Thane You, Jarl Welcome

Ragnar Lothbrok, you're so dreamy.

Even after a sustained two-year barrage of contenders, I still consider The Duke one of the best head-to-head games of all time. I called it “chess checkmated” in my review, mostly because I knew it would prove controversial at the local chess club meetup over at the senior center. Those guys still flash their octogenarian crusties at me whenever I stop in for a cheap lunch.

Another thing I enjoy is the History Channel’s TV series Vikings. I’m not going to use a word like “love,” but yeah, I like it alright. Sometimes they fight each other, other times they scheme. Usually somebody gets naked in a PG-13 sort of way. Y’know, Viking stuff.

At any rate, The Duke and Vikings have apparently also gotten naked in a PG-13 sort of way, because Jarl has recently been delivered kicking and screaming into the world. Let’s pay our respects.

And yet richly textured.

The comparison between The Duke and Jarl is rather black and white.

For anyone unfamiliar with The Duke, the concept that makes Jarl tick is simple to grasp while still allowing for quite a bit of strategy. You’ve got a head honcho — that’s your Jarl — and he starts out on one side of the board with two wimpy buddies. On the opposite end of the field is the enemy Jarl with his two wimpy buddies.

Your goal is to checkmate the enemy Jarl while keeping yours safe. It goes without saying that this is way easier said than done. For one thing, Jarls are appropriately slippery, hopping all over the place. For another, placing new fighters on the field means drawing them out of a bag at random and putting them next to your own Jarl. There’s a quandary, then, between keeping your leader out of harm’s way or positioning him so that any new tiles appear ready to prod at your opponent’s lines.

The other twist is that each tile has its own set of unique moves. The result is something a bit like the interlocking moves of chess but many times more involved. See, where in chess a piece might be able to move one space forward or capture diagonally (as the pawn can), in Jarl a piece might be able to retreat backwards, kill something diagonally adjacent without moving, or leap two spaces forward. And that’s an extremely basic set of moves; other tiles can instill an enemy with dread to freeze it in place, provide a shield to make its buddies invincible, or command other pieces to move in ways that break their regular rules. Each tile has multiple possibilities, spelled out right on their face.

If that sounds hard to keep track of, you don’t know the half of it. The truly tough part is keeping track of each tile’s reverse side. See, when a tile takes an action, it flips over, revealing a second set of moves. The interplay between all these pieces, with two different states each, makes the game’s 6×6 board a minefield, spear wall, danger zone, and ambush all at once.

And yet for all its complexity, it’s never quite as overwhelming as it sounds. The first few matches might feel awkward, but once you get the feel for what your tiles can do, it settles into a clever rhythm of move and counter-move, trap and bait and evasion, a winning strategy slowly coalescing before being dashed and gradually refined. The Duke is one of the few games I would recommend to anyone.

The Jarl, on the other hand? Well…

It's meant to distract the eye, to keep the chieftain's foes off balance. Everything is clear now.

The “chipped stone” tiles are pleasantly tactile, but the black ones can be a little too hard to read.

First of all, let’s talk about what works.

Where Jarl could have been a carbon copy of The Duke with some Viking names splashed across the top, it goes out of its way to make its own mark. For one thing, The Duke tended towards fast-playing matches where many troops had the ability to slide across the entire board in a single move. It was important to control as many lanes and diagonals as possible. Jarl, on the other hand, doesn’t contain a single slide. Instead, its pieces move slowly, stepping cautiously around the field. What’s more, a large proportion of the pieces come with defensive abilities, shields that protect from attacks depending on their angle of approach. Even the basic tile that accompanies the Jarl at the start of battle, the Freeman, can defend against any attack coming from straight on.

Jarl makes for a much more deliberate game, more about creating an interlocking system of defenses and attacks than about controlling the entire board. This makes some thematic sense — Vikings (at least the ones in the TV show) fight as a shield wall — and gives you this sense of a burly formation lumbering across the field of battle. It isn’t uncommon to see four or five pieces projecting interlocking defenses and kill-zones, or maybe a well-protected Shieldmaiden extending her super-duper shield onto other tiles, making them invincible until she moves or gets killed.

What’s more, Jarl simply looks and feels good. The Duke had a pleasant enough aesthetic, but Jarl pitches itself as a game that might be played between Ragnar Lothbrok and King Horik as they size each other up over mead and roasted dog. The pieces look like stone, have little grooves in them as though they were carved from flawed material, and clink ever so sharply in the bag.

Unfortunately, these same pieces are where the downsides start. For starters, in a game where a single tile might be able to make ten distinct moves, having some of those moves almost perfectly camouflaged thanks to the white-flecked pattern of the stone isn’t as well considered as it might have been.

I miss slides so badly.

The Jarls are frustratingly tricky to pin down.

It also doesn’t help that Jarl is painfully slow compared to its daddy. Without pieces able to travel the length of the board in a single go, forces positioned opposite each other will usually have to resort to a slow trundle before reaching striking distance, shifting their interlocking defenses one move at a time. This brings up the shield abilities themselves, which are harder to parse than anything else presented in either Jarl or The Duke, further drawing out matches and injecting a bit of fiddliness into a system that otherwise feels effortlessly tight. And when the Jarl is one of the most mobile pieces in the game, bounding out of your reach with an easy giggle, the prospect of putting him in checkmate starts to toe the line between tenuous and tedious.

This isn’t to say that Jarl is bad, just that it’s somewhat inferior to its predecessor. The Duke was tight like the commandments of chastity at Lindisfarne Monastery before the Vikings arrived. Jarl, on the other hand, is sort of like Lindisfarne after a bit of ravaging: still a nice place to live, but the influx of murderous pagans has got everybody putting up walls. In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend The Duke, but reserve Jarl for those who want to combine it with the original game to see which would win the fight between Saxons and Vikings.

Posted on September 29, 2015, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Your finest pun headline to date? I believe so.

  2. I guess this review was released a while ago, but I missed it and wanted to add my two cents. I am an avid player of The Duke. Like you, I think it’s one of the most pleasant head to head games in my collection. There is a variety of addons that can help change the experience too.

    I am a little more positive about Jarl that you are, though. I actually bought that one first. Jarl made me discover The Duke… At first, I had a very difficult time with it. As you mention, the dots on those tiles are difficult to see. It’s still an issue and always will be one. Then, a second issue is the fact that the many options on every tile are a bit overwhelming, and it’s very hard to remember what can be on the other side of the tile. The Duke’s tiles had somewhat thematic movement. I found Jarl’s to have a rather random feel. Some tiles’ movements options make no sense at all to me. Lastly, I found the worst issue with Jarl is the Jarl tile itself. It has so many options to move, contrary to the Duke tile, that sometimes we felt that we could never end a game.

    Time proved me at least partially wrong. The tiles are still hard to read, but in time, you don’t even need to look at them, as you know them well enough. This settles the issue with the other side of the tiles too. It takes time, but at some point, you know what’s on the other side (and we still allow players to look if needed). As for the third issue, it never got settled, so we started playing Jarl with the Duke tile instead. This proved to be my favorite way to play either game.

    What I love in Jarl is the strategic options. Shield maidens and other defensive tiles soon create a gridlock, a series of tiles protecting themselves in a tight network, which transforms the game into a struggle to break the other player’s defensive formation, something I could not find in The Duke. In Duke, a dominated player can at some point win just by getting the right tile out of the bag. It’s back and forth with tiles that can fly all around the board ; hit, counter hit. It’s fun, but it’s crazy and a little more tactical than strategic (we play The Duke with a queue of 3 open tiles in reserve (per player) to help solve this issue a bit).

    The pleasure we have in Jarl in incomparable, when suddenly, a great move takes a tile that was protecting two other tiles, and the opponent is sweaty trying to hold the line and reform its failing defense is just fantastic. It takes time to get there though. At least 20-25 games. But in the end, it’s incredibly fun if you like a heavier, more thinky “The Duke”.

    I wish this one was actually re-released. Take away some movement options on some tiles, maybe make them a little less random, definitely take many away movement options from the Jarl tile and make the tiles clearer to read. I guess it’s too much of a niche game to ever see that happening.

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