Two Minds about The Banner Saga: Warbands
Posted by The Innocent
Today on Two Minds About…, Dan Thurot is graciously joined by famous rockstar Brock Poulsen to examine, critique, and otherwise dissect The Banner Saga: Warbands.
Dan: Introduction time! Take it away, Brock.
Brock: You swiped right on this guy a few days ago, and agreed to meet up for coffee. He’s as handsome in person as he was online, all muscles and thick beard, maybe with a tattoo creeping out of his collared shirt.
“Hey,” he says as he approaches your table. “I’m The Banner Saga: Warbands.”
Dan: I’m already loving this.
Brock: Warbands mentions how he listens to Icelandic indie rock or something, which seems interesting. But now that you’re actually talking with him, the conversation is so banal you can actually feel time. And the reason he has such eclectic musical taste is that he bought his phone online, and he can’t figure out how to change anything on it. He keeps confusing Ireland and Iceland, and also Ecuador somehow?
Dan: Get outta there, fella!
Brock: Warbands takes you to his car, which is pretty nice. But you have to ride in the back because he “couldn’t find” the passenger seat. Then he drives you to a JCPenney, and is dismayed to find only reasonably priced clothing. He tells you he thought it was a fancy restaurant, but you’re able to make the most of it and hit the food court for some Sbarro. The final phase of the date is a trampoline park, where he promptly pushes you down and gets far too competitive playing dodgeball with a bunch of kids.
If you’re astute, perhaps you’ve picked up on what I’ve tried to communicate with this vivid analogy.
Dan: Trampoline parks are full-contact. Those kids knew what they were getting into.
Brock: Not that. I’m talking about how The Banner Saga: Warbands features beards. It is also dull and confusing, and both too complex and overly simple.
Dan: Oh, right, yes.
Dan: Okay. So here’s the thing… this isn’t even a game. I swear it isn’t. It’s a box of objects and things, some of them quite pretty and some of them bland, but no idea whatsoever about how to cobble those things together into something playable. It’s a pyrite game, fool’s cardboard.
Brock: The pretty obvious comparison is Myth, which I like better but still suffers from a lot of the same issues. Warbands is heavy on the fancy miniatures, but skimps on things like clear rules and enjoyable gameplay.
Dan: And at least Myth got updated to 2.0. Warbands is still stuck in the stone age.
Here’s the notion for anyone who isn’t keen. The Banner Saga was one of those sparkling digital games, and not a terrible one at that. It pitched you as a clan of ultra-Vikings, Vikings so beastly that some of them are literal giants with horns sprouting from their craniums. Unfortunately, these Vikings were on the run from some baddies who looked like a tuna cannery got jiggy with the entire cast of your nearest Medieval Times. So they journeyed far and beat up some of those unholy tin-can-man offspring.
As far as those sorts of games go, it was fine. I neither loved nor hated it. The writing was good enough, the combat a bit of endurable drudgery—
Brock: The game itself calls the bad guys Drudge! That’s some kind of confluence.
Dan: Speaking of drudgery, you also had to manage your camp of Vikings, Oregon Trail-style, albeit with 100% less dysentery.
Onto Warbands, also known as the Cardboard Edition. As with the original, it’s a game where your time is split between narrative decisions as you journey around a map and tactical battles where you punch tin-can-men and get punched back. There’s a twist to this, though, apparently. Here, I’ll just quote from the game’s BoardGameGeek page. They write:
There are four roles in the warband: Quartermaster, Keeper of Names, Warmaster, and Thane. Each role must aggressively push for resolutions that help out themselves, while being open to compromise for the good of the warband. It is this conflict and compromise that is the heart of Warbands.
There we have it. Right at its “heart” is this semi-cooperative idea that these four roles are going to be debating, looking out for their own interests, being selfish. And would you say that there’s even a single minute of that in the game, Brock?
Brock: Not for a moment. There were a tense few seconds involving your Trader Joe’s caramels, but that was unrelated to Warbands.
Dan: For a store that’s supposedly about organic and green and other healthy-feely things, all I buy at Trader Joe’s is junk. Those caramels, though.
Brock: Other than those caramels, we never agree on anything! Except in Warbands. Then we are in accord about nearly everything. Maybe the problem is the game wants to have its cake and eat it too. Cards present the players with a list of two or three choices, but don’t tell you the costs or consequences. This is fine for a purely narrative experience, akin to Dead of Winter’s Crossroads card, where choices can have unexpected results.
But if the goal is to have “conflict and compromise,” then players need to have some idea what they’ll have to give up. Warbands is just asking you to guess. It wouldn’t have taken much to make the adjustment; even something vague about “The Warmaster sends troops, supported by the Quartermaster’s supplies” would have at least sparked something in the way of reluctance or discussion.
Dan: Dead of Winter is an interesting point of comparison, especially since both are games interested in weaving a narrative for your group. At least in Dead of Winter your survivors have something tangible to bicker about, since someone may be a traitorous scumbag. Even if nobody has drawn that role, not everybody is likely to win, since all the goals are tied to some form of being selfish. Not so much in Warbands. The scenario goals that I’ve seen have been ironclad, things like “Make sure everybody is feeling refreshed and happy after their Trail of Tears reenactment.” There’s just no reason to not collaborate as closely as possible.
Brock: Not only that, but there are often rewards for everyone agreeing, giving even less of an incentive to be selfish. It’s a fully cooperative game, so this line seems out of place and confusing.
Dan: You know, I think even that misstep could be forgiven. It wouldn’t be the first time that a game succeeded without necessarily meeting all its original stated goals. For me, the real issue is that it’s a bifurcated experience, two halves supposedly complementing one another, but neither side of the game offers all that much to engage with.
Basically, you swap between managing your caravan and then zooming into these tactical-level melees. It’s a perfectly fine idea at the conceptual level. But why don’t we start with the caravan stuff? How would you describe that portion of the game?
Oh, in more than one word? You astutely pointed out that the world-map portion is totally unnecessary. Mission cards give you a path to travel and a win condition. The only necessary information on the large map is the type of event you encounter as your warband travels, and that could be done easily on the mission card itself. There’s nothing to be gained by the spatial element of moving the warband’s token on the map.
Dan: Yeah, it has this big beautiful map — big and beautiful the way everything in The Banner Saga is big and beautiful, both in digital and cardboard incarnations — but there’s no reason for it to exist. Whether traveling from Ollerholm to Strand or Vedrfell to Skrymirstead, you’ll never take one route over another, so this big map with all its smooth roads or dangerous paths just doesn’t matter.
Brock: I guess it sort of qualifies as set dressing for the individual roles, but it feels like filler. And when more than half of your game is filler, maybe that’s an issue that should have been addressed?
Dan: Agreed. And what about the second half of the game, the tactical tiffs, where man and giant face off against metal-headed men?
Brock: The good news: the tactical skirmish battles don’t exactly feel unnecessary. The bad news is that they’re not particularly good. This portion of the game has a distinctly “solvable” feeling. This is partly due to the deterministic rules: there are no dice or other random elements involved, so a bit of math is really all that’s required to predict success or failure. There’s nothing particularly interesting about this half of Warbands. It’s a shame, because the miniatures are quite lovely. But you’d probably be better off putting them to use in another combat system.
Dan: This might constitute friendly (or at least innocent) fire, but the combat was the low point of the video game as well. There was this awesome bit of tension — characters could actually die! unless they were wearing plot armor! — but a couple things kept it shy of greatness. First of all, the combat system was tragically gamey, where killing baddies was often the suboptimal move, since it meant they would then get to take more turns per fighter. It was silly, drawing the focus more to the trappings of the game and less to the actual task of directing the fight. And secondly, it reached a point where there were so dang many scuffles that it became a slog.
I wish I could say Warbands is better. This was an opportunity to put board gaming’s history of great tactical skirmish games to good use. Instead, most of my time with it has been spent counting out possible moves. “If I move my guy here, then he’ll lose a hit point to this guy, but if I do this attack here, then he won’t be allowed to hit me since I’m gold-rank and he isn’t…”
It’s the brawl version of Sudoku. And that isn’t an endorsement.
Brock: It may sound kind of snide, but it’s appropriate. There’s no heart to the combat. MegaCon’s previous outing Myth, while far from perfect, at least lets you toss handfuls of dice and take big risks, plunging deep into a swarm of enemies, trading safety for glory.
None of that excitement is present in Warbands. It’s math with miniatures, and it’s not even interesting math. Every time I played, I reached a point where the outcome was obvious enough that I just called the victory in whichever direction it was going and cleared the board. The system just isn’t interesting enough to warrant taking a few more rounds to actually play out the resolution.
Dan: Look, if either half of this thing had been compelling, the other half might have remained merely functional. Taking a time-out from this dynamic refugee management thing to fight a lukewarm but high stakes battle? Okay, that could work. Or bouncing from a bunch of blah “pick your narrative” cards into an awesome fight every so often? Also cool. Instead, I spent my time on the road wishing I could be in a fight, and my fights wishing I could get back to the wagons. That isn’t a good sign.
Brock: Since it’s kind of my schtick, I wanted to talk briefly about the solo game. Dan has mentioned before that certain games shine when you remove those pesky other players.
I don’t want to get your hopes up. Warbands doesn’t become any better when you have the only seat at the table. It keeps the same travel and combat systems, and grafts on a few more confusing rules and interactions.
Banner Saga: Warbands makes a nice first impression, and MegaCon Games has recruited a team of talented artists and sculpters. Unfortunately this beauty is only skin deep, without any substance underneath.
Dan: So it’s a MegaCon. Get it?