Axe, Shield, and Helmet

This article was originally published in the first issue of Conflicts of Interest magazine. You can read the entire zine – with its excellent articles on topics ranging from queer history in the 18th century over tips for Vassal play to a full re-skinning of a game on a 20th-century American scandal to fit 17th century Britain – here for free!

The wealth of popular depictions sets Vikings apart from less-common game subjects. When designers come up with a Viking game, they know that their audience already has a preconceived notion of what will be featured therein.
Of course, one of the most popular conceptions of vikinghood is combat. Because the historical Vikings spent most of their time farming, crafting, trading, raising children and a wealth of other non-violent activities, combat and battle is often blown well out of proportion in popular depictions. Most of these base their interpretation on the frequent Viking raids from which their name is derived: a “Viking”, originally, was the term for the raid rather than for the people who undertook it.
In this article, we’ll examine depictions of Viking combat in five of the most popular board games with a Viking theme. “Combat”, for the purposes of this article, encompasses typical Viking raids, full-blown wars, and other forms of organized struggle by these predominantly Scandinavian seafaring people.

Blood Rage

Let’s begin with the most combat-focused game. In Blood Rage (Eric Lang, CMON), combat is the be-all, end-all of Viking existence. It is an existence whose end is impending, as Ragnarök – the end of the world as imagined in Viking mythology – is raging around the players. Rather than jockeying for material gains, they are vying for a last blaze of glory. Indeed, glory is what the game calls its victory points – and instead of atypical “action” points, you use rage points. Blood Rage’s basic terminology paints an effective mental image of a berserker seeking a dramatic death whilst taking down a few others in the process.
Dramatic deaths are further incentivized by offering additional glory for the death of the player’s warriors who are then granted access to Valhalla, the Viking’s afterlife for heroes. However, since “lost” warriors in Valhalla become available at the end of each round, there’s not too much of a downside to their deaths. In a sense, Valhalla serves as a catch-up mechanism, providing players who are losing battles and becoming affected by the world’s imminent destruction alternate scoring opportunities.

Such energy in his stride! Our friend here is dying to meet you. Box cover of Blood Rage, ©CMON.

Raiders of the North Sea

In Raiders of the North Sea (Shem Phillips, Garphill Games), combat is not quite as ubiquitous, but similarly crucial for success. Within the triad of means, ways, and ends (a fruitful concept for strategic analysis as well as game design, as Volko Ruhnke has repeatedly shown), Viking raids comprise the ways. These raids are enabled by the means of village activity, gaining the resources for the ends of pleasing the local chieftain for victory points. Other ways are derived from the village, but in the end, these are auxiliary methods. In Raiders of the North Sea, victory ultimately derives from the successful raiding of the myriad ports, monasteries, and fortresses on the other side of the North Sea. This is not to say that the popular concept of a glorious Viking
death isn’t also employed here. Raiding crew members can, indeed, die if they meet a Valkyrie there, granting the player precious additional victory points. In Raiders, however, the slain warriors are gone for good, making crew recruitment one of the most challenging aspects of the game. Thus, the decision to seek death in battle is a
much harder one to make than in Blood Rage.

One of the rare contemporary depictions of Vikings with horned helmets – indicative of Raiders of the North Sea‘s exaggerated comic style. Box cover ©Garphill Games.

878 Vikings

As Vikings are so thematically popular, games about them often rely on the shared concept of vikinghood without referring to any specific names, places, and times. A notable exception is 878 Vikings: Invasions of England (Beau Beckett/Dave Kimmel/Jeph Stahl, Academy Games): While one player leads Viking warbands invading England in 878, the other organizes the Anglo-Saxon resistance. That makes it also the rare Viking game in which there is a playable opponent against the Vikings. It also hints as to why eurogamers – notoriously averse to direct inter-player conflict – often like combat-heavy Viking-themed games. Players can compete indirectly by conducting raids against a non- player entity, as they do in Raiders of the North Sea as well as in the next game.

Charge! The image is dominated by the much more dynamic Vikings on the right. Box cover of 878: Vikings, ©Academy Games.

A Feast for Odin

A Feast for Odin (Uwe Rosenberg, Z-Man Games) is an archetypical euro: There’s worker placement, meeples have to be fed, and the game prizes planning over chance. However, there is a group of actions in which luck plays a significant role: Hunting, raiding, and pillaging. Even in the eurogame genre, the game gives a nod to the
unpredictability of combat, setting it apart from less adventurous occupations like farming or trading. The raiding and pillaging actions are one way to acquire the goods on which the eventual score depends – yet there are many others ranging from extracting resources from the mountains to exploring faraway lands. Thus, the game uses the term “Viking” in the wider sense of early medieval Norse society which was characterized by a variety of occupations including farming, mining, trading, crafting (in addition to raiding).

For a change, we see some Vikings who don’t want to murder you right away… as long as you don’t steal their ale, that is. Box cover of A Feast for Odin, ©Z-Man Games.

Vikings

Finally, Vikings (Michael Kiesling, Z-Man Games) turns the Viking concept of the previous games on its head. It divides the characteristic combination of the Viking warrior and longship into two distinct functions. Longships are the offensive part, closing rows of tiles for scoring; warriors the defensive part, negating the effect of ships. In an odd inversion of other games’ mechanics, the Vikings are not hoping to profit from seaborne raids, but rather hoping to avoid being the targets of such raids themselves! There might be a relationship to the game’s publication date: Vikings is the oldest of the bunch (2007). The other four, published between 2015 and 2017, are likely to have been influenced by the boom of the Vikings TV series (2013-present), in which combat plays a significant role.

This Viking’s hairstyle is gone with the wind… at least the shield can double as an umbrella. Cover of Vikings, ©Z-Man Games.

The games offer a variety of depictions of the role of combat in Viking society – ranging from the raison d’être of Viking existence over the treatment of it as an instrument to acquire goods to its inversion of Viking warriors defending against raids. That exemplifies the variety of meanings of “Viking” – from the stricter sense of the seaborne raider to the wider Norse culture of the early Middle Ages. The fact that most of the very popular Viking games have been published a few years after the start of the Vikings TV series indicates a lively cross-media discourse of popular conceptions of history – both for what ideas designers have and publishers accept and for what board gamers want to buy and play. Finally, while visual representations of the Vikings differ in style, they are in broad agreement about the attributes of the Viking warrior – no raider without axe, shield, and helmet!

Games Referenced

Blood Rage (Eric M. Lang, CMON)

Raiders of the North Sea (Shem Phillips, Garphill Games)

878 Vikings: Invasions of England (Beau Beckett/Dave Kimmel/Jeph Stahl, Academy Games)

A Feast for Odin (Uwe Rosenberg, Z-Man Games)

Vikings (Michael Kiesling, Z-Man Games)

Further Reading

For the general depiction of Vikings in modern board games, see Boch, Lukas/Falke, Anna Klara: Wikinger im modernen Brettspiel, in: Mittelalter Digital 1, issue 2, 2021, pp. 95—117, online here (in German).

All aspects of Viking life are covered in Brink, Stefan/Price, Neil (eds.): The Viking World, Routledge, London 2008.

The seminal book for the paradigm shift towards seeing the Vikings not only as raiders, but also traders is Sawyer, Peter Hayes: The Age of the Vikings, Arnold, London 1962.

4 thoughts on “Axe, Shield, and Helmet

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Was thinking of you as our resident Shem Phillips expert when writing about Raiders!
      I quite like the game. It works both on a thematic level for Amerigamers and on a mechanical one for Eurogamers. Not many games can claim that!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s