My blog about my wargaming activities. I collect a lot of 15mm miniatures for the American War of Independence and so collect a lot of rules for this period. I started miniatures with Napoleonics, so I have a number of armies in 6mm and 15mm figures for skirmishing. I have15mm WW II figures that I use for Flames of War, Memoir '44, and someday, Poor Bloody Infantry. Finally there is my on-again, off-again relationship with paper soldiers that I sometimes write about.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Playing Saga 2 – Part 1

I picked up the second version of the SAGA rules mainly because I had liked the original and also because I had heard that they had streamlined the rules and cleaned them up, making things a lot more clear than originally. I bought my copy from Dennis at On Military Matters for $19. I didn't think that was too bad. But then I saw that the "supplement", containing all of the factions and battle boards (none were included with the rules, as originally) was another $57, I figured I was not going to get off lightly for upgrading.

My goal was to play the rules straight, no modifications ... except one. I was going to convert it to a grid game. I cannot stand small measurements and fiddly geometry tricks, and the one thing I remembered about about Saga was that it had both of those elements. But first...

The Game Rules

Saga was previously a Dark Ages skirmish game system, but now bills itself as able "to recreate  battles between rival warbands during many periods of history and within fantasy worlds". Hmmm, that last part must have been added because so many of the fan base did exactly that, use the rules for other historical periods and for fantasy realms. As you look through the rules at the pictures too, you realize there are shots of fantasy miniatures and Samurai, but nothing extending into the gunpowder era ... yet.

Technically Saga is not a skirmish game to my mind. Although each figure represents a single person, figures are grouped into units and individual figures are not ordered separately. Each unit varies in size but must be from four to twelve figures in size. A warband is generally from 20 to 50 figures. So your miniature investment can be quite small, but not as small as a traditional skirmish game.

Warbands are built by spending points. For one point you can either buy four Hearthguard (the best fighters), eight Warriors, or twelve Levy (the worst fighters). A starter game is typically four points and a large game is eight points. In addition, each side gets a Warlord to represent themselves.
Saga uses special dice to allow units to activate and to give them special abilities, which serve as the "flavor" for the army and the period you are playing. Each unit generates a single Saga die and the Warlord generates two. Generally speaking you need one die to activate a unit once, in which it can either move, charge, shoot, or rest. So for a starter game, you will typically be getting six Saga dice, but using three for activation. (The Warlord can self-activate once for free each turn, and activate another unit once for free each turn.) So that allows you some flexibility to activate units twice (at a cost of fatiguing the unit) or to use the special abilities.

The battle board is what defines the special abilities a warband has available. Vikings have more offense oriented melee abilities, for example, while Anglo-Saxon seem more defense oriented and geared towards running larger units.

The Modifications

Measuring Distance

I decided to use a square grid, and given the physical size of the average unit of 28mm figures, a 6" square seemed just right. Given that the standard was also 6", that worked.

Saga has four measurements: Very Short (2"), Short (4"), Medium (6"), and Long (12"). Basically infantry move 6", cavalry 12", and units moving into, through, or out of terrain move 4". As I decided the square was 6", that made terrain slightly problematic. I decided that if you are moving S (for Short), you could only move one square orthogonally (the black arrows in the figure below). M (for Medium) can move either one square orthogonally or diagonally (black and brown arrows), while L (for Long) essentially moves two squares orthogonally or diagonally.

As all shooting uses the same measurements, they would count range the same as how movement is counted.

So what about VS (for Very Short)? Well that measurement is largely used to measure the distance between figures in order to maintain unit cohesion. If, through terrain and/or special abilities a unit is forced down to a VS move or shooting range it is deemed unable to shoot or move.

Unit Stacking

There can only be one unit per square, regardless of the number of figures in a unit. This makes it much simpler to sort out which unit can be an eligible target of shooting or changes. The two exceptions are charging and the Warlord.


A charge activation requires a unit move into the square of the enemy unit it is to melee. This is the second exception where a two (or more) units can be in the same square and the only case where a unit can be in the same square as an enemy unit. As the losing unit is required to withdraw at the end of the melee, there can be no case where a unit ends the turn in the same square as an enemy unit.

Warlord Positioning

Previously, the Warlord could semi-attach himself to a unit using the Side-by-Side special ability. In Saga 2 they have done away with that ability. A Warlord is a full-fledged unit in its own right. Because it is a single figure, I allow it to reside in the same square as another unit.

When a Warlord enters the same square as a unit, or a unit enters the same square as a Warlord, the player must declare whether the Warlord is in 'front' or 'behind'. What this means is that if a Warlord is 'behind' the unit, enemy units charging into or shooting at that square cannot melee or shoot the Warlord; they must melee or shoot the unit. By the same logic, if the Warlord is in 'front', the Warlord must be charged or shot at. If a Warlord charges a square containing a unit with a Warlord 'behind', the charged Warlord will automatically switch positions and be in 'front'.
Note that because units do not have facing, the position of 'front' or 'behind' does not change as the square is attacked from different directions.
A Warlord's position does not affect the friendly unit's movement or shooting.

If a Warlord in 'front' is charged and it loses the melee, the unit must withdraw from the square even though it did not fight in the melee. (Consider them being in shock at having lost their Warlord.) If a Warlord is 'behind' a unit that loses a melee, the Warlord must withdraw from the square.

Game Playtest

Although I have read a few articles about the changes, I really needed to give it a try for myself to see what changes were for the better and which were just fluff.


As I still had the table set up from my last game with Tin Soldiers in Action, I decided to play the same scenario from Neil Thomas' One-Hour Wargames, scenario #4: Take the High Ground.

The defender starts with two units on a hill in the attacker's half of the board while the rest move on the board from behind. The attackers enter the board, but very close to the hill. The goal is to be in possession of the two hill squares at the end of the game.

The Opposing Forces


The Anglo-Saxons are the attackers. I chose one mounted Thegns (Hearthguard) unit, two units of Ceorls (Warriors), and one unit of Geburs (Levy).

I wanted the mounted Thegns for their mobility. In hindsight that was probably not a great idea, as the hill squares are Uneven Ground, reducing all foot and mounted movement to S. But, as as I thought about it later, I could use them to cut off the reinforcements, leaving my other three units to deal with the Vikings on the hill.

The primary Anglo-Saxon abilities to use are Valiant Hearts, which allows units to count as if they have two more figures than they do, for purposes of other Saga abilities, and Unison, which allows two units of ten or more figures to activate on a single die. Using the first ability increases my eight-figure Ceorl units to ten figures, thus allowing them to use the second ability. In addition, there are a number of other abilities that provide additional bonuses to units of ten figures or more, so Valiant Hearts becomes a critical play each turn.


The Vikings chose two units of Hirdmen (Hearthguard) to defend the hill, with the Warlord. (The Warlord was in 'front', of course.) Coming to their aid was a unit of Bondi (Warriors) and Thralls (Levy). The Thralls were armed with javelins as I wanted to testing out shooting.

The idea of making the Vikings the defenders is that the Warlord was directing raiding operations from a hill when an Anglo-Saxon fyrd came up from behind, partially surprising them. The closest supports were a unit of Bondi and Thralls, so the Warlord and his Hirdmen must hold out until they arrive.

Turn One


It is hard getting back into the Saga mindset. I got six dice to roll, but after that, I sort of drew a blank on what to do next. I also forgot that the first player is only supposed to get half the normal number of Saga dice. Oh well.

I spent a Rare die in order to roll the remaining two dice using the Activation Pool ability. (Saga only allows you eight Saga dice to be in play.)

Valiant Hearts allows my two Ceorl units to count as ten figures for purposes of Saga abilities. This in turn will allow them to both activate using Unison. The Gebur will activate using the Select Fyrd die, while the Warlord will activate using Determination and activate the Thegns for free using We Obey. That leaves a lot of dice for special abilities. To discourage the Vikings from counterattacking off of the hill I chose Defenders of the Kingdom, Closed Ranks, and Crash of Shields to buff the troops in melee defense.

I moved all of the troops a single move and ended the turn.


Because the Vikings received no Rare die, they could not use Activation Pool, allowing them to roll the remaining two dice. Their options were a bit more limited, but that was countered by a number of new rules. You will notice that I did not allocate any dice for activating units (the three black boxes to the top and left) other than a single die for the Thralls.

The Warlord and two Hirdmen units do not need activations. I could have moved off of the hill, but as the goal is to defend it, that seemed a little like a bad move. Besides, in order to do that they would have had to perform two activations, one to move adjacent to the enemy and one to charge into them. (Adjacent units are not in combat. You must move into the enemy square to initiate melee. It is the only time that a unit may enter the square of an enemy unit and is the exception to the rule of one unit per square.)

The new rule in Saga 2, however, is that a unit can Maneuver, or take a free move activation, if it is: a) more than L away from all enemy units; and b) does not move to within L of any enemy unit. This makes it much easier to move reinforcing units, or those out of the action, as it does not require any activation dice in order to move them towards the battle.
Note that this is a normal move and not a move of L, as I accidentally took!
I decided to move the Thralls twice, in order to get into javelin range next turn, receiving a fatigue point (green marker) for taking a second, non-resting activation.

That leaves the remaining Saga dice for defense. Heimdall, Thor, Ullr, and Loki all give defense in melee, especially Loki, which will counteract the play of dice by the Anglo-Saxons.


Note: I did not cheat by using nine dice, I simply took a die from another set to show all of the action. Only eight dice were thrown.

I started by leaving the die on Defenders of the Kingdom. Although it is an Uncommon die, I could possibly use the effect this turn.
Note: this is the first real change I came upon in version 2. In version 1, any dice left on the battle board subtracted from the number of dice you could roll. Now, it simply subtracts from the total pool. So if you generate six Saga dice a turn, you can leave two dice on the battle board with no ill effects.
I rolled six dice and got two Rares, so one went on Activation Pool and the other on Call to Arms. If I played Activation Pool – the ability to discard the die but roll two more - I would have only been able to roll one die. So I played Valiant Hearts first, giving me that die to re-roll with Activation Pool.

Call to Arms grants Levies the Aggression rating of Warriors during melee. The Gebur were two activations alway from the enemy Warlord, so I placed two dice on the Select Fyrd ability to pay for their activations. I thought that using Truce would allow me to remove the extra Fatigue from moving twice before they went into combat, but later in the turn I re-read the ability and found it was an Orders ability, not an Activation ability, meaning I could not use it right before combat. Defenders of the Kingdom and Closed Ranks would allow them to keep stacking dice in a hope to kill the Hirdmen bodyguard and possibly the Warlord. (One can only hope!)

Unison would allow me to move my two Ceorls units and, again, the Warlord and Thegns could move for free.

I decided to have the Warlord use We Obey and order the mounted Thegns to charge the Viking Thralls first, in hopes of flushing out dice before my Gebur made their charge on the Viking Warlord. The Thralls cannot close ranks (which allows them to exchange attack dice for defense dice) as they have javelins. The Thegns had eight attack dice and no bonuses. The Thralls had four attack dice and no bonuses. The Thegns used no abilities in the melee, but did use the Thrall's fatigue to lower its armor to '2'. The Viking played Thor, which causes two hits for every '6' rolled.

The Thegn score eight hits, with two being saved. The Thralls score two hits (rolled a '6'), but both are saved. The Thralls lose the melee and withdraw. Both sides take one fatigue.

The Anglo-Saxons played Unison and moved the Ceorl units, both of them moving diagonally in order to flank around the hill, and to make space for the Gebur to charge up the hill. (Remember that M moves can move orthogonally or diagonally.)

Finally, I used Call to Arms to embolden the Geburs, one Activation die to move, and one Activation die to charge the Warlord. (As I indicated earlier I re-read Truce and realized I could not play it, so I went into the charge with one fatigue. 😒 ) The Geburs would normally have six attack dice, but under the effects of Call to Arms, they have twelve dice. The Warlord has eight dice. The Gebur played Closed Ranks, gaining five dice. The Warlord played Loki gaining two dice for the one ability the Anglo-Saxons used in the melee. The Gebur played Defenders of the Kingdom, gaining two attack and two defense dice, but also granting the Warlord two more attack dice because of Loki. The Warlord played Ullr to re-roll all missed attack dice. Finally the Warlord used the Gebur fatigue to lower their armor to '3'.

The Gebur rolled 19 dice, needing a '5' to hit, scoring eight hits. Three hits were saved, but five go through. Three of those are turned into fatigue because of the Resilience (1) ability, leaving two as Hirdmen casualties (the Bodyguards ability). As there were two Hirdmen units within S of the Warlord, I decided that each unit take one loss.

The Warlord rolled 12 dice and could re-roll misses, hitting on a '3'. Seven hits were scored. Two are saved, leaving five figures removed. Because the Warlord canceled three casualties from Resilience (1) and two from Bodyguards, it suffered no casualties, so the Gebur had to withdraw.

The only thing remaining for the Anglo-Saxons to move was its Warlord. As it cannot charge the Viking Warlord (the hill slows his charge from L to S), he moves behind his Thegns.

To be continued in Part 2...


So far the adaptation to a square grid is going well. No micro-measurements to see if I was just in or just out of range for a charge or whether the figures were within coherency.

The Saga rules cleaned up the charge rules quite a bit, making them less fiddly. Also, the melee rules now flat-out state that all figures in a unit fight in the melee, so no more micro-measurements to get every figure in and to count how many qualify. Great change! Plus, it means that my square-to-square fighting fits their intended combat model of entire units fighting entire units.

So what are my first impressions? They made a lot of improvements to the rules by using terms consistently throughout. They thought through some of the rough bits and smoothed them out so the game flows better. The game still has the same "roll the dice and see what battle plan the Gods have blessed" feel to it. Great for players that don't like planning in advance and even better for those that do. It provides you far more variety to your plan than, say, a five-card hand in a Command and Colors game, where you typically play one Command card and one Tactics card (for those using that new mechanic).

The charge of the Anglo-Saxon Geburs was instructive as to just how hard a Warlord can be, if sufficiently backed up by his Hearthguard. Although I did not really expect to kill him on the first charge, I actually had no idea of how it would play out until I started calculating the odds. As it turned out the Viking Warlord had an additional special ability he did not even use, which would have allowed him to roll an additional five attack dice, at the expense of lowering his armor to '4'.

The charge of the Thegns was also instructive, in that it showed just how brittle the Levy really is. Not that they were not brittle before, but in version 1 Levy units would not generate Saga dice, so their loss was pretty inconsequential. Now that they do generate Saga dice – but only if they have six or more figures in the unit – they really are no longer throwaway troops.

Speaking of which, in version 1 Warrior units would continue generate a Saga die even when it had only a single figure in the unit. This would lead to players running away with the unit and hiding it in some corner, like in many Command and Colors and Memoir '44 games. Now, a Warrior unit no longer generates a Saga die if it is less than four figures. (Hearthguard, however, still generate a Saga die with a single-figure unit.) This changes the play from hiding the crippled units to using them until the bitter end. There is one scenario rule, however, called Massacre points, which yields an extra point if a unit is completely wiped out. But given that an eight-figure Warrior unit yields four points if seven figures are killed, but only five points if the unit is wiped out, it incentive to hide the last figure is not that great.

All in all, a pretty fun game. It is going slow primarily because I am blogging the turns, but also because I am checking all of my assumptions about the rules and reading the rules as I play. I don't want to form any version 1 bad habits.

One final note: you may wonder why I converted these rules to a grid. As I get older I have found it easier on my back and temperament to use grids to regulate movement. I think that free movement is over-rated and leads to rules bloat as you have to write so many words to cover the contingencies. As a simple example, all of the unit coherency rules go away when you say "all figures in a unit must placed in the same square" and "a unit may not split into multiple units nor merge with another unit".

Finally, I have recently had issue with my back and ribs. Damn, getting old is a pain! Now when I twist to the left or right, or rise up too suddenly from a chair, it feels like someone has landed a blow on my right side ribcage. So using a grid and a small game space has helped me continue gaming.


  1. Hello, Dale!

    Thank you for sharing! It's nice to see that I am not the only one who converts standard wargames to a gridded ones. I have also converted Saga to a square grid. But I use smaller squares so each square can only contain 4 figures or warlord (I represent him not with a single figure, but usually with 3 - warlord, standard bearer and musician). So larger unit take up more than one square. This also made the game a bit more tactical, as now flank attacks (against units which take up more than one square) make sense as not all members of large unit can fight back.

    1. My first attempt at using Saga on a grid was at the end of my Saga 1 days, so about 2013. I was using a 1" square grid and limiting each grid to one figure. For mounted it was 1 figure in two adjacent squares. Everything else was as is, with each square counting as 1". As for diagonals, I always liked the Rivet Wars rule, which is when counting squares you can only have one diagonal; all others must be orthogonal. However, Rivet Wars generally had few ranges over three or four squares, so I would allow one diagonal per 6 squares, rounded up. It worked well.

      My primary reason for moving away from that is because the Saga rules moved away from that sort of micro-measurement, especially for melees. As the entire unit fights one other unit, it made a lot of sense to have a square contain a unit. I am still on the fence about Warlords though.

  2. Great review. I like the idea of using a grid for these rules and need to explore it further. Always an education reading your posts.

    1. Thanks Dan. I would enjoy hearing your experiences with gridding Saga. My email address is in my profile or you can reply here with a link (if you have a blog or Facebook post).

  3. Hello Dale,

    Always a pleasure to read in depth posts from you. I have never played Saga but have seen it; and read your previous posts on the Aztecs and Saga (5 years - I would have sworn it was only A few years at most). Anyway, Saga has always fascinated me and especially as someone pointed out that they played it with DBx types bases, which is all I have. I am glad 2nd Edition is an improvement on the !st as it makes me feel better about not getting it before. It is now on my list to acquire but not this year. I am renovating and trying to cut down spending in a year I wont get much gaming in either!

    Oh, and you and John A must be doing something as I am coming around to using grids for miniatures, something I would have not thought possible a few years ago. In my mind I convert a lot of rules to a grid, including my own, even if I do not follow through.

    1. I have still yet to play DBA Squared, which is on his blog, but I have converted his work for DBA 3. Putting a square grid on DBA is much easier now because measurements have all been converted to "base widths". To me, aligning base sizes measuring distances is the first step between free movement and gridded games.

      I am looking at going deeper into the solo aspects of Saga on the Solo Battles blog, which has not seen an update since 2013, but still gets comments on it.


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Huachuca City, Arizona, United States
I am 50 yrs old now. I bought a house in Huachuca City, AZ (although I have a townhouse in Houston, TX and a small home in Tucson, AZ) working on a contract for "the next two years" that is going on five years now. To while away the hours I like to wargame -- with wooden, lead, and sometimes paper miniatures -- usually solo. Although I am a 'rules junkie', I almost always use rules of my own (I like to build upon others' ideas, but it seems like there is always something "missing" or "wrong").