Blood Rage

What a happy bird!

For a group that usually conjures images of blood-rimmed axes, freshly extracted skulls, and ransacked monasteries, Jon Manker’s Pax Viking certainly knows how to make its Vikings seem almost tolerable to spend an afternoon with.

Fair warning: you will spend a whole lot of time moving boats.

Boats!

Oddly enough, the easiest place to begin explaining Pax Viking is with something that might otherwise go unmentioned — the combat. This has everything to do with expectation. Not only is this the latest title in the intricate (and often controversial) Pax Series, but it’s also a game about Vikings, whose appearance usually heralds the impending congruence of skull and axe.

Not so in Pax Viking. Instead, combat is a simple, even remote affair. First, violence is never a given. In many cases, it’s more reliable to slink than to battle. Why bother seizing a rival venture when you can wait until it’s undefended, slip in, and conquer the place without splashing a single blade of grass with blood? Even better, you could cozy up to that Christ-religion that’s been pestering you to take a dip in the nearby river. Then victory can be as easy as showing your banner and letting the locals come around on their own.

When combat does happen, it’s a numbers game. More attackers move into a spot than there are defenders. One defending longship is lost, the others retreat, and now you’re sitting pretty on a brand new venture. No fuss, no rolled dice, and certainly no souls sent screaming into Valhalla. It’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been conditioned to expect from Vikings.

It’s also a statement. Pax Viking isn’t exactly cosmopolitan, but it reaches deeper into Norse culture than the usual tropes. These Vikings aren’t only blood-letters. They’re explorers, craftsmen, traders, and shrewd politicians. Loyal friends as well as ambitious rivals. And their tale is a strange fit for a series that’s always been about history’s crossroads. But it does fit, in the end.

Also money. What's a Pax game without a tremendous commercial focus?

Worshiping gods and making friends.

What makes it fit is the sense that you’re always lingering on the edge of yet another precipice. Most of the Pax Series accomplishes this feeling with shifting goals and uncertain conclusions. Pax Viking contains similar elements, but its vertigo is more immediate. From its very first moments, there’s the map. Stretching across the seas in every direction, along rivers and around capes and even across the Atlantic, its sheer breadth is a declaration of intent. It’s easy to recall Travis Fimmel’s mesmerizing stare as Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings, first upon striding toward Lindisfarne and later as his horizons broaden to encompass Paris.

More than any other Pax, Pax Viking is grounded by its geography. But rather than hemming it in, this geography is expansive. There’s a real sense of traveling to new realms, your wooden longships witnessing climes, peoples, and, above all, opportunities that their forefathers couldn’t have dreamed about. There are the crowded and contested duchies of Europe, the sparse settlements of the frozen seas, the sandy expanses of the south ruled by unfathomably wealthy kingdoms. All of them waiting. None of them prepared for the entrance of an interloper.

In practice, the map’s farthest reaches are populated gradually. Of the offered handful of actions, three earn a weary familiarity before long. One for claiming the game’s peculiar circular cards from the market, another for placing them on the map, and a third for traveling between destinations. This last action is the most common. The map is carefully sized: large enough that it can’t be crossed at a whim, and transforming remoteness into as much a defense as a fleet of longships. Yet it isn’t so large that it cannot be crossed, first by many travel actions and later by hard-fought duchies that expand your clan’s home territory.

For dried fruit. An OP trade if ever I saw one.

Exploring the far reaches.

Where it feels most familiar is in its range of goals. Like the rest of the series, there are multiple paths to victory. In a departure, here they’re drawn from a deck of possibilities. Most revolve around a few staples: stitching ventures into tangible settlements, spreading your longships far and wide, or seeding many “follower” tokens onto the cards on the map and your tableau.

Followers are the lifeblood of your expansion and economy. When it comes to victory conditions, they’re comparable to the prestige icons of Pax Porfiriana or Pax Renaissance. Victory might mean being the first to deploy your entire supply of Christian followers, or establishing Swedish settlements, or enforcing your military might via Jarls. But they also come to mean more than that. They’re also signs of your growing commerce, providing a meager income for each of your follower types, encouraging diversity even as you strive toward strength in specialization. Speaking of which, the game’s regular actions are complemented by four special actions, each awarded only to the clan that possesses the most of a single follower type. Even though this is unique to the Pax Series, its consequence proves familiar, sparking small conflicts that don’t immediately have anything to do with one’s overarching goals. These petty rivalries, however, are often the small gears that turn the great levers of history.

Given how powerful these special actions are, it’s easy to see why. The Christian action converts a faraway venture entirely, no need for bloodshed when missionaries will do the work. Jarldom combines movement and attack, the closest the game comes to horrific bloodshed. Sweden offers a sort of ultimate exploration, letting you draw a card at random and possibly settle it immediately. And the Rus are apparently generous souls, stealing away advocate cards from a rival board.

What keeps this from running away is a strict limitation of four actions per turn, just enough to ensure every turn matters without letting anyone sweep the game before everyone else has a chance to counter. Regular Pax players will recognize the familiar sting of falling one action short of victory. This is perhaps where it feels truest to its roots. The early moments of each match are spent feeling around the edges of the market, exploring the map, and making a few tentative inroads. Soon, everybody is at each other’s throats, capturing or converting critical ventures, demolishing one clan’s chance of victory only to accidentally pave the way for another’s ascent, and working toward a chance at victory that hopefully nobody will see coming until it’s too late.

Fun detail: I invented a variant that apparently Ion will be releasing at some point. Rather than using all of one difficulty level of victory condition, I use one of each (novice, standard, advanced, eklundian), all flipped face down. Whenever one would be revealed (through the use of an event), flip up the hardest one. This somewhat approximates the Diaz Senility Variant from Pax Porfiriana, granting tough objectives in the early stages and easier ones as the game reaches a natural conclusion.

The map is expansive.

There are some limitations. Pax Viking features the least market manipulation yet, although certain alliances permit you to claim all of the income from particular market sales, a riff on Pax Porfiriana’s speculation that’s neither as clear nor as interesting. There’s also the possibility of parlay and trade between clans. It’s a promising idea, although so many of the cards offer trade-adjacent actions that it feels ancillary. For the most part we forgot it existed.

The bigger question is whether Pax Viking earns a place in the wider pantheon of the Pax Series. These games have always been a collaborative effort, drawing in talents and ideas from Phil Eklund, Matt Eklund, Cole Wehrle, Jon Manker, and a cohort of developers. Although certain touchstones appear with regularity, the best definitions of the series have tended to be descriptive rather than exclusive. Markets and their manipulation, flashpoints that could go any number of directions, a simulationist bent, weird footnotes. All are present here, although the sharper edges have been chipped away. The game is distinctly easier to teach as a result. It’s possible to have new players up and running within five to ten minutes, and playing competently after a few rounds.

Yet Pax Viking retains the most important elements of the series. Its contests are taut and prone to lash out in multiple directions. Moreover, they’re full of diversions that prove essential to somebody’s grand plan once they come into their fullness. Of course, it’s inevitable that some of the finer grains have been lost with the sanding. It’s rare, for example, to witness somebody unleash such a perfect plan that nobody saw it coming. Similarly, there’s none of the previous games’ focus on players negotiating shared control over third-party forces. As much as I love those details, their absence doesn’t feel like a hole through the middle of Pax Viking. Rather than pulling strings from the shadows like Pax Renaissance’s banking houses, Pax Pamir’s desperate tribes, or Pax Transhumanity’s patent-happy investors, its protagonists are brash and their dealings are candid — comparatively, anyway.

Over there. Farther. Farther.

A new world.

At their best, volumes in the Pax Series are uncommonly illuminating of their periods of history. By striking out in a fresh direction, Pax Viking forges its own identity, one rooted in the past but determined to stake out new ground. It isn’t the brightest spot of the series, but neither is it the low mark. Instead, it offers a broader look at those whose word for “raid” came to be the epithet for their whole people, wrapped up as a welcoming entry point that still manages to nip its players’ fingers bloody from time to time.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 12, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Do we all agree Emancipation is the worst Pax title?

    • It’s the worst one in a great series of games to me (which still makes it an fine game). I know some people that really like it, specifically because you can get a lot done on a turn if the market allows it.

    • magnusgylfason

      Why is it that people agree on Emancipation being the worst? Is it because it is objectively the worst game, or is it the theme/narrative that pushes it down? I have never played it so I have opinion, just curious why people seem to be able to agree on this.

      • I think it’s mostly because of additional output randomness (needed for the cooperative phase but feels too influential in the competitive mode or phase), the dichotomy between the cooperative and competitive phases of the game, and the unnecessary complexity and opacity (even for an Eklund).

        The way you manipulate the actions in the market is great but we got that in a better Pax game later, Transhumanity. (Phil Eklund took those mechanisms from the then unreleased Transhumanity.)

      • It’s a bit of both. On a mechanical level, its victory conditions are interesting but not entirely functional. The narrative has some problems that are reflected on the map and the way the market functions. And it’s the hardest of the series to learn and parse.

      • It’s not even close to the worst (which would be Porfiriana). For me it has the most fun market by far, and your imagination can go wild in ways that the others can’t quite match. I know of no other game where Jefferson can be inspired to start the American Revolution after reading the Communist Manifesto.

    • No. I rate them all highly (ranging from 7 to 10/10) and would play any if they’re suggested. But personally, Pax Pamir 2e is rated the lowest for me. I’ve always found it ever so slightly less dynamic than other titles, while the every changing tableau and hand limits really annoyed me for some reason and made it too much of a focus, when it should have been about ever-changing alliances.

      Anyway, I played several games of Pax Emancipation in a row (Advanced/Semi Co-op) and found it very rewarding and quite tense. The market is a real brain squeeze, while I liked the use of the map for actions, similar to Pax Ren.

      Terrible game to learn and it perhaps lacks the “just one more game” of Ren or Porfiriana, but I rate it an 8-9/10.

    • Emancipation is probably my favourite; Pamir 2E probably the low point (lovely game in its own right but compared with the rest of the Pax series, it just feels a little shallow and dull, like it’s had all the most interesting edges sanded away). I haven’t tried Viking yet.

  2. So, does Cole need to add weird footnotes to Pamir in order for it to qualify for its prefix? If so, you should inform him as soon as possible.

    Personally, what I want to see get this treatment is late antiquity and the fall of Rome with the players as the various “barbarian” tribes. It’s got everything, trade networks, religious and ethnic persecution, tribes switching between wanting to be part of the Roman Empire and wanting to tear it down, and even dysfunctional state-run economics for Eklund to rant about.

    • Karolus Africanus

      On your second point: isn’t that Oath?? Just a thought that occurred when I read your post. Though a full Pax treatment of that late antiquity would be a boon.

    • For a very brief moment, I was attempting to design Pax Merovingium, which would have been a Late Antiquity Paxgame. It’s a period that would fit the formula quite smoothly, I think.

  3. Oskar Czerniawski

    “Vikings, whose appearance usually heralds the impending congruence of skull and axe”. It’s turns of phrase like this that keep me subscribed. Well played, sir.

  4. If I want to try out one Pax game in order to see if I like this series, would you recommend pax Pamir 2nd edition, or something else?

    • Depends somewhat on your comfort level. Pax Pamir 2e is definitely one of the more welcoming entry points, and highlights the series at its best. Pax Porfiriana is a little easier, provided you learn from an experienced player and not the nutso rulebook. If those are intimidating or impossible, Pax Viking is by far the easiest to learn. Like, by an enormous margin.

  5. “Similarly, there’s none of the previous games’ focus on players negotiating shared control over third-party forces.”

    That’s also one of my favorite parts of Pax, but I can see how it would make the game much easier to learn. Sounds like I probably don’t need this one, but I’m glad it’s out there.

  6. Ordered

    I love Pax Ren. I’m going to give a talk on Jan Morris’ book about the Venetian empire, and recommend it as the game of the book.

  7. Another welcome Pax review.

    Played Pax Viking twice this week – once on Vassal and the other live. It was taught in about ten minutes and finished in less than 90. Wins can really sneak up on you, much more so than other titles. There’s SO many individual abilities (Jarl, Advocate, Gods, Ventures, Events), it is almost impossible to try to work out if someone can perform a certain action or not.

    There was some confusion about “requirements” for playing or activating cards. We had some complaints about the rule book being TOO concise and lacking illustrated play examples. But it is definitely the easiest to explain and play. I found it very accessible and quite enjoyable journeying around Europe and further afield in a longboat, seeing what I could find. It also provides a sense of exploration and discovery that the Vikings must have felt themselves as they headed to Byzantium or Greenland.

    My regular Pax game group on Vassal enjoyed it and we’ll set up another game immediately. My game group hated it. And I mean HATED it. Too random, chaotic, unfair, too much to read…you name it, they complained about it. This is a euro gaming group. They also disliked Fire & Axe, if that says anything about their tastes. But for those who can manage it, it definitely works better live. You can trade, negotiate and discuss winning conditions, and it is easier to parse the board.

    Overall, it is a welcome addition to the Pax line. I’m rare in that I rate Pamir lowest (Ren is by far the best) in the series. This probably comes in the middle at the moment. It also has, in all likelihood, the best chance of actually getting played too. Just not in our gaming group!

    • Technically, yes.

      Less technically, it isn’t quite as interesting as with 3p+.

    • It works as a 2p, but becomes purely a race – as it does with three, really. No trade (not that I’ve seen much anyway) and not very many challenges knocking back longships home either. It is fun enough, but I think you’d want to play with victory conditions face down (triggered by event cards). I’ve played with 4 too, and I’m actually thinking the game would probably shine as a 5-6 player played live, as I think the game would benefit from robust “he’s going to win if we don’t do this” type discussions and arguments.

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