters. The monsters can be activated by various game effects, and unleash area attacks or just stomp around the countryside whittling down the strength of armies.
These layers are not isolated from each other- heroes can influence battles, armies can be impacted by monsters, and priests exist as upgraders for your whole ‘engine’. But if you just look at the board and expect everything to just be a mess of interactions and exceptions, you would be wrong. This is a game honed to a sharp point, with a rules summary that fits on 3 small cards. Warhammer 40k this ain’t.
How do you take a turn?
Turns in Lords of Ragnarok follow a clear, unwavering sequence. In order, you will:
1) Pray: Send a priest to a god's monument, if one is hanging out on your personal board. Pick up a rune if your hero is in a region with one.
2) Hero: move or heal your hero, or move your ship (essentially a mobile bridge, handy for rapid invasion of your opponents’ rear)
3) Rune: a set of actions of varying power, interacting with various elements of the game, requiring different numbers of rune tokens.
4) Maneuver: a limited movement action for armies- one army can move a single region or gain power in a settlement.
5) Special action: this is the juicy bit.
There are 7 actions you can take. 6 are depicted on a circular roundel (thematically rendered as Ygdrassil) and these actions are taken by placing a marker on one of the spaces. There are wrinkles to the choice of action- depending on the game state, where you place your counter is likely to benefit another player. But these are the really fun, powerful things you can do in this game:
A) Reinforce: recruit an army (OK, not very fun but pretty powerful)
B) Mobilize: move/ powerup ALL your armies. Invasion time!!
C) Prepare: get yourself buffed. Take a card, gain a rune, heal a wound.
D) Build temple: get a priest. Quite possibly gain a permanent special power (Blessing).
E) Monsters: fight a monster, or, if you don’t feel brave enough, activate them on the board.
F) Usurp: use the Might of your hero to take control of a territory, potentially routing whole armies!
What about the 7th action? This is ‘build monument’, which is both visually and ludologically cool- you get to put an epic model together, while resetting the whole roundel and getting some priests back ready to benefit from a newly powerful monument! You will also stir the land’s monsters to action, and potentially trigger Ragnarok!
As you can see, there’s plenty to think about, as you edge towards the three main win conditions: controlling every Region in 3 lands, controlling 5 Regions with Shrines, or slaying 2 monsters and the Boss monster on the board. But didn’t I say there were 4 ways to win? That’s where Ragnarok comes in: if 3 of the 5 Ragnarok requisites are fulfilled, the endgame is triggered, and a one-round scramble for the territories around Yggdrasil completes the game.
How good is it?
It’s very, very good; but you need to be aware of what the game actually feels like. Once you get your head round the structures, it stops being about sweeping all before your glorious legions. It becomes more about plotting an incremental strategy towards having a tilt at one of the win conditions, while paying enough attention to the rest of the game to resist other players’ strategies. But it’s also dynamic- you might think you are on one track, but then an opportunity presents itself to switch your resources- do you take it?
All of this takes place with the ticking clock of Ragnarok in the background, a clever device which imposes a sense of urgency and prevents stalemate.
This is a game with only one dice, and an unimportant one at that. But I don’t want to give the impression of an abstract puzzle with perfect information. There is chaos here, mainly in the form of the combat cards.
These are dual-purpose: you can use them to fight battles, adding to the strength of your armies and triggering bonuses. Or, you can hoard them for a monster hunt- this is a deliciously tricky decision when you are under attack on the ground, but have an eye on finishing off a wounded troll!
Hunts are perhaps the most random, and simultaneously the most exhilarating part of Lords of Ragnarok you will inevitably commit yourself with inadequate resources to kill the fiend, but the longer you stay in the fight, the more chance you have of drawing the right cards to wear them down. But the longer the fight goes on, the more bloodied your hero is likely to become. Meanwhile, if you leave a wounded but undefeated monster for your opponent to finish off, you can grant them a quick kill. These are the moments when the game is at its most exciting.
But the excitement of a hunt relies for its framing on the structure of the preparation- the whole design hangs together in a way that reflects careful playtesting, but also the fact that this is an iteration on a previous design- the flawed gem that was Lords of Hellas.
Comparison with Lords of Hellas
Different people have different problems with the original- for me the main problems were: the heroes going on quests that felt like day trips, a 3 player dynamic that heavily favoured a player who chose the strategy that the other two players did not, and an overly sexualised depiction of female characters. For other people, the tendency to get bogged down in a near-stalemate made games drag.
The designers seem to have taken all of these criticisms on board, and from my plays so far, no major problems have emerged in Lords of Ragnarok- the game engages from the very beginning, everything is in place, and the whole experience feels cohesive in a way that Hellas didn’t always manage.
Should you buy it?
As you may have gathered from my thoughts so far, I think this is an excellent game. It is beautifully presented, highly polished, and has an absorbing flow to it.
However, I cannot be sure at this point (12+ hours played) whether it is going to be something I still play in 5 years, and where it will land relative to alternatives like Blood Rage, or Cyclades. The reason for this isn’t to do with the design itself but our experience as players.
Because LoR is elegant, strategic and deep. And this depth means the game requires repeated plays to understand the ploys and counter-ploys. At a 4-player playtime of near 3 hours, this game therefore requires significant time investment to get the most out of it.
With inexperienced players, the game tends to end by Ragnarok, which is definitely a less satisfying way to win than completing a masterful conquest, or besting Loki.
But with more experienced people at the wheel, and more efficient game plans, the other outcomes come into focus, and you are in a real cerebral tussle. And if gaining that mastery sounds appealing, then yes, this could be worth the investment.
And that’s before you factor in the happy hours you’re going to spend painting those glorious miniatures!
Surprisingly elegant for such a big, meaty game, but atmospheric and thematic throughout, this is a significant improvement on its predecessor, and is likely to be in the very first rank of ‘dudes on the map’ games going forward.