I recently played a game of Ravenfeast, a set of Viking-era skirmish rules by the guys at Little Wars TV, with my U.S. gaming buddy Shawn (not my Australian gaming buddy Shaun 😉). Although I messed up a really important rule, it still played well enough that I could both get a sense of how it should play, and that I wanted to try it again.
Ravenfeast is a really simple set of rule – which I honestly prefer these days – in that there are very few mechanics, the dice rolls are in the unit stats, and everything is pretty easily applied. What I mean by that is shown in the movement rules. There is no wheeling, movement is by figure, not unit, figures can pass through friendly figures without issue, and firing is 180º to the front.
This probably gives you a hint about the game scale. As I said it is a skirmish game, which to me has always been a figure equals a single man, but also that each figure acts autonomously, not as part of a unit. (Warhammer 40K and Flames of War are both examples of games where a figure represents a single man, but figures move as part of units, and thus are not skirmish games, to my mind.)
That said, you can play larger actions, both in the sense of running more figures, and in having the figures represent more than one man. The former is possible because of the simplicity of the rules while the latter is just a form of 'bathtubbing'; the figure represents any number of men, but it still fights in the game as if it were a single man. In my first play of the game we played the 'Ashdown' scenario that can be downloaded from the Little Wars TV web site, which allowed us to put 30+ figures per side on the table.
This is not a typical IGO-UGO turn, but rather where the turn is broken down into phases and both players perform in that phase before moving on to the next phase. The phases are:
Each players roll a D6 and subtract a modifier for having Leaders and Heroes. The lowest roller gets to choose whether they go first or second.
Having the initiative only has any significance in the Movement phase. When a figure moves into contact the opposing figure is pinned and cannot move (although it can change facing in melee). The only way to escape is to disengage from combat and grant your opponent a free attack against you.
In the Missile and Melee phases you still resolve combat in player order, but figures killed may still make their attack, so there is no 'Alpha Strike'.
Figures that fled during a previous turn and were marked with a Coward Token (see "End" below), must roll their Morale Rating or lower in order to remove the Coward Token and act as normal in the upcoming turn. Failure to do so and the figure is removed from the battle.
Movement is handled simply in that you measure the path moved on the board. No rules about having to move in straight lines or not being able to cross over friendly figures' bases (you stop on contacting enemy figure bases though). The only complexity is terrain. There are essentially two type – area and linear – each with their own way of dealing with moving through or over it. Area terrain requires double the movement to move through and obstacles reduce movement by 2" each. In general foot figures have 6" or 8" of movement and mounted have 14" of movement.
Bows shoot 18" and javelins 8" and require a clear line of sight. That means that skirmishers cannot fire from rear ranks. (You may wish to 'house rule' that, allowing figures in base-to-base contact with a friendly figure to not obscure the shooter's line of sight.)
Generally speaking missile troops have terrible stats. The Missile skill determines the number or lower on a D6 that the shooter must roll in order to score a hit. The defender then rolls their Armor stat or lower to cancel the hit. With most missile troops having a stat of 2 and the unarmored fyrd having a 3 for armor, the odds are against you taking down the enemy with missiles.
All figures in base-to-base contact with an enemy figure may attack in melee. Figures have a Melee stat that they must roll or under in order to inflict a hit. As with missiles, the defender then must roll their Armor or under to cancel the hit. Figures generally have 1 wound although the Hearthguard, Heroes, and Mounted troops generally have 2 and the Warlords 3.
Unlike missile attacks there are modifiers to the die roll needed for melee, such as -1 if the attack is across an obstacle or uphill, or -1 if engaged by more than one enemy.
There is one special item that must be noted when die rolling. If the Melee roll is a natural '1' and the Armor roll a natural '6', a free second attack is rolled (with no save) to see if the second hit is a gruesome wound, causing a morale check to those in close proximity.
It would not be a Viking game if it did not have a shield wall rule. Three or more figures, armed with shields, not engaged in melee, may form a shield wall during the movement phase. Once formed the group moves at 1/2 speed, may only move straight ahead or a 1/4 move back, and may never move over obstacles.
Once formed the figures in the shield wall get +2 to their Armor, +1 to their Morale, are not subject to the bonus for being attacked from the rear, are not subject to the penalty for being engaged by more than one enemy, and can fight in melee from the second rank if armed with a spear.
A figure cannot leave one shield wall and join another in the same turn.
As you were going through the phases, you were accumulating Blood Tokens (when a figure is hit by missiles or in melee) and Raven Tokens (when hit with a gruesome wound in melee) on figures and now you must resolve them. If the number of Blood and Raven Tokens on a figure equals or exceeds it wounds (again, most figures have 1 wound), the figure is removed, along with the Blood Token.
After figure removal each side then must roll morale for the following:
- Leader was killed this turn (every figure in that warband)
- Warband suffers over 50% casualties (every figure in that warband)
- Hero was killed this turn (any friendly figure within the Hero's Morale rating, in inches)
- Death Worthy of a Song (every friendly figure within 6" of a Raven Token)
Leaders and Heroes do have a function in that any figure within their Morale Rating in inches can use their Morale Rating as their own, as long as the Leader or Hero passes their morale roll first.
Figures that fail their morale rolls flee their full move back towards their baseline and are given a Coward Token. If the fleeing figure is in base-to-base contact with an enemy figure, that figure gets a free attack.
Note that once you lose 50% of your figures in the warband, you will basically take a morale test for each figure every turn, so your army will disintegrate rapidly (as it should).
Ravenfeast includes a number of cards, called Rune cards, that target figures, terrain, and even opposing players taking effect immediately or last a phase, turn, or even the entire battle. It is a way to 'break the rules' by injecting a chance element into the game. They are completely optional.
Another optional rule is to introduce currency into the game. Each player starts with a certain amount and scenarios may have objectives that grant additional currency. Currency can be spent on certain things like a re-roll during the game, an additional Rune card, or even adding a Berserker to your warband. This makes more sense if you are playing a campaign, of course, because you can slay the enemy Warlord and loot their bodies and add it to your loot.
Although Ravenfeast primarily focuses on Vikings, rules for Saxons – and their stats – are included. The Saxons main advantage is that they get the Mounted Spearman.
Ravenfeast does have a points system, but it is recommended that you play scenarios and campaigns.
Big Battle Ravenfeast, which is what the 'Ashdown' scenario is, basically introduces the concept of using the exact same rules as normal Ravenfeast, but treating each figure as representing more than one man. It doesn't matter how many, but play it the same. Forming a shield wall does require a Leader or Hero to be close by, however.
And what Dark Ages came would not be complete without a fantasy variant. There is a separate download for that which includes trolls, dragons, wolves, spells, and other monsters.
In the base rulebook there are three scenarios, "Back to the Boats!", "Fight for Honor!", and "Pillage and Burn!". More scenarios can be downloaded from the Little Wars TV web site and found on forums. You could easily adapt scenarios from Saga.
Ravenfeast are really simple and straight forward rules that my old brain can digest. Almost no die roll modifiers to speak of and everything is rather 'standardized'. If I have to keep anything close to hand it is all of the special rules surrounding a shield wall and the stats for each of the figure types.
Comparing Ravenfeast to Saga
Although it might seem like we are comparing two very similar games, we are not. Ravenfeast is a true skirmish game (by my definition), but Saga is not as the smallest autonomous group is the unit, not the figure. Saga is what I would call these days a 'grand skirmish' set of rules. Games of Saga with 8 points can run from 29 to 85 figures, although this is not typical. Saga can handle more figures because figures are grouped into units, reducing the number of autonomous groups the player must manage. Figures in a unit thus become glorified markers for the number of hits a unit can take.
The telling difference between the two rules is that once the figures get stuck into melee, there are little to no decisions to make in Ravenfeast; you roll dice until a decisive result is achieved. In Saga you are always rolling the Saga dice, choosing special abilities, and planning for which units to buff and how. In this regard it makes Saga richer, but more complex.
One of the nice aspects of Saga is that each faction has a distinctive 'feel', which is supposed to reflect how they fought historically. Scots are a wall of spears, Saxons cluster in large supporting groups, the Irish have lots of missiles and even the occasional wolfhound, Vikings their ferocity, and Normans their crossbows and charging cavalry. I think you can simulate this flavor in Ravenfeast through the use of faction-specific Rune cards. Wherever you see a special ability in Saga, you could translate it to a Rune card. Not only would this simplify the faction concepts in Saga by reducing special actions to one-use cards, but it would also get rid of needing expensive custom dice.
The one criticism of Saga that I have never voiced on this blog is the seeming ahistorical nature of how it represents combat by putting like type figures into units. That wasn't really how it was. As shown in this diagram below from European Medieval Tactics (1), battle lines were formless not a series of units in line formation.
Dark Ages battle lines could curve, especially on the ends where it acted as a defense against being flanked. The line would ripple as groups of men would surge forward to try and break through the enemy line, then fade back as the fighters became exhausted. The elite warriors might be found in several points along the line, adding strength to help it hold, while some concentrated at a point of attack, as indicate in the diagram at point E. In The Viking Art of War, it cites that 'units' of berserkers would often act as these 'line breakers', but beyond that a chieftain's retainers would all fight together, regardless of what our games might call 'unit types'. The more heavily armored would be in front, the less armored but veteran fighters next, on back to the missile troops firing overhead from the rear, or spreading out to the flanks in an attempt to get better shots into the enemy line.
Our rules just do not play out like this. One thing Saga does represent better is the concept of 'fatigue', but it can really only do this because it groups figured into units with standardized stats. I think Ravenfeast would be all the better if fatigue could be incorporated, but because each figure is a unit, it would be a nightmare of markers to try and track it for each figure.
Overall, I like the simplicity of Ravenfeast, but it lacks many things that make Saga an interesting game, such as the management of resources (fatigue, dice, etc.), faction 'flavor', and meaningful decisions for the player to make that impact the game. I definitely want to look more into incorporating ideas from Saga into Rravenfeast.