In my Champions of Midgard review I proclaimed 2015 as the year of the Viking. Grey Fox Games gave us that excellent worker placement game, CoolMiniOrNot hit us with the absolutely stunning Blood Rage, and now IDW has won me over with yet another Norse-fueled rampage across European waters – Fire And Axe: A Viking Saga.
This is a re-release of the classic Ragnar brothers’ Viking Fury which was later picked up by Asmodee and given the title we see here. IDW has resurrected this out of print modern classic with solid new miniatures, great evocative artwork, and one of the best game boards I’ve ever seen. You can tell this release was handled with care and attention to detail was of the utmost concern.
My only previous exposure to a Steve and Phil Kendall design was their recent offering DRCongo. There’s a definite similarity in approach as both games are concerned with a streamlined and accessible take on simulation. This isn’t a GMT heavy game with an extreme amount of detail, but the overarching actions and behavior of play mimics a realistic take on Viking exploration and its fallout.
Fire and Axe is primarily a Euro game about maximizing actions and effectively delivering trade or violence. Players begin the game wintering in Scandinavia where they will prepare for their epic journey by loading warriors and goods into their longboats. On your turn each player is given seven days – the equivalent of action points – which they can spend loading or at sea. Loading one token of goods as well as one warrior miniature takes a day. Sailing to adjacent spaces and into or out of ports also requires the expenditure of a day. It’s all pretty simple stuff, load up a mix of ferocious Norsemen and horns/fur/fish, then sail out across the far reaches of Europe to deliver and pillage.
Ports laid out across the map may be traded with and settled. Trading simply requires you deposit a good at the town and receive victory points in return. The catch is that ports are divided into regions of like colors, and you can never trade more than one of the same good to any region. Additionally, each individual port may only hold one good total for the entire game.
The ports themselves contain a value which corresponds to their reward. So trading with far flung Rome is worth more than a peasant town off the coast of France. This combination of limited trading connecting with ranging values provides for some definite player interaction in the form of a race to certain points of the map. This intersects nicely with the buildup in the winter zone as you may sometimes wish to sail out at half-capacity to beat another player to the punch.
The design sheds some of its Euro trappings when going the route of Settling or Raiding. Much like Trading, Settling can only occur once per port space. To “domesticate” the region you need roll up to three dice – one per Viking hell-raiser you want to commit to the taming of the heathen land; each die greater than the port value is a success, and each failure results in the bearded fella being sent to Valhalla. If you get at least one success your warrior now occupies the port space and you will score points at end game.
Raiding works similarly but has you rolling against small and large plastic villages that are pre-seeded throughout the map. Attacking in this regard requires you roll one die, if you fail you lose a warrior and may continue if you have more bodies to commit to the pyre. There’s a definite push your luck element in both mechanisms but they do feel just different enough to keep the mechanical variety. Villages raided are also worth straight up immediate VP based on a hidden value on the underside of the miniature.
The Raiding and Settling reliance on luck has caused much consternation among Fire and Axe’s detractors. It stands in stark contrast to the Euro pickup and deliver style trading mechanic and can certainly be jarring. Yet I absolutely adore it.
Much like DRCongo I think this injection of chaos adds dramatic tension to what would otherwise be a rote experience. Those moments of chucking dice late in the game can result in everyone standing and shouts of laughter as more Viking spearmen are ground up on the shores of England. It’s visceral and exciting – just as raiding and pillaging should damn well be.
There’s no denying you can suffer major setbacks from those six-siders. You are afforded opportunities to mitigate the luck by packing extra warriors aboard or by utilizing the interesting and powerful Rune cards. This is a deck of one shot special powers which players may draw when back at their home port. They can certainly be swingy but support a take that style of interaction that adds a nice degree of closure to the Ameritrash aspects of the design. You can throw other player’s settlements into revolt or hit them with bad weather. At times you will get cards that allow you to manipulate the odds of raiding in your favor and can use this to stymie Loki’s wrath.
All of these elements combine to highlight the shining glory of Fire and Axe. This hybrid design utilizes its sense of Ameritrash drama with a well-studied historical background to provide a strong narrative context to the action of play. Unlike its peers, this design props itself up by telling a story. You won’t get minute details of blow by blow action, but my clan will sail down the rivers of Eastern Europe and colonize Germanic territory under intense pressure. Jeremy’s will run into horrid weather in the English Channel and have his trade route slowed as Josh picks up steam and beats him to the punch, delivering mounds of fur to foreign peoples.
The Ragnar brothers do a fantastic job incentivizing realistic behavior in an organic way which furthers the narrative. The difficulty of conquering or settling a port is lowered by one if trade has already occurred there – this means players can get a leg up by delivering mounds of fish and establishing trust with the locals before catching them unawares and removing their heads from their fat necks. The thematic approach here is never spelled out but rather players are gently encouraged to perform actions in a way which makes narrative sense while maintaining historicity. In many ways, it’s the design team’s brilliant trademark that punctuates their work.
I also can’t help but highlight the philosophical undertone in the subtext of play. As you’re lining up your little intoxicated Norse dudes on the cardboard long-ship and looking beyond their shoulders at the blistering horizon, that vast sense of opportunity catches your peripheral vision. You almost don’t realize that buried notion of manifest destiny creeping in, but the act of spreading out across the ocean and colonizing foreign lands – under the guise of trade supplanted by violence – is powerful. It provides an emotional tie to the mechanisms which will lightly dig into your conscious and you may never even realize was there. This is all happening in the background of play and is easy to overlook, but it’s there in a kind of sinister yet inviting atmosphere that evokes thought and contemplation. The fact that this age old tale of laying waste and conquering in the guise of exploration can be made so palatable and fun in the medium of a board game is certainly worth ruminating on post play.
Fire and Axe was regarded as a classic for a reason. This is a strong and enjoyable game that stands up to modern critique. It’s not a flash in the pan or a nice game to simply experience once and then move on from. The strategy at play is deep enough to provide a longevity and joy equivalent to that horrific journey down the coast of Spain and into the Mediterranean. Fire and Axe isn’t Blood Rage or Champions of Midgard, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s all about reverence and history, wielding both as sharp blades to jam into your soft and squishy parts.