This Fortress Built by Nature for Herself…King Alfred Battles the Vikings in The Ethandun Campaign. Game Review.
Alfred the Great: The Ethandun Campaign Game Review Publisher: High Flying Dice Games. Designer: Mark H. Sheppard. Price: $14.95
Passed Inspection: The game includes a well laid out color map showing the key locations and terrain. Clean, clearly laid out game pieces that convey all the information you need. Well-structured rules that provide a quick playing game.
Failed Basic: There were a few minor typos and layout problems with rules and charts that required clarification.
The mists hung in the cool, thick air, silencing the call of the birds. The only sound was the slopping suck of the Viking’s own footsteps as the weary warriors tramped through the heavy clay muck. The marsh lands of the Somerset Levels were proving a more dangerous foe than the warriors of the Briton king. What had started as a profitable campaign of conquest and pillage had become a forlorn search within the trackless marshes surrounding the Saxon redoubt at the Isle of Athelney. Would Odin guide them to their foe and victory, or would they live out their days lost in these forsaken marshlands?
Vikings have certainly been quite the pop culture darlings these past few years. In addition to television and movies, this popularity is manifesting itself in board games. High Flying Dice Games has a series of games focused on the exploits of the Anglo-Saxon leader Alfred the Great fending off the depredations of the Vikings. The most recent game in that series is ‘Alfred the Great: The Ethandun Campaign’. This game details the campaign in which King Alfred, starting from a position of weakness must rally his forces and defeat the invading Viking horde led by Guthrum. Historically, this campaign culminated in the decisive Saxon victory at the Battle of Edington and marked the turning of the tide against the Vikings in Britain.
The game consists of the following components:
• 11″ by 17″ map
• 186 single-sided, un-mounted counters
• Three Battle Boards
• One Player Aid Card* (This appears to be page 7 of the rulebook)
• One 8-page Rules Booklet
The map includes parts of what today would be considered Somerset, Wilt and Dorset counties in southwest England. This includes such locations as Bath, Wilton and Chippenham. The use of historically accurate names and the stylized nature inherent to the using a hex grid map result in a geography that is simultaneously both familiar and foreign to the players.
The Britain of King Alfred was a legacy of the prior centuries of Roman expansion and colonization. Important settlements and trading posts had grown into villages and towns. The major settlements were connected with the remains of the old Roman road system. Slicing across western Wessex was the Fosse Way, the old Roman road connecting modern day Lincoln with Exeter. Fosse Way shapes Alfred The Great’s campaign, as it provides the Vikings a direct path from their lands in the Danelaw deep into the heart of Wessex. The game starts with the Viking host under Guthrum entering the map from the northeast at Cippenham along the Fosse Way.
While Fosse Way plays a key role in shaping strategy, possibly more important is nature of the Somerset Levels. An area of clay marshland that varies between fertile agricultural lands and submerged wetlands, the Somerset Levels was a geographic barrier that would vex the invading Danes. Having excellent knowledge of the local lands, the Saxons could move quickly and with confidence through these marshlands while the Vikings were confronted with an almost impenetrable maze that would turn the campaign into a literal quagmire. Transformed by modern agricultural and drainage projects, the Somerset Levels of today are a shadow of the formidable obstacle and sanctuary they offered in Alfred’s day. For those unfamiliar with the details of British geography, the game provides insight into why the ‘Isle of Athelney’ was so important to Alfred.
The game comes with one counter sheet of color counters that represent the various units and markers used in the game. The counters are printed on a sheet of lightweight cardboard. Counter design is straight forward with a large icon defining the faction and unit type. There are two very legible values indicating the movement and combat strength of each unit. Leaders are depicted with their name and a movement rate. The relative combat value of leaders can be derived from looking at the combat table for kings on the combat board.
Reflecting the nature of the combat system, counters represent strength points of discrete number of troops rather than a distinct unit or force. For modeling the conflicts of the middle ages this model works well as you are levying random troops rather than mobilizing formal army units.
The counters are not die-cut, so you are required to cut them out yourself as part of getting the game onto the table. There is only the one counter sheet, but it’s still a fair amount of cutting. An investment in a quality paper cutter will give you a good return here. If you don’t have one, try going to one of the print stores and see if you can borrow theirs for the task. Worst case, you can use scissors, but it’s a chore to cut all those counters out and your lines won’t be as straight. Fortunately, the paper cutter on hand was up to the task resulting in a nice set of counters ready for battle.
The battle boards are basically player aid charts that are optimized for each faction. There are three included – The Vikings, the Saxons and the minor Saxon faction. All three share a similar layout, but the combat results displayed on each are customized to the specific faction. The boards walk you through the combat process and show the characteristics and abilities of the various units for each faction. There is a player aid card which consolidates all the factions combat results tables into one sheet. Check the errata as the Saxon battle board lists royal estates as fortified hexes that can be assaulted, though the rules indicate that the estates are not defined as fortified hexes. The text in the rules is correct. You can’t assault estates – use the same table as listed on both the Viking and Saxon charts.
The rules indicate that the defender’s casualties within a round are removed to a ‘killed’ box on the combat board, but no such board is so labeled. In a pinch, there is an unlabeled box at the top that aligns with the ‘kings’ section that can be used to house casualties. Again, it’s a minor issue that does not detract from game play.
Play Aid Card
The player aid card appears to be optimized to help the non-active player follow along with the activities of the active player. It’s all the combat tables consolidated onto a single sheet. You can pass the sheet back and forth, or better yet, make a photocopy of the sheet. Unlike the battle boards, the aid sheet is printed on standard copier paper. You might which to transfer it to a heavier weight of paper for increased durability.
The rules are an abbreviated 6 pages in length. What is provided is not a bound rule book, but six (7) single sided sheets of paper secured with a single staple. The rules come with a nice four-color cover page and a black and white version for an interior cover. While this keeps the overall cost of the game down, it puts the onus on the player to assemble the rules into some form of booklet.
A couple of minor layout faults with the provided copy of the rules mean a couple of rules around reinforcement and special movement are obscured. Clarifications were sought and promptly received from Paul at HFDG that resolved the layout issues and allowed play to continue. There are a few minor typos in the text that impact neither the understanding or intent of the rules. While annoying, this a nit as it’s par for the course with modern, software-driven proofing techniques.
A minor complaint – while the game clearly lays out the actions within a player turn, the rules were a little fuzzy in that there are two player turns within each game turn. Don’t misunderstand – it is defined within the rules, but it took careful reading to discern that there were two identical player turns of which the Viking player always goes first. This could have more clearly defined with a fully illustrated outline of the turn sequence either in the rules, on the play aid / combat boards.
The game breaks all units down into two broad classes – either foot and mounted. The mounted units – the Kings bodyguards and earls/jarls have a movement rate of 10. This lets them cover a lot of ground quickly. The foot units – the line warriors of each faction – have a more plodding movement rate of 4 – adequate along the main roads, but a real slog when moving through difficult terrain.
As you might expect, the Vikings have limited seaborne mobility along the coast, but require a coastal town in which to secure their longboats. The Vikings can launch as assault from the sea – but their first goal must be to secure that coastal town. Then they can range up and down the Wessex’s western coast. If the Vikings can break the coastal fort guarding access to the river, the Vikings can strike deep directly into the heart of the Somerset Levels – but reducing that coastal fort is no mean task.
Combat is played in rounds. An interesting feature here is the variable performance of your troops. When fighting under the banner of the king, units fight much more effectively than when fighting away from the sovereign’s watchful eye. It’s a neat way of modeling the challenge to a monarchy in needing your troops to perform, but needing to be there in person to get them to perform. The real limit to each side’s effective operations boils down to how many effective leaders they can field to use as the nucleus of a field army.
Each side has a battle board, which is a handy tool to manage your force and keep all your relevant charts at your fingertips. The combat tables are like having unique dice, in that the combat results for each faction are different. There are also variations in performance between the royal bodyguard, the household troops of the earls and the common foot soldiers.
Each combat round, each side will role a die, or in some cases, dice, to determine if their troops ‘hit’. If they did, then the battle board contains the appropriate reference to determine the casualties inflicted. Basically, determined by the quantity of troops of each type, the outcome can also be influenced by terrain to give the defender a bonus. Strong defensive positions must be breached, which can allow small defensive forces to inflict serious losses on a besieging attacker.
So, you’ve been moving about the countryside, laying siege to cities and winning battles – but how do you win? Good news, everyone – there are multiple ways to win. For the Vikings, the quick, but not always the easy way is to strike down your enemy. Kill King Alfred and win the game. However, regicide is not an easy task. You have to bring him to battle and wipe out his forces before he can slip away. Conversely, if the Saxons can slay the two Viking leaders, they win the game! Failing that, victory falls back on the old classic control of territory. You’ll need to capture and hold the towns, churches and royal estates that are the economic heart of the region. Holding ground is easy for the Saxon – it’s your land, so in the absence of the Viking troops, control defaults to you. The Vikings will find themselves having to take and garrison these places, with each garrison weakening the advancing army.
When setting up, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with the place names. You’ll have to visually scan the map to find some of the locations. This is where the historical names are a bit of a challenge as some don’t port over to their modern incarnations so your required to peruse the map to locate the space. It would have been nice if the hex numbers that are printed on the map were included along with the set-up instructions.
Aside from that, setting up the game is easy. A very minor quibble is not having a diagram showing how the game board and the associated charts and battle boards where envisioned to be positioned for play. This would have helped translate the designers vision of how the game was to be played into how the overall table gets setup. It felt a little awkward initially being unsure how critical the battle boards were to play and trying to balance access to the map and the battle boards. Including that would have been nice, but it’s not a big thing.
Play is fairly straight forward. Each player turn consists of four steps: Reinforcements, Movement, Combat and Status change updates. Each phase lives up to its name. Get reinforcements, move your units. Resolve all the battles you initiated and update the control of territory based on ground you captured or lost.
This installment in the Alfred the Great series is an engaging game. Each player faces tough tactical decisions. For the Vikings, you want to control ground and deny resources to the Saxons, while at the same time bring the Saxons to decisive battle. You have the need to leave garrisons across the region. These garrisons become the target of small fast-moving reaction forces of Saxon earls dashing about conducting raids to liberate the countryside. It’s annoying as the Saxon pin-prick raids gnaw at the flanks of the Vikings while Alfred lurks in the Somerset Levels avoiding combat.
It’s also a great depiction of the guerilla campaign Alfred waged as he gathered his forces. The game depicts a conflict between a militarily superior foe and a numerically weak and scattered force that requires a mastery of the local geography to avoid a decisive battle and rally the people to their cause.
The Ethandun Campaign is definitely a fun game. The rules are straight forward. You will not get bogged down in a thick rulebook. Play speeds along once you master the combat boards. The Vikings are pushing forward towards a quick victory, while the Saxons are rallying their troops for a big counter-offensive. That tension pushes the game along. The Vikings need that quick victory as they know that the Saxon army will keep growing. Each side will have to chance fighting battles that are not sure things. That uncertainty and unpredictability will keep players engaged in every combat. You have to pay attention all the time. To paraphrase Kenny Rogers – ‘You have to know when to hold them, when to fold them and when to walk away’. Recognizing when it’s time to walk away is tricky as by the time it’s obvious, it’s usually too late to save yourself!
Conversely, you can hold on and hope that luck will intervene and turn a weak hand into a winning hand. In one playtest, the Viking player sensed an opportunity to catch Alfred in the open with his massed army and initiated a battle that should have led to his quick demise and an instant Viking victory. However, the fickle dice of fate intervened and denied a quick victory, resulting in losses among all the nobles of both sides that snatched victory into a draw!
The Ethandun Campaign is intended to be a two-player game. No provision is included for solitaire play. However, gamers that are adept at playing both sides can play the game by themselves. There will still be some degree of randomness – especially if the Vikings dare to enter the Somerset Levels with it’s associated random impacts on movement – that will keep the game unpredictable. Battle is no sure thing in this game, so your plans are bound to unravel at some point.
The King’s Judgement
Players familiar with the print and play model (PnP) of games will be comfortable with the degree of assembly required to bring the game to the table. If you are expecting to pull out the game and dive right in to playing you may be disappointed. Educationally, the game does a nice job of providing deeper insights into the world of King Alfred and the Viking incursions. Comparing it to Academy’s Games strategic level ‘Vikings’, HFDG’s Ethandun Campaign provides a more detailed view into the Briton of Alfred’s world that are dealt with more abstractly in the ‘Vikings’ game system.
Board games are great tools for conveying geographical knowledge of a place at a given time. The Ethandun Campaign does a superb job of exploring the role that the Somerset Levels played in shaping tactical and operational choices open to both sides. This knowledge adds a deeper dimension of understanding than having a simple rule allowing the English to hide in the swamps. To paraphrase Massey and Allen’s 1987 book, geography mattered to the rulers and people of the 9th Century as much then as it does to today. If Alfred can get the Vikings bogged down in the morass that was the Somerset Levels, so much the better. The game does a good job of teaching the value of using the environment to advantage, be it the marsh, the forests bordering the Salisbury Plain or leveraging the defensive value of the Iron Age hill forts and walled towns in defending against attackers. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the players must recognize the strengths in ‘This fortress built by Nature for herself’.
Mark Sheppard, designer of The Ethandun Campaign has done a solid job with his vision of the conflict in western Wessex. It’s a taut, engaging game that is fun and educational. So, pick up your sword and shield, saddle up and claim your destiny. The future throne of England beckons!
Armchair General Rating: 94%
Suitability for solo play: 3 (1-5, 1- not suitable for solo play, 5-perfect for solo play)
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.