More Than 878 Vikings
There’s something insecure about the title of 878: Vikings — Invasions of England, as though the creators weren’t sure they’d sufficiently clarified their intent. It’s set in the year 878, check. Also there are Vikings, sure. And they’re invading England, right. The only missing elements are motive, opportunity, and outcome.
Clunky title aside, 878: Vikings is a successor to Academy Games’ Birth of America series, which featured the rather-good 1775: Rebellion. And for the most part, it’s as fun as being on the pitching side of a monastery raid.
One of the cleverest ideas rattling around this game’s not-horned helmet — and this applied to 1775: Rebellion as well — is that it pitches each side as a combination of forces that must cooperate if they hope to overcome their mutual enemies. It’s a team game, one where each side boasts slightly different strengths and weaknesses. The Vikings, for instance, field a combination of Norse warriors — hardy and numerous, but still prone to fleeing from a fight — and Berserkers, who never run and inflict casualties with ease, but are guaranteed to absorb the first hit in any given battle, which quickly depletes their numbers. And in the English camp sit the Housecarl and Thegn, one of which is tougher than the other, though not by much.
There’s a veiled criticism there, and it applies to much of what follows when you spread that map of England over the table. 878: Vikings encourages cooperation in subtle and important ways, and boasts a slick battle system and plenty of solid decisions, but it’s also a game where one side feels distinctly more interesting than the other.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. For now, it’s important to note that the raw gameplay has been honed over multiple iterations. Players can only move armies if they’ve got one of their units mixed in, and can only contribute so many dice, and both of these details encourage allied players to assemble mixed-group armies. Even better, it’s possible to give armies multiple commands per round — one per player — provided you’ve set them up properly. It’s a straightforward system, but also one that encourages a heavy dose of cooperation. A huge stack of Berserkers might look imposing, but it’ll be half as fast, only roll the two red Berserker dice, and won’t be as likely to benefit from its Norse companion’s event cards.
From that foundation, 878: Vikings stages a compelling back-and-forth between England’s defenders and invaders as they both struggle to control the lion’s share of the island’s cities. The Vikings are appropriately alien, arriving from distant lands and coming ashore in great heathen hordes led by charismatic leaders. These guys have considerably more wiggle room than regular armies, moving and fighting and moving and fighting all at once, able to break a line and follow through into yet another fight. There’s a sense of urgency when leading them on a rampage across the countryside, as drawn-out battles will slow your advance, and a whiff of desperation when facing them as the English. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to think you’ve got the Vikings hemmed in, only to watch as they smash your line, wheel around another of your armies, and flank a city. So much for that.
By comparison, the English have special Fyrd cards that they can mobilize whenever they’re defending a city. These are one-shots that will give them a handful of Fyrd militia, dudes who are more prone to hoof it than stay and fight, but they’re handy enough at bearing the brunt of a Berserker charge.
If anything, the presence of leaders once again highlights why the Vikings are so much more interesting to command than the English. Rather than gaining trickles of reinforcements from a bunch of cities, they appear out of nowhere with an enormous horde, choose where they’ll come ashore, smash through multiple battles and maneuvers in a single turn, and stride all imposing-like across the board. By comparison, the English get some defensive militia and hope to hold the line long enough for Alfred the Great, their sole hero, to show up and save the day.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t some thrill to conducting a back-footed fight as the English, especially when you’re able to find a chink in the Vikings’ armor and retake some of your precious recruitment cities. All those rampaging heathen leaders might be powerful, but they also tend to leave meager armies in their wake to keep control of the territory they’ve claimed, meaning the Vikings often struggle to keep hold of their gains.
And of course, both sides pack a number of dirty tricks that can be sprung at the most inopportune moments. There are all sorts of options to abuse, but my favorite example came in the form of a one-two punch that unexpectedly liberated England from the victorious Vikings.
As the Housecarl, my ally and I had watched as the Viking leaders stripped us of even a single recruitment city. Our forces were scattered to the wind, and would require multiple turns to reorganize into a fighting force, let alone retake any ground. Alfred the Great was finally scheduled to make his first appearance, but without a city for him to materialize in, we were hopeless. Worse, both sides had played a Treaty of Wedmore card, meaning that our respective leaders would come to an agreement at the end of that round. With no army and no hope of reinforcement, we had two turns to retake six cities or be utterly defeated.
Enter the event cards. Thanks to the initiative system, my Housecarl and my ally’s Thegn were able to act back-to-back. First I launched a Rebellion, which wiped the sole Viking defender from Oxford. Like the Holy Ghost descending in the form of a dove who also happens to belch lightning, Alfred the Great was then able to rally there, pick up a huge mass of Thegn troops who had fled from earlier battles, and begin flinging soldiery at every nearby lightly-occupied city. Another card meant that those oft-worthless Fyrd were able to help on the offensive, and my ally was able to spill into just enough cities to tip the scales in our favor. When the treaty was finally struck between the English and Vikings, it was drafted in our favor.
There was a lot going on over those two turns, and it represents the sum total of what makes 878: Vikings so fun — but also, at times, incredibly infuriating.
For one thing, this series of games has been described as “Risk-plus,” and it isn’t an unwarranted comparison. The battle dice revolve around dealing hits, but might also see your troops running for the hills or being presented with an opportunity to maneuver into an adjacent space. This allows for unexpected victories and dramatic reversals of fortune, but also for, well, unexpected victories and dramatic reversals of fortune. It’s possible for a large cohesive force to crumble, flee, and eventually maneuver away from a fight. Just like that, your last best hope for victory might have been dashed.
Those moments capture the way it must have felt to successfully defend a beleaguered garrison or capture a crucial objective with an underwhelming force, but they also capture the flipside — the sundering of an army, the frustrated offensive, the cascading collapse of a defense. Crucially, the dice have clearly been carefully tuned to lessen the sting of defeat. Routed troops eventually come back on your next turn, and maneuvers can be used to shore up a coming fight or trickle away from a losing proposition. The battles themselves never quite cross the line from chancy to capricious, but those who loathe random outcomes aren’t going to find much to like here.
This is further exacerbated by the card and initiative systems. Your event cards appear at random, as does the Treaty of Wedmore that might end the game prematurely if both sides play it. Perhaps worst of all, the turn order is drawn at random from a bag. This makes for some tense times where your opponent might essentially get two turns in a row, but it also leads to moments like the one I described up above, where the last player to go was the one who was likely to win. If the Vikings had been given a turn after our Housecarl/Thegn mass attack, they could have easily taken the one extra city they needed to win.
One response is to dismiss 878: Vikings as a little too dependent on the initiative order of its last few turns, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s still a thrilling experience, albeit one where your decisions are often subject to the whims of the roll, draw, and turn order. So it goes in war, after all. Moreover, a victory like the one achieved by the English of my example was only possible because of previous actions — saved cards, overextended supply lines, and the like. The defining moments were still about our willingness to keep up the momentum or fall back and consolidate, to hold or fall back, to wager or play it safe. And that’s all good stuff.
Ultimately, I think very highly of 878: Vikings. It’s an excellent, fairly light, and exciting way of playing out the wars waged between the English and the Great Heathen Army back in I-forgot-what-year.