Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga Review – Not Your Allfather’s Viking Game

andrewasmFire & Axe: A Viking Saga, designed  by Steve and Phil Kendall and published by IDW Games, is a game of Viking explorers, plying the seas and braving storms as they-

jessasmJess:  IRON AND BLOOD, MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS!  We sail not for glory, but FOR VALHALLA!  By spear and blade shall we lay waste to the…why isn’t anyone else getting ready to lay waste?  Why are you loading all those furs?

andrewasmAndrew:  Because they are worth a ton of gold if you bring them to a major port.  Of course, once we saturate the market, we’ll need to move on to trading something different, like horns or whatever, but there is still a good bit of profit to be made from those, too!

jessasmJess:  …But what about, you know, pillaging?

andrewasmAndrew:  What?  No no, we’re more focused on profit margins around here.

With an army at your back and the wind in your sails, you will sail forth from the homelands in search of treasure and glory!
With an army at your back and the wind in your sails, you will sail forth from the homelands in search of treasure and glory!

Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga isn’t what it first appears.  Looking at the huge box, setting out the massive, somber-colored board, and arraying an army of Viking warriors, suggests a dense, protracted war game, or maybe a cut-throat take-that style combat game.  It’s decidedly neither of those.

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Huuuuge box. It’s like he’s taking a picture in front of a monument or something.

At its heart, Fire & Axe is a ‘pick up and deliver’ style game.  Each player manages a single viking longship, filling its limited space with either viking warriors or cargo (or a combination of the two) and sailing the high seas in search of profit and glory.

Sailing, interestingly, is one of the most unique mechanics in F&A.  The seas are divided into 4 regions, and each region has different weather patterns.  Represented by the Wind dial, players can only move a limited number of spaces per turn (safely, at least).  Each time a player exceeds the maximum ‘clear weather days’ in a given region, they will suffer losses, unceremoniously dumping vikings and/or goods overboard as they push their ship further than it can safely go.

The seas reach out in every direction, with dozens of ports waiting to be discovered.
The seas reach out in every direction, teeming with ports waiting to be discovered.

This weather can be affected by playing Rune cards (more on those in a moment), but changing the wind in one area always changes it in all areas, meaning you could inadvertently help (or hinder) your opponents with each adjustment you make for yourself.

The wind dial allows for a simple, clever way for players to keep track of how many clear weather days they have in each area.
The wind dial allows for a simple, clever way for players to keep track of how many clear weather days they have in each area.

Players will journey across the map, stopping in ports to trade, settle, and, yes, raid, though this last mechanic is really far less combative than it may sound, but we mean that in a good way.

Each turn, players can take up to 7 ‘days’ worth of actions – certain actions cost days, and some do not.  For the most part, only moving or loading your longship costs days, whereas the other actions, of trading, raiding, and settling, are all free actions, though you can only ever take a single one of those actions at any given port per turn.

Those three port actions work like this:

  • Trading:  Drop a good off at a port which has not yet been traded with (by any player).  Get the coins that port is worth, plus a bonus if the good you are delivering is ‘in demand’ (as determined at the start of the game).
  • Raiding:  If there is a village or town on the port, you can roll against the port’s value.  This roll is made with a single 6-sided die, and each viking you spend gets you a re-roll.  If you can manage to beat the port’s strength within 3 rolls, you claim the village or town as victory points.
  • Settling:  So long as there are no towns or villages within a port’s region (adjacent connected ports), you can spend up to 3 vikings to roll to settle, again rolling against the port’s value.  If any of these three rolls exceeds the port’s value.  If at least one of these rolls exceeds the port’s strength, you can place a viking warrior permanently on that port, and its value will become victory points for you at the end of the game.
As a viking, your ship is your life...and also your way of turning a tidy profit.
As a viking, your ship is your life…and also your way of turning a tidy profit.

Raiding and Settling are easier in ports that have previously been opened up via Trade, regardless of which player did the actual trading.  Therefore, you will often want to trade with a port before attempting these other actions.  But since you can only do one of these actions per port per turn, you will need to decide if you can risk leaving a port that you’ve traded with in order to visit a neighbor, at the risk that another player may move in on their turn and raid or settle there instead of you.

andrewasmAndrew:  This creates some very simple, very fast-flowing turns, where a player can, for example, sail to a port, trade, sail to its neighbor, trade there, and head back to the original port to prepare for raiding or settling it the following turn.

jessasmJess:  TO ARMS, MY BRETHREN!  We will, uh, trade most viciously with these peasants!  Truly, the horns of the godkings themselves will sound at the sight of these…low, low prices…you know, I’m having a little trouble with this theme/mechanic mis-match.

andrewasmAndrew:  I don’t think they are mismatched at all!  Vikings were amazing sailors, spreading across the unwelcoming oceans and visiting far-off harbors.  Sure, they were incredibly capable warriors, but the idea of them carrying goods and settling far and wide is a cool one.  And even though there isn’t real combat (and no player-verse-player at all), it still feels like we’re conquering ports and spreading our influence just like other, bloodier viking games.

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Player interaction is very limited.  One player can blockade another from a port by sitting there, and the Rune cards can be used to mess with each other, in addition to affecting the weather, but nothing in Fire & Axe is ever truly lost.  Fallen viking warriors show back up at the wintering zone to be recruited once more, and a ship that loses its last crew member automatically finds its way home to head back out again.  There is no player elimination to ruin anyone’s good time, and it is entirely possible to come back from a total loss of all your goods and vikings right back into fighting shape within a single turn…not that there is any, you know, fighting.

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jessasmJess:  But what about the Saga part?  I mean, it’s A Viking Saga, after all.

Sagas are quests, each one requiring that certain criteria be met – all the ports in a given group be traded with, settled, etc.  These Sagas come in 3 colors, and at the end of the game, having majority in each color will grant the player bonus points.  They are also the game’s timer – once you run through the Saga deck, the game is over and points are tallied.

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Jess:  Ok, so there’s plenty of sailing, but no real fighting and no real pillaging.  But you say it still feels like a viking game?  And you like it?

andrewasmAndrew:  Absolutely yes on both counts.  Look, your mileage may vary, but for me, Fire & Axe is a fun, engaging game that awards planning and a little luck.  No, it’s not about burying your sea axe in a man’s skull for points, but there is definitely a feeling of high seas exploration.

jessasmJess:  I don’t know about all that, but I actually am glad, given my preferencess that it isn’t the stodgy, grim tactical game it disguises itself as.  Even though I’m not entirely sold on the theme/mechanics matchup, I like both a lot, and there’s plenty of fun to be had here.

andrewasmAndrew:  For sure.  And even though the game’s player count runs from 3-5, and with more players there is more fun contention for spots on the map, we also found that it’s perfectly playable for 2.  Sure, there will be less tactically boxing with the other player, but that may be just as well for a 1-v-1 scenario.

We think Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga is a really good time.  Even though the gameplay mechanicsms don’t quite align with what may be your immediate expectations for the game, what this overly large box contains is a really solid pick up and deliver game with great production value and a really cool aesthetic.

(Gameosity was provided a review copy of this title, but was not otherwise compensated.)

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