You’ve Got Red On You
If there were any one thing I would not have guessed about Viking warriors succumbing to battle-fury as Ragnarök tears the world apart beneath their very feet, it would be the sheer quantity of planning that goes into every wild chop of the axe, every swing of the hammer, and every jab of the spear. Which is to say, Blood Rage isn’t about your usual Vikings, all snarl-toothed and animal-eyed. By Odin, if they’ve got a shot at reaching Valhalla, they’re going to plan it out. To the last detail, if need be.
This isn’t to say that Blood Rage is a slow game, or even a particularly deliberate game. On the contrary, it’s one of the most immediate games I’ve played in… well, possibly since the Jotun Ymir drank straight from the cow-giant Auðumbla’s bare udder. Every action is an exercise in self-gratification. Want to send a warrior to threaten the province of Gimle? Boom, done. Want to sail longships over to harass enemy-occupied territory? Whoosh, they’re there. Prefer to upgrade one of your troops? Zing, sure, no problem, and bonk, now deploy one for free, just because! Want to send an entire host of screaming clansmen into the region about to be consumed by Ragnarök’s fire? AUUUGH, there you go. They sure looked glorious while they burned.
Every option, no matter how seemingly insignificant, lands on the board with a manly fart of a thousand anachronistic tubas. Battles are fast and hard-hitting, handfuls of people dying and being sent to Valhalla just because their combat number — a combination of your force’s strength and whatever card you wagered — was lower than somebody else’s. What happens when there’s a tie? Everybody dies. FAAARRRT. And right when a huge loss seems insurmountable, Blood Rage proves that it’s as generous as it is greedy, troops popping back onto the board, the victor losing a precious battle-card while the losers hoard their own to use again and again, and the deeper-cunning players spinning their weaknesses into strengths.
And yet, for all its immediacy, Blood Rage is still a game about planning. It arrives in the form of a gentle whisper, caressing your ear with the message that cooler heads will prevail. It’s subtle enough that I’ve seen multiple players get caught up in the moment, so Hel-bent on wiping out as many enemy pieces as possible that they neglect to make the smart move. It might seem like celebrated battle is the only way forward, but then someone goes and steals your glory, your cards, and rakes in the points even when you beat them over and over again. It makes for a mighty beard-scratcher, but it’s possible to win the war even while sulking away from the petty battles. It’s no mistake, for instance, that sending your own people to Valhalla is a major way to win glory.
So how does it work? Well, there are two beating hearts that keep Blood Rage pumping, keeping the focus on hard-fought battles while also giving you room to maneuver.
The first is your player board. It might not seem like much at first, especially as it’s a blank canvas, waiting for pigments of red and crimson and blood-stain to give it some variety. While each clan starts out the same as any other, there’s plenty of room for self-improvement. Bumping up your clan’s Rage, for example, will improve your grisly currency in future rounds, giving you more latitude to invade, march, and pillage the realm. A bump in Axes makes conquest all the sweeter, each successful battle awarding more glory. And Helms… well, Helms are the easiest to forget, even though a clan without them won’t be able to field much of an army.
Unfortunately, the main way to increase these is by pillaging provinces, and battles are inherently risky. For one, the instant you announce your intent to pillage somebody’s hamlet, you’ve either locked down the province supremely well by taking personal possession of all its village spaces, or (more likely) your enemies will come flooding in from all directions, eager for a taste of the coming scrum. Manage to win and you can claim the upgrade; lose, and… well. You know what happens. It has to do with a million tubas and everyone dying.
I mentioned above that you didn’t need to win very many battles in order to sit at Odin’s side in Valhalla, and I meant it. Still, winning a few battles is a good idea, and it’s a testament to Blood Rage’s skin-drum-tight design that it’s entirely possible to maneuver yourself into winnable fights even if you haven’t had good weaponluck. Though maybe stay out of Yggdrasil, the center province with no unit limit — things can get a bit hairy in there for those who haven’t made adequate preparations. You’d better be packing a killer army or holding an amazing battle card. Preferably both.
That brings us to Blood Rage’s second heart, the cards themselves. Each of the game’s three “ages” begins with a draft where a hefty stack of quest, battle, and upgrade cards are gradually divvied up until everyone has assembled some sort of workable combination. Their powers vary from age to age, growing more powerful as Ragnarök claims more provinces and the stakes grow ever deadlier, but they all have one thing in common:
And I don’t mean some of them are bonkers. I mean every single one of them inhabits a loony bin for Vikings, where every day is Ragnarök and your only weapon is the pail of oatmeal that passes for lunch. Swing hard, you crazy berserker.
Let’s examine the humblest option, the quest. These cards are simple enough: reserve them on your board and fulfill their requirement, and at the end of the age you’ll earn more glory. Some would have you occupy a territory up north, or maybe have the biggest army sitting around Yggdrasil, or even have a bunch of dead people on your side. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not only are these some of the game’s most reliable ways to earn big hunks of glory in one go, but you can combine them with other cards to crazy effect. Odin’s Throne, for instance, is an upgrade card that you can put on your clan sheet, and it doubles the points of your quests. Now accomplish three quests in the final age and you’ll be looking at more glory than most players could earn through an entire lifetime of battles. Or, if you’d rather be the chieftain pushing everyone else around, purchase the Tyr’s Wrath upgrade, and from then on every time you reveal a quest card in a fight, it counts as a battle card instead. A gut-punch of a good one.
And that’s hardly touching on the upgrades themselves, every one of which transforms your clan into a force to be reckoned with. Your warriors gradually grow from pawns to terrifying murder-bands whose strength multiplies as they work together, leaders earn powerful new abilities, and monsters… well. Slapping one of these babies is basically the equivalent of a billion tubas. When they hit the board, you can physically feel the table rumble. Not only do their pieces tower over the regular rank-and-file, but they also bring abilities to match their size, wiping out entire armies or doubling your rewards from pillaging or giving you glory for everyone you slay. In Blood Rage, an army ain’t much more than a rabble without a good monster at their backs.
There’s more I could write about Blood Rage, but in a way that would miss the point. It’s immediate, it’s violent, every action is hard-hitting — and yet it still allows trailing players to rebound, permits the planner to maneuver and the cunning to leech off their simpleton brethren. There’s a part of me that thinks it could use a tad more variety; then again, with so many mean tricks to pull and so many nice toys to play with, I feel greedy saying that. There are many roads to victory, but very few that feel certain, just as it should be. To say that it’s fiercely confrontational would be to state the painfully obvious, so stay home if bullying your friends with a sea monster isn’t your thing.
But for everyone who’s cool with getting some red on their hands, I’ll see you in Valhalla.