An excellent epic experience. There is a lot to take in with this beast. Very similar to it’s predecessor Lords of Hellas, Lords of Ragnarok tweaks the rules to enhance gameplay, but overall, it is still pretty much a similar if not slightly improved experience.
The Basic Premise
The game is played on map reflecting Norse mythology, with Yggdrasil at its heart. Players represent different factions each with a distinct hero and a couple of armies to begin with and each player choosing a region to start in; and typically, one in which you can immediately take over.
Each turn, following a turn path, each player takes several actions, some of which may not be possible depending on circumstances, but typically players train or maneuver their armies and their hero to conquer regions, build temples, hunt the various monsters and then at the end of the turn each player chooses one of the special actions, one of the key features to this game; more on this key feature later.
How To Win
One of my favourite aspects to this game are the win conditions. Essentially you have several conditions, which if you meet, you immediately win, that’s it, you’ve done it. These include being in control of all regions in a specified number of lands, controlling enough temples or killing a set target with monsters (two-player games have modified win conditions).
However, there is an endgame scenario. Once a set number of conditions are achieved, this triggers Ragnarok, the last turn. At the end of this turn, the winner is the player controlling the most regions adjacent to Yggdrasil.
The game is quite easy to learn and play. Like many games, it is better to play and learn as you go as to get a better feel to the turns and the various options for actions. It is mostly straightforward, play a priest, move a hero etc. Hunting is a little more involved though and there is a chance element in battling monsters. Will you be able to defend against the monster attack? Will you have good cards to strike back?
Seeing a monster attack play out and how combat cards are collected and used helps with the learning curve and this is important as well as combat cards have a dual purpose as they are used for battles between armies too. Ultimately, if not before, battles between armies become expected as players vie for control over the regions adjacent to Yggdrasil.
As the game progresses, heroes can be quite mobile chasing monsters, usurping regions and gaining alliances. Heroes in some respects are quite a distinct part of the game, but in Lords of Ragnarok, you do still feel they are part of it and can impact on the bigger picture. This is because in part of their special abilities but also because their location can matter in terms of influence.
You might find that armies are not as mobile as perhaps they are in other games of a conquest nature, but then conquest isn’t really at the heart of Lords of Ragnarok. Yes, conquering is one way to win immediately, but with the limited movement options you have, concentrating on building their strength and moving them about will mean missing out of other options. This makes the task of conquering regions challenging but not unobtainable, especially if other players are focused on other win conditions.
One of the disappointing features is the drakkar piece. Each player has a naval vessel that helps transport armies to distant regions, but quite frankly it has very little impact on the game. It’s not so much that it takes anything away from the game, but there is a missed opportunity to add further depth. Expansions may help, but in the games I’ve played, it seemed fairly redundant.
A key thing to note, is during a player turn, each player has perhaps more frequently preferred options, but pretty much all options have a value. I think this is a strength of the game that players looking for opportunities can seize the initiative. This could be by claiming regions, capturing settlement or temples, or building temples, using runes in a wide variety of ways or by taking the build the monument action.
This is a feature which for me could be better. The layout of regions is interesting and conducive to strategic positioning. However, to begin with the design isn’t convenient for ease of set up. With practice it’s not a problem, but I think it could’ve been designed better. That said the artwork is nice and thematic, the map at times does feel small, but with monsters often being used threateningly it isn’t always easy to expand a great deal anyway. Attacks therefore seem more often to be precision attacks to secure strategic positions. Overall, the map feels a little underwhelming, with few sea regions, unnecessary space taken up with the potential allied regions and the smaller regions in the centre of the map prone to becoming congested with armies, monsters and heroes.
Yggdrasil, A Key Feature On The Map & The Mechanics
I like this feature. Remember, to win during the Ragnarok last turn, a player needs to control more regions adjacent to Yggdrasil than any other player, and with a tie-break mechanic if needed.
On the Yggdrasil space is a rondel with several special actions available. Each turn, each player has to choose one option that they have not already selected. Alternatively, once they have previously played an action, a player can choose to build a monument.
Around the map there are three, for Thor, Freya and Odin, that represent the three qualities or hero stats. Each time you send a priest to a monument, you gain a benefit, which improves the more the monument chosen is built. Sending priests is a great way to increase a hero’s stats and building a monument is important to increase and improve the benefits from sending priests; so each priest subsequently sent gains you more.
But building the monument, in addition to speeding up the game by achieving a Ragnarok triggering condition by completing one, also means the player responsible for that action gain priests from their temples and runes from forges so there is an incentive to be the one to take that action. Given this action also removes tokens on the rondel, if you time it right, you can open up freshly available special actions for your next turn.
These components in Lords of Ragnarok are nice and of good quality and although the monuments are a little oversized, they do look good. The miniature sculpts are varied, nice looking and quite solid so there shouldn’t be any issues with breakages unless careless.
Similarly, the card stock and quality of the card components is good and although that to some degree is to be expected these days, it is still nice to see corners haven’t been cut so as to preserve a better play experience.
A strength of the game is that there are varied ways to win. Do you plan to secure the most regions to Yggdrasil? Going first in the last round may give you some advantage in positioning and the tie-breaker, but equally being the last to play may help make a move that can’t be countered.
There is a risk here. You can win the game immediately through one of several win conditions. Going after the monster kills can be very tough, especially if you have a small hand size for combat cards or no-one else is contributing to damage, but under the right conditions it can be a quick route to victory with whatever else is going on being irrelevant.
Alternatively, you can muster your armies and conquer territory. The more temples you control will lead to more priests and the benefits they can bring, thus also denying your opponents the same with less potential to gather priests. The more settlements you control, the more choice you have when recruiting armies and the better your strategic positioning.
Ideally, you want to control regions adjacent to Yggdrasil if you can because you don’t want to leave the game to chance if you don’t have to. Having some presence like this help reduce your opponents’ presence too. But perhaps more importantly, give yourself options, be flexible and open to what chance may bring. When I’ve won, it’s usually because I’ve done this, I’ve kept a couple of options open, making it more difficult for opponents to counter and then I take the one that seems easiest to fulfil.
My Final Thought
It's a worthy game to play if you like thematic strategy games, with a degree of asymmetry, different ways to win and a dudes on a map element. Each game of Lords of Ragnarok is likely to be different, with the potential for replayability quite good.