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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.