06th Mar2019

‘Battle Ravens’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


If you’re a fan of Bernard Cornwell novels, or even the fairly recent series The Last Kingdom, you’re likely to be familiar with the idea of a shield wall already. This brutal but effective means of Dark Ages combat was used by armies all over Europe from the time of the Roman occupation until the Medieval period. Rarely represented in board games, shield walls were often a defensive posture that involved locking shields with your neighbour in order to form tightly packed ranks of men. Short swords would be used to cut at ankles and necks in the front rank, whilst spears and other longer weapons would be extended over the leading men’s shoulders.

Battle Ravens simulates this brutal style of combat with a highly visual and very straightforward set of components and mechanics. The board is very shallow but unusually wide, allowing the players to form their battle lines into two ranks. The Fyrdmen (or low quality troops) usually form the front line, whilst the Hirdmen (or professional soldiers) form the rear. A third row of serf’s (in this case archers) sits behind the line of battle, but they only participate in it as a supporting role that introduces a few minor tweaks to the basic rules.

Combat is as simple as it is effective. The two armies receive twenty raven (order) tokens at the beginning of the game and must take turns in placing them onto one of the six sections that make up the board. There are advantages to playing both first and second, and Battle Ravens never changes the initiative order throughout a game, so it’s well worth experimenting with going first and second to see how your own personal strategy will differ. When ravens are placed in a sector, the number of them placed indicates the number of attack or defence die that will be rolled – this has nothing to do with (and is not affected by) how many troops, or which kind are in the sector.

Instead, both attacker and defender will be rolling to achieve successes on the die faces. The nine die include both single successes (on a four or five) and double successes (on a six,) as well as misses (one to three.) When an attack is resolved, the number of successes that the attacker scores over and above those that the defender rolls will result in that many casualties being scored against the defender. Hits are resolved by removing one stand of Fyrdmen per hit, or one stand of Hirdmen for every two hits – this damage can be assigned in any way that the defender chooses.

The objective of Battle Ravens is to break through the enemy lines in three of the six areas across the line, at which point any remaining forces will break. In addition to the placement of the raven tokens and the subsequent dice rolls, players can also use their serfs to reroll dice up to three times per round (they are replenished after all ravens are resolved, assuming the game continues) and each force (The Vikings on one side and the Anglo-Saxons on the other) have a deck of cards that can modify various features of the game.

Whilst these cards are not considered mandatory (they are described as a variant) I would suggest that they are actually crucial to getting the full experience. If played with the two decks dedicated to either side, then they really enhance the mechanical feel of each army. The Viking deck enhances attacking play, whilst the Anglo-Saxon one is more about mounting an effective defensive formation. Again, much as with playing first or second, players should experiment with each deck to see which one suits them best. It’s also viable to shuffle this deck and deal cards randomly for a more balanced but potentially random experience.

First of all, I really like how Battle Ravens looks when set up on the table. It may have seemed an odd choice for a company called “The Plastic Soldier Company” to use cardboard standees to represent the clashing armies, but the fact that each standee has three soldiers on it, painted in full colour and in various poses makes for a very impressive visual density. Looking at the two amassing armies is exciting and there’s an unusual sense of scale. The quality of the standee’s is also quite high, with each one being thick cut and attractive to look at. The cards are unremarkable but functional, whilst the dice are just basic D6 and I guess it would have been nice to see custom ones. The instruction booklet is relatively brief, very straightforward to learn from and filled with interesting historical context, including a section on related reading.

Having now played it about ten or maybe twelve times, I feel as though I’ve seen most of what Battle Ravens has to offer, but considering its relatively low price point (around £30) I feel as though I’ve had very good value and I certainly enjoyed each and every game. As a learning tool that prompts the players to go and learn more about this kind of warfare (which might be why designer Dan Mersey included related reading in the manual) Battle Ravens does an exceptional job. As a game, it feels a lot like Chess or Draughts in that it really rewards repeated plays between the same partners.

Luck can play a significant part in the outcome of Battle Ravens, but the dice tend to favour neither one player nor the other and when it comes to hacking randomly at necks and shins, the cruelty of fate would always have played its part in determining who lived and who died in the shieldwall. Overall, I have to say that Battle Ravens is completely unique. No other board game that I know simulates shield wall combat so faithfully, so simply or through such an impressive visual display. If the subject matter is at all of interest to you then Battle Ravens is well worth checking out. On the other hand, if you’ve watched shows like The Last Kingdom or Vikings and simply want to immerse yourself further into the events of the time, this is a surprisingly interesting and engaging place to go next.

**** 4/5

A copy of Battle Ravens was supplied for review by PSC Games.


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