SAGA: Normans vs. Varangian Guard

25 Sep

After a long hiatus brought on by both the holiday season and work, Martin (with a little help from his son Max) and I were finally able to get another game of SAGA under our belts.

Max and Martin

Max and Martin

We went for a table with open terrain and just a few fields, trees and hills. The most restrictive terrain was a creek cutting off one corner of the table and a Viking village in the other. But to be honest, the terrain played just a small role, except for the fact, that I used the creek to hinge my flank on.
Martin and Max played Normans in what has now become Martin’s signature set-up. A mounted Warlord, four units of mounted Knights (Hearthguard) and two units of Sergeants (Warriors), one of them armed with crossbows. Martin would amalgamate two of his Knight units into a large one.

I wanted to try something new. While the Byzantines are nice, I still feel they lack a certain panache some of the other groups have. So I went for a Varangian Guard Warband (Viking mercenaries in Byzantine service). They were led (as required) by Harald Hardrada. There were two points of Varangians (Viking Heathguards) armed with Dane Axes, one point of Kontaratoi (Warriors with spears) and two points of Toxotai (Warriors armed with bows). As the interested reader will notice, this only adds up to five points, but with the Warlord being a hero of the Viking age, he costs an extra point and therefore only allows for five points of units. I have to say I would have liked a different composition to get away from that huge block of archers, but all Heathguards have to be Varangian and the need to make up less than half the units. Byzantine cavalry was not allowed as well, which limited the choices somewhat. I was also a bit anxious, since a Varangian Warband is played with both a Viking and a Byzantine Battleboard. The Byzantine units only generate Continental (also called Norman dice), while the Varangians can choose to generate either continental or runic (also called Viking dice). The Warlord can only generate one die per round unless he takes fatigue to create on or two extra dice.

As you can see, the terrain was quiet green and the village had a distinct Viking look. So let’s assume Harald was on home leave, taking a retuine befit his status along and those pesky Normans simply could not leave him alone… So much for a holiday. 😉

We decided to play Clash of the Warlords, as we do most of the time. I think we really need to take a look at the homegrown scenarios on the Gripping Beast forum!

We rolled for initiative and rolled a tie. So in other words… I won an account of my more impressive facial hair.

The Normans deployed the large cavalry unit in the centre and one each of the small ones on each flank. The crossbows were deployed on their left flank and close combat Sergeants on the right. The Warlord was slightly off centre to the right. So in other words… The deployment I have come to know.

The Varangians deployed their Byzantine archers in one large amalgamated unit right behind a spearmen screen. As indicated their right flank hinged on the creek. The Varangians deployed one behind the other on the left flank and the Warlord behind the spot where the Byzantine and Norse units connected.

The table

The table
[Normans to the left, Varangian Guard to the right]

The Normans won initiative and started a general advance. Max had been able to roll enough flags on the dice to allow for two re-rolls, so it did not stay there. The large unit of cavalry activated for a second time and charged the Kontaratoi. Aided by some Norman abilities they got a lot of dice and one instant kill, but on account of some good saving throws on my side only killed four of the spearmen, who in turn killed two Norman horsemen before being forced to withdraw.

First Norman charge

First Norman charge

Aftermath of the first Norman attack

Aftermath of the first Norman attack

With initiative passing on to the Varangian Guard, it was time to decide how to spend my SAGA dice. I went for two continental and four runic dice (my warlord had to take one fatigue for that). Now the runic dice went really well. Even after two re-rolls I still had two suwulo dice. So the first thing was for the Varangians to call Ragnarök, which meant one less armour for all Normans for the rest of the turn. While the Kontaratoi only removed the fatigue left from their last combat, their Toxotai brothers shot their bows at the large Norman cavalry at pint blank range… another two horsemen dead. Now the lead unit of Varangians charged the Normans. Bet ween their Dane axes, the Norman fatigue and the Ullr ability (which allowed them to re-roll failed to hit rolls) they scored nine hits. Max failed to safe enough and the four remaining horsemen were on the way to their graves. The Norsemen mercenaries lost two of their own, but in the end, it was a small price to pay, for taking out the largest Norman unit before the first round was over.

Revenge Norsemen style

Revenge Norsemen style

It was a huge psychological blow for the Normans. For the next round they only advanced cautiously, with their foot troops catching up to the horsemen, while the later only loitered around, just outside arrow range of the Byzantines.

The Vikings too used this round to get their formation back in order. Varangians formed a new screen before the archers (the blooded unit to the right, the fresh one to the left) and the archers moved forward behind the mercenary screen. The Kontaratoi moved to the left taking over flank protection.

Regrouped Vangarian Guard

Regrouped Varangian Guard

The next Norman activation saw another advance, mainly by the foot troops, but also by the cavalry on their right flank. The crossbows activated another time and fired a volley at the depleted Viking unit. But on account of their superior armour that unit only took one loss, bringing them down to one man.

Normans inching closer

Normans inching closer

With activation now passing back to the Varangians the Byzantine archers opened up on the Norman crossbows and showed them how to do it… three crossbows down. Otherwise the Viking unit which was still in mint condition moved forward towards the cavalry that had inched forward more and activated for a second time to charge them. Since their Warlord had taken another fatigue to roll and extra die and since I had been lucky with the re-rolls they too could make use of Ullr and annihilated all four horsemen at a loss of two of their own.

Vangarians annihilate Norman Knights

Varangian annihilate Norman Knights

Obviously things were not looking too good for the Normans by now. When their crossbows activated to fire at the archers, the gods intervened and made them move instead (did I mention that I had gotten really lucky when I last rolled the SAGA dice?) the Sergeants charged the Varangians who had just killed their mounted Knights. Now this actually went well for the Normans since they wiped out their opponents (although I can not remember what price they paid, but I think it was only one or two).

Norman Sergeants attacking Vangarians

Norman Sergeants attacking Varangians

But this is where the luck ended for the Normans. For the next activation I decided to put an emphasis on continental dice and the Byzantine archers were able to get two massed volleys. The first one was fired at the Norman crossbows and managed to kill all five of them. I think in about a dozen games played versus the Normans, this must have been the first time, I killed the whole unit of crossbows. So for a lack of targets, they shifted their aim to the Sergeants on the other flank and killed another two. Not much else to do….

Now it was time for one last Hail Marry attack by the Normans. With a double move the Norman Warlord charged the Toxotai and ordered the remaining mounted Knights along. Beefed up by some Norman ability, they hit the enemy archers and inflicted a total of six losses for only one loss of their own. Not content with their success, the Knights charged the retreating Byzantines once more, without their Warlord this time. But now it did not go this well. The Toxotai decided to use the three fatigue the Knights had accumulated at the moment they made contact to lower the Norman armour and this time none survived, while the horsemen failed to make a real impact.

Norman Hail Marry charge

Norman Hail Marry charge

And this set the stage for the final assault of the game. The Varangian Warlord charged his counterpart with a double move and ordered the archers (being the biggest unit in range) to join in. Between the two of them, they scored nine hits (the Norman Warlord still had two fatigue, so his armour was lowered considerably) of which he only saved two and perished. In turn he only scored three hits of which the Norse Warlord saved two.

So some thoughts on playing a Varangian Guard Warband. My decision to try them out had mainly been driven by the fact that the Byzantine Warbands seem to be very defensive. The best you can get from their Battleboard (unless you field an all cavalry force for which Normans would be better suited though) is by fielding a large amalgamated unit of archers or two units working in unison. With the close combat screen they require they become very cumbersome and usually stay in place. Either waiting for the enemy to come to them or for the other units to operate under their screen. As I said very static and defensive.

Now the Varangians do not really change that. All Heathguards in the Warband need to be Varangians, but no more than half the Warband my be Varangians. Given the fact that their Hero of the Viking Age Warlord already takes up one point, this means you can only field a maximum of two points of them. What does this leave you with? Three points of Byzantine foot (no mounted troops allowed in a Varangian Warband). Levies would be bad choice, since you need to split your dice between two Battleboards and the Warlord generates less dice than normal, which means you need every SAGA die you can get. So this leaves Warriors and what is your best choice? Two units of archers and one unit of close combat to protect them. In other words… It is Groundhog Day! Only this time the units operating under their screen are Viking Heathguards, with access to their extremely powerful Battleboard, a heightened armour of six and access to Dane Axes. So the Warband is still static and defensive but with a real über-close combat element. Still not my style of play,

Before I leave you, just some other news. I managed to finish the next generic unit of French Napoleonic infantry the other weekend, but never got around to finish their bases. But at the same time, I made good progress on the next French unit. They should be finished today, so I shall do the bases for both in one go and show them to you this weekend.


Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Byzantines, Gripping Beast, Medival, Normans, Rules, SAGA, Vikings


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10 responses to “SAGA: Normans vs. Varangian Guard

  1. Mi7

    September 25, 2013 at 21:52

    Great AAR!

    Have enjoyed your Byz battles so far, I’m starting to build a force too and have enjoyed reading your experiences it is helping me to get an idea on how to play them.

    My Byz will have their first game tomorrow night, a 3 player Feast of Crows against Welsh amd Vikingsnso it will defo be a trial by fire!



    • Burkhard

      September 26, 2013 at 07:55

      Thanks MaL, what a great praise!

      A three way game vs. Vikings and Welsh. Being a Viking player and having played against Welsh a number if times, I think this could turn into a hard one.

      Judging by the Feast for the crows I have played, I find it is good to remember that you do not need to beat any of your opponents outright, but rather pick your fights wisely. It is good take out enem Heathguards first. It gives you lots of points, denies the third player taking those points and means the others are less of a threat. But that is easier said than done, especially late in the game when everyone is close to the other.

      Oh and if you are not the first in a turn remember that some abilities (like the Viking Raknarök last all round) so you and your other opponent will still be affected by it when the “casting” players activation is already over!


  2. Monty

    September 26, 2013 at 02:13

    Great read, Burkhard! And lovely warbands all around.

    Whenever, I play Normans, I’m the guy who plays defensively. If my levy archers and crossbow warriors don’t soften the enemy up, I lose!


    • Burkhard

      September 26, 2013 at 08:03

      Thanks Monty!

      Martin had some good success charging my Vikings with his large cavalry unit early on in previous games. If you can beef their attack up with the right abilities they are extremely deadly. That being said the large Byzantine block is simply too strong for that. Even if you manage to annihilate or push back the guarding spearmen (the later usually happens when they are hit by a large unit of Heathguards), you will always be up against a 16 men unit of archers, which will never be wiped out in one turn. And from that moment on, the attacker is in for big trouble.

      So I think your choice to have some proper support is the best way to go. Norman mounted knights are in my opinion the best cavalry in the game due to their SAGA abilities, but still they need proper support! And with their crossbows, the Normans have just that!


      • Monty

        October 10, 2013 at 02:47

        Excellent. Well, now I’m better prepared to fight the Byzantines!


        • Burkhard

          October 14, 2013 at 08:41

          Honestly, I think it is a real shame you are so far away. I would really love to have a couple of games with you!


  3. vonpeterhimself

    September 28, 2013 at 02:08

    Another readable and colourful report Burkhard. It’s a shame that the Saga Byzantines are proving a wee bit frustrating for you.

    And it is great to see Max helping out in the game. The son & heir (Simon) played a similar supporting role for me and there haven’t been many games that I’ve played in the last decade or so where he has not been involved in an increasingly independent role. Though the ingrate has got a bit big for his boots now such as handing me my head on a platter in our last game!! 8O)

    von Peter himself


    • Burkhard

      September 29, 2013 at 17:04

      Thank you vP!

      I think the Byzantines are not a bad force per se (judging by the number of wins I have had with them they cannot be), it is just a shame that their battleboard works better with defensive strategies, something that does not suit me. I can remember a D-Day game where I had my Germans charge down the cliffs of Omaha beach. 😉

      I think it is good that Max took part. I just fear that we might have overdone it with the history and teaching English parts!


  4. The Kiwi

    October 10, 2013 at 07:19

    Great report. I was wondering how a Harald force would go.


    • Burkhard

      October 14, 2013 at 08:44

      Me too before the game. I have to say, that I was sceptic before the game. But after playing them, feel that they are better than both a pure Byzantine or a pure Viking warband. They just do not fit my style of play.



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