23rd Feb2018

’878 Vikings’ Board Game Review (Academy Games)

by Matthew Smail


Whilst I am a huge fan of board games in almost all of their forms, I’ve always been fascinated by the strategic push and pull of a good war game. Many games feature direct conflict, but few are as overtly direct about it as those that pitch two (or more) opposing sides against each other in combat at an epic scale…. 878 Vikings from Academy Games is the first example of the war gaming genre to feature in a series of reviews here on Nerdly, which also makes it the first war game that I’ve played in a very long time. I’m grateful then, that 878 is actually a lot more straightforward than you might imagine – it’s certainly a lot less heavy than I was expecting.

Essentially a game of dice combat and area control set during a period of British history known literally as “The Viking Age” 878 delivers more or less exactly what you’re expecting it to, plus perhaps a little more. It supports two to four players split between two Viking factions (the black Norsemen and the red Viking Berserkers) and two English ones, which are the blue Housecarls and the green Thegns.

After the first turn (which begins with the invasion of the first Viking leader, Halfdan and his Great Heathen Host) a blank dice for each faction is placed in a bag and drawn randomly to determine player order. This introduces a fast paced and uncomplicated mechanic that keeps everyone on their toes and works extremely well with the faction specific cards that drive movement and other specific events.

Each turn, players place a movement card down on the table which enables them to move based on the number of armies and spaces shown. For example, a card may show two armies and then two movement – which means that two separate armies can move up to two spaces each. An interesting feature here is that as long as an army is made up of mixed units from the given side (ie English or Viking) then the whole army can be moved. In a four player game, this really incentivises players to work and strategise together, which I love.

At first, I was a little confused by what the game meant by army’s or leaders, so let me clarify. Any army led by a named hero (like Halfdan for the Vikings or Alfred for the English) must be moved first (if at all) and can pick up and drop off other units as they move. An army, on the other hand, is any number of units without a leader. Armies such as these can move independently, but cannot pick up or drop off units – if you want to combine two armies then all troops will need to stop in the same shire and move again next turn.

This is important, because the English will only ever have one leader – Alfred – who enters play on the fifth round of turns. The Vikings, on the other hand, draw a leader card each turn, usually (but not always) triggering another huge Viking army to arrive on the coastline. The English are not helpless to resist however, because they also reinforce every turn in regions where they have control and can raise also raise a relatively weak, temporary army called a Fyrd whenever a city comes under attack.

Combat in 878 is fast and fairly interesting, but also very straightforward. Each force has its own set of dice (up to a maximum of three for everyone except the Fyrd, who have two.) Depending on the mix of forces and the number of units that represent them, each belligerent army rolls their dice and accounts for the number of hit, flee and command results rolled. Hits remove enemy units, flee rolls remove pieces to a temporary location on the board and command results allow a strategic withdrawal into a neighbouring shire.

Regardless of how many dice they roll, every force has access to different outcomes. The Berserkers never roll flee results, for example, but a Berserker is always the first casualty on the Viking side – a representation of their bloodlust. The Norsemen and the English Housecarls have a similar level of fighting talent, whilst the English Thegns are slightly worse and the Fyrd worse still. If anything, the Fyrd make a good meat shield, but it is relatively rare to see them roll more than one or two hits per battle.

Combat continues (usually with a dwindling dice count as units are removed for one reason or another) until an army is defeated through losses, routing and tactical withdrawal. If a leader is present then each round of combat reduces their remaining movement allowance, so the Viking player(s) often need to decide whether to rush through the country placing down markers and leaving small forces behind, or embroil themselves in larger battles which can slow their progress.

This decision is important, because 878 is a game all about how much control each force can exert over England. This is represented by a track of tokens that runs along the bottom of the board. Whenever the Viking forces take control of specified regions, a token is moved from here and onto that location – or vice versa if the English reclaim control. Should a round end with the Vikings in control of fourteen key regions, they win. Should all Viking tokens ever be removed, the Vikings lose.

A more likely outcome is that during the course of the game, the warring factions will agree to sign The Treaty of Wedmore. As players delve further and further into their deck of movement cards, they will eventually draw a Treaty card and either choose to (or be forced to) play it. If one side has placed both their treaty cards at the end of any round from round five onwards, the game ends.

Should this happen, the winner is determined based on whether there are nine or more Viking control tokens on the map – fewer than that and the English win. As with many of the other decisions in 878, playing your second Treaty card and holding out for the end of the round is a big call to make.

There are a few other nuances in 878 Vikings, but I’d say that the relatively brief overview I’ve given here covers the core rules and game structure. It is, as I said earlier, much simpler than I was expecting, but it’s also filled with meaningful and thematic decisions because of the drastic difference in tactical style that each side favours. On the grand scale, the Vikings tend to sweep through counties leaving small defensive forces behind them, whilst the English work to consolidate and intercept them.

Whenever the game seems to swing in favour of one side or another, it can swing just as quickly back again. For example, it might seem like the number of Viking armies arriving early in the game could overwhelm the English, but because of how the deck is loaded, there are turns when no army arrives. Then of course on turn five, Alfred arrives. Although his army is modest relative to the Viking leaders, the introduction of a leader allows the English to consolidate and manage their otherwise disparate armies in a much more efficient manner – Alfred can amass a huge army very quickly as a result.

Even before his arrival, the sheer number of small English forces (and the occasional large one, if the English player(s) have chance to form them) as well as the Fyrds will slow the Vikings down a fair bit. It also turns out that England is split into a lot more shires than you might think it is, given that everyone is marching on foot, so any Viking player who wants to place troops to protect every key location is going to run out of steam. It’s a very fine balance to strike.

Considering its excellent build quality and the exceptional balance of tactical gameplay and mechanical simplicity, I really have no problem recommending 878 Vikings very highly to anyone who is either a curious potential war gamer, or just someone looking for a solid game featuring direct conflict. 878 allows players to feel that their decisions are meaningful and the high level of asymmetry between the forces means that most times you play, you’ll want to switch sides and play twice. On that note, a single game can conclude is less than an hour – which is fantastic. Luck plays a small role, but it adds just enough variation to enhance the experience, rather than define it.

**** 4/5

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