Saga is a historical skirmish wargame published by Gripping Beast and Studio Tomahawk, released in 2011. The game covers the 'Viking Age' (c.793-1066 AD) Players control a warband or models led by a Warlord representing you (although lets be honest, if most of us were accurately represented on the tabletop we would be one of the shitty cheap troops that die on first contact with the enemy). A first expansion called Northern Fury was released in 2012, followed by the Raven's Shadow and Varjazi & Basileus. Furthermore, in 2014 Crescent and Cross was released, which both provides a slightly improved rules set and extends the timespan covered to the Crusades. In 2019, Age of Magic was released, expanding the rules to encompass any fantasy army that you could dream of, and added rules to use magic in your games.
There are four playable factions in the rulebook; Vikings, Anglo-Danish, Welsh and Normans (anyone clued up on their history will note that 3 out of these 4 are essentially just different types of Viking). Each faction also includes a couple of named characters, such as William, Duke of Normandy and Harald Hadradda. Four more factions have been released with the Northern Fury expansion, namely Scots, Jomsvikings (yes, they all are quite keen on Vikings in this game!) Saxons and Bretons. At Salute 2012 Gripping Beast released a new faction called the Skraelings, which represent the Native Americans encountered by Leif Eriksson in Vinland.
The Raven's Shadow added four new factions: the Irish, Norse-Gaels, Strathclyde Welsh and Franks. Varjazi & Basileus added Pagan Rus, Rus Princes and Byzantines. Crescent and Cross introduced 6 factions: Crusaders (standard crusading armies), Milites Christi (orders like the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar), Spanish (El Cid and the reconquista), Moors (North African/Iberian muslim forces), Saraceens (Levant muslim forces) and Mutataw’wia (religious fanatics). Steppe Nomad rules were also released on Studio Tomahawk's website.
Age of Magic has no set factions, but does have 6 general “Archetypes” which you could fit really any medieval/fantasy army into. The Great Kingdoms are your typical Factions of Order within fantasy settings, and can be anything from a Kingdom of Noble Knights based on Chivalry, Honor, and exploiting peasants, to a Brotherhood of Heroes and Warriors who seek out evil and destroy it, to even your High Elf magic fag stand-ins. The Lords of the Wild are your Tree-hugger factions, and could be anything from mad Treants, Wood Elves, and Nature spirits, to Minotaur packs, Lizardmen, or not-Native Americans. The Undead Legions are exactly what their archetype name is. Finally! An excuse to use your Tomb Kings army you haven’t played since GW flushed Warhammer Fantasy Battle down the toilet. You could also play a mad necromancer with an army of skeletons, or a Vampire Count and his undead Aristocratic line. The Horde is anything that would be considered human or humanoid but uncivilized. Goblins, Orcs, Vikings, Mongols, Cavemen, Ogres, Trolls, even Beastmen if you think Lords of the Wild do too many weird things with trees. The Masters of the Underearth are once again, pretty self explanatory. Anything that typically lives underground would find itself in this archetype. Dwarves and Skaven are almost always the first two to jump to mind, but you could justify anything. The Otherworld is pretty much everything else. Demons, Devils, said Demon’s and Devil’s Blood-Cults, Eldritch Horrors like Cthulu, even Angels, anything that would be considered from a different plane of existence. Age of Magic is amazing in its freedom with what models you can use (as long as they’re around 28mm, no one will care if your men are a bit shorter), and opens the door to build an army that you couldn’t really envision in any other game.
Saga has a slightly weird rule system which is actually pretty original and interesting. The flavour and tactics of each faction comes from the use of 'Saga dice' and the 'battle board'. At the start of your turn you roll a number of Saga dice - faction specific 6-sided dice with cool symbols on them instead of dots. The symbols you roll are used to activate units (move, shoot or rest) and perform special abilities from your 'battle board' (each faction has their own battle board and allows you to make units do heroic things like intimidate enemy units, form a defensive shield wall or fight a melee with extra brutality). The Saga dice themselves are very pretty, and use symbols such as Viking runes and Welsh dragons, but you can use standard D6's as substitutes if you don't want to fork out extra wonga (or if Gripping Beast don't have them in stock when you want to order them, which happens quite a lot...). Studio Tomahawk were also kind enough to produce print-outs of the symbols so you can cut them out and stick them onto blank dice, which seems to be the standard way of doing things amongst Saga players.
The other defining feature of the system is 'fatigue'. Basically you can activate a unit as many times as you like in a turn (providing you have Saga dice to do so) but if you push a unit hard it will get tired and your opponent can exploit this in combat, making fatigued units extremely vulnerable. Fatigue can be remedied by resting, but this means not being able to do anything for a turn. Therefore, sucessful game play in Saga revolves around battlefield tactics, making the best possible use of your Saga dice and careful management of fatigue (both yours and your opponents) rather than constructing a killer army list.
Everyone has access to the same generic units (with some slight variations such as Viking Berserkers and Norman Crossbowmen): Hearthguard (which are 'ard as nails), Warriors (does what it says on the tin) and Levies (stinking peasants who are rubbish and tend to throw/shoot sharp objects from a safe distance). A standard sized game is set at 6 points ('points' in this game are more in line with Warmachine than Warhammer). However, 4 point games are a good starting point to learn the rules and there are guidelines for playing bigger games in the rulebook. 1 point gets you either 4 Hearthguard, 8 Warriors or 12 Levies. Once you have spent your points you arrange the men you have into units of between 4 and 12 models - there is very little farting around with lists and calculators!
Historical or not?
Some hardcore historical wargamers have questioned the accuracy of Saga's game system, claiming it doesn't accurately depict the way groups of warriors fought in this period. Such people are clearly idiots. We have NO WAY OF KNOWING how dark age combat worked, the events of the game took place over 1000 years ago and the only surviving evidence we have to go on is the scribblings of a few of monks who were more concerned with proving the existence of 'miracles' and the virtues of praying before a battle than analysing tactics and strategy. Therefore sure, the game might be completely historically inaccurate, but the same goes for every other toy-soldier game set in this period, so stop bloody moaning!
If you are interested in knowing how Vikings conducted raids in the dark ages gather your mates, go to Norway, buy some axes and sail back to England and attempt to nick all of the bling from the first Catholic church/monastery you come across... actually that's not a bad idea, now where did I put my chainmail?