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[Review] Saga

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

I recently reviewed Spy by Uberplay games and remarked that while it was playable with more than two players; it was really best only with a duo. I’d have to say the opposite about Saga (Uberplay Games, Wolfgang Kramer - 2004), another game in Uberplay’s small box series. Even though Saga plays okay with two players, it really shines as a multiplayer game, and I have to say that it is my favorite of the Uberplay small box series.

The theme is about players attack and defending castles, but the game reeks more so of a theme of thieving from one another and maximizing points. The mechanics are definitely different than any I’ve seen in other games but are simple and allow for a decent amount of strategy. There seems to be a slight runaway leader problem, as I’ve not yet seen a game where the person leading halfway through didn’t win the game; but I’m sure that different tactics would have precipitated a different ending.

Each player takes a different set of knight cards - each with a different symbol on the back. The twelve cards that compose the set are different for each symbol, but all follow the same pattern. They are made up of six different colored cards (orange, yellow, green, blue, red, and purple), with two “4’s” and one “1” of one color, one “3” and “1” of another, one “3” and two “2’s” of another, one “3” of a fourth, one “4” and “2” of a fifth, and one “1” of the last, giving the player three cards of each denomination from 1-4. A pile of tokens in denominations “1”, “2”, “5”, and “10” are placed near the board. Six Kingdom cards, one for each color, are placed face up in the middle of the board. Each card has two sides, each with a different special ability. Then, one set of Knight cards not being used in the game is dealt out, with two knights defending each castle. One knight being dealt to each castle must be of that castle’s color, the other a different color; these two knights compose the defending force of that castle. One player is chosen to go first, and then play proceeds clockwise around the table.

A player’s turn consists of two mandatory phases and one optional phase. First, a player receives fame points (the tokens) equal to the amount shown on the castles that they currently control. The rules state that players who forget to do this lose out and don’t get them. After this, the player must play one knight card from their hand onto the table into an “attacking force”. The player may start a new attacking force, or add to an existing one they own. The first knight played in an attacking force determines the color of the castle attacked by that group, and all subsequent knights must be of a different color (meaning that a maximum of six knights, one of each color may be in an attacking force). If the total sum of the knights’ numbers is higher than the defending force’s sum in the castle being attacked, then the attackers win! The castle card is placed on top of the attacking force, which becomes the new defending force (no more cards can be added). The displaced defending force is returned to its owner’s hand, or in the case of neutral knights put aside in a pool of “free agents” on the side of the table. After this, the player may purchase one of the free knights, paying fame points equal to the value of the Knight card then placing it into their hand.

Each card has a special ability on both sides, so that players can choose between them, or just randomly decide which to use in each game. Here are some examples of the special abilities.
- One castle adds one to its defense, while another subtracts one from its defense.
- One castle gives the owner at game end five additional fame points.
- Several castles affect scoring at the game end, concerning attacking or defending forces.
- One castle allows the conquering player to recruit a free agent knight for free.
- Etc., etc.

When one player lays down the last knight card in their hand, the game is over immediately, and scoring begins. Each player totals their score, receiving points that are equal to the sum of their fame chips, plus the total sum of each of their defending forces, plus any bonuses from castles. Each player also subtracts points equal to the sum of the value of the knights in their hand. Whoever has the highest score is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The cards for Saga look very nice with good medieval-type drawings on them. Each knight card of the same color has a specific picture of a different soldier, making it easy for color-blind people to play the game, while adding to the theme of the game. The tokens are square rectangular tokens, each a different color, although constantly moving them around felt a little fiddly at times. Everything fit very nicely into a plastic insert in a small, colorful box.

2.) Theme: The theme is supposedly attacking other’s castles, but it just felt like thievery to me. Every time someone took someone else’s castle, people moaned about stealing and made plans to “steal” it back. The theme is fine; it just doesn’t really feel central to the game.

3.) Rules: The rules are in a ten-page folded booklet that is full color with several illustrations. There is an exact setup of castles and guards shown for beginner’s first game, which is helpful. The game is extremely easy to understand, with the only confusion being that players occasionally have a hard time remembering what each special ability does and what icon matches it.

4.) Castles: The castles all have unique special abilities, and one of them, the orange castle, is worth more fame points than the others. In our games, the orange castle is exchanged more frequently than most of the others. Yet other castles are just as dangerous - such as the green castle, which can cancel all negative points for a player or the yellow castle, which gives the player fifteen points for their defending force. Each castle’s special ability, if used in the correct fashion, can give a player a huge advantage at the right time.

5.) Strategy: And that is the heart of the strategy of the game - knowing when to take a castle, and which castles to take. Taking free agents is a double-sided sword, also; as getting the extra manpower is often necessary, but it gives the player an extra card which may cost them points at the end of the game. And how should a player maneuver their attacking forces? Should they quickly conquer a castle, or slowly build up several forces, taking several castles in a row? At first glance, the game seems simple; just take castles from each other, until one person runs out of cards. But knowing which castles to take and the correct timing to do it; that’s the key to winning. I have noticed that if a player takes a couple of castles early on, and gets a lot of money quickly, it’s hard for them to lose. But I think with proper positioning, a player can overcome this early lead.

6.) Fun Factor: It’s enjoyable to steal castles back and forth from each other, but it’s not devastating to the player whose castle is stolen, because they can easily get it back (usually). It’s not a rip-roaring fun fest, but the game is enjoyable enough; and the mechanics are deep enough to make this a worth while game.

Saga is deeper than most games of its length, raising it above the “filler” category, and almost placing it in the medium-weight group. It’s a game that’s quickly learned but not so quickly mastered. I found that the two-player game lacked the interaction of a multiplayer game; but that either way there were many tactical decisions that could be made quickly. If I could only buy one Uberplay small box game, it would be Saga; because of its quickness and versatility. Kramer produces yet another winner, proving that he is the master of tactical European games.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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