16 September 2019
Become Vi-king of the hill in this battle of wits and luck
In contrast to how it’s usually portrayed in pop culture, a lot of Viking Age conflict was less a screaming charge of axe-swinging maniacs and more a deadlier version of a rugby scrum. Such warfare involved two sides in tight formation pushing at one another behind a wall of shields, taking thrusts with swords and spears when the opportunity arose. It was grinding, it was slow and it was bloody. Inspired by these brutal melees, Battle Ravens pits two players against one another as they struggle to slaughter each other’s army of cardboard Norse and Anglo-Saxons.
At its core, the game is essentially one of resource allocation and probability values. Each square of the game board represents one segment of the player’s battle line, and is filled with a mixture of warriors split between hirdmen – who take two hits to remove – and bondi, who only take one.
Each player also has access to three stands of thralls; support units who don’t count as part of the battle line but can be spent to reroll attack dice. In order to claim victory, players need to wrest three squares from their opponent’s side by eliminating all enemy warrior stands within each and occupying them with their own troops instead.
Winning is a matter of skill, planning and luck. Each player is allocated a number of the titular battle ravens, tokens that serve as action points to be used on each square the player holds. (Rather morbidly, the in-game justification being that where the fighting is thickest, the hungry ravens swoop in to feast on the fallen.)
Each token can be spent performing one of three actions – attacking, blocking or moving units to an adjacent square. The former two are done by means of a dice roll (one dice per token spent), with sixes scoring two hits (or blocks), fives or fours one, and threes or less a failure.
Players spend the beginning of a turn placing their tokens in alternating sequence, then proceed by activating each square in an order of their choice, again one after the other. A turn is completed when all tokens have been expended. These – along with thralls – are then restocked and the next turn begins. Each army comes with a small deck of faction-specific cards that confer bonuses, another strategic element that also helps to give some individual flavour to each force.
On paper, the rules system appears so simple as to lack room for much strategy. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and Battle Ravens manages to achieve that coveted sweet spot of a ruleset that’s straightforward and easy to learn whilst also providing a great amount of tactical depth. Players constantly have to guess their opponent’s moves and play a delicate game of risk and reward. Do you dedicate all your tokens to a few key squares, or try and distribute them evenly? Use too many tokens to attack and you may be left with too few to subsequently defend yourself. Play too conservatively and a few bad dice rolls may find you on the losing end of a war of attrition. With so many variable factors, the real meat of the game comes down to knowing how and when to use the resources at your disposal each turn.
In truth, it’s hard to find any real faults with Battle Ravens, although there were a few times when it felt like there was a slight second-player advantage. Because of its short length, players are kept on their toes throughout and each dice roll carries a real degree of weight – a good thing too, given how much of it players will be doing. The gameplay reflects the theme well and at no point did the latter feel like superfluous visual dressing over the mechanics. Battle Ravens is a solid title that will appeal regardless of whether you’re a Dark Age history buff or not.
PLAY IT? – YES
A characterful game of historical warfare, Battle Ravens offers an engaging, tactical experience that’s deep but doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Designer: Daniel Mersey
Artist: Peter Dennis
Time: 45-60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.