Champions of Midgard is a really good game. It’s new from Grey Fox Games and designer Ole Steiness (Police Precinct). It’s also one of the best looking games released this year, all done up in a heavy metal Viking motif with rockin’ fonts and illustrations that will make you want to throw up horns and lick the blood off a battleaxe as you ride a flaming longship into Valhalla. There is dice rolling, monster fighting and a brilliant mechanic that allows you to shame your peers that have proven too cowardly to do battle with the local trolls. It’s easy to get folks interested in it, it’s easy to teach and it’s easy to play. And it’s a single purchase title, not a product line with 25 expansions available out of the gate.
There is a lot going for this game, to be sure. In fact, going down my list of desirables, it checks off almost everything from its pricepoint to its play length. But it’s not exactly a strong differentiator that Champions of Midgard is another worker placement game, and that design schematic has become increasingly stale over the past year or so. It’s certainly no fault of Mr. Steiness, who acquits himself quite nicely by bringing dice-rolling combat and a cool setting into a low-complexity example of the genre closer to Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep than the more elaborate Feldian or Rosenbergian iterations. Before we get deeper into it, I’ll go ahead and state that anyone that likes either of those two games but wishes there was a little more rock n’ roll in them (so to speak) are probably going to love this game.
Each player represents an upstart Jarl, vying for Jarlship (Jarlhood? Jarldom?) of the village. But said village has monster trouble. Trolls and Draugr are bothering the fine folks, and there are also monsters a boatride away that need to be dealt with for fame, glory, the favor of the gods and monetary bounties. Each Jarl has a special ability and starts with four disappointingly generic Meeples with which to select actions on the non-geographic board. The process is fairly routine, and anyone who has played any worker placement game released since Carcassonne will have a handle on what to do without instruction.
So the bulk of competition, as to be expected, comes from placing a worker down on a desirable spot before someone else does. There are a couple of economic conversion functions available, with the resources including favor, gold, wood and food. There are four spaces that are modular and change every turn, reminding me somewhat of the buildings in Waterdeep although they are fixed for the entire game. A merchant ship comes into port each turn and offers a variable conversion rate. There are also a couple of card draw spots, one is for Runes that you must have to carve into a piece of wood since that’s what it costs and these give you a special action as well as points for the end of the game. The other cards are Destinies that are kept secret and function as individual objectives.
But where it gets more interesting is in hiring warriors. There are three types of warriors- swordsmen, spearmen, and axemen. Each are represented by a different color of D6 with differing odds to hit, block, miss or do double damage. If you want to go fight the monsters, you’re going to have to grab some warriors and some monster cards forbid some types of warriors. Other bonuses and abilities affect specific classes. And anyone that you don’t send out to stab Draugrs can also be dispatched to hunt for food.
Fighting the local monsters is as simple as putting your worker down in front of the Troll card or one of the two Draugrs available each turn. After all workers are placed, the warriors do their thing. You roll up whoever you have committed to fighting a creature looking to exceed their armor value with hit results. The monsters also return the favor, and you have to eliminate warriors back to the general pool (Valhalla!) unless you roll shields or have other effects to save them. Any favor tokens you’ve bought or earned can be used to re-roll. Monsters give you points and sometimes bonus resources- they are actually the principle way that to make money in the game.
So you’re going to want to fight early and often. More significantly, somebody has to fight and defeat the troll card for the round or everyone receives a Shame marker, which counts against your score at the end of the game. But it is a one-person-only spot, so whoever does it has to win or their failure impacts everyone. If they beat it, they also get to give one player a Shame marker. I love this. It’s fun and it adds a sometimes hilarious psychological element to the game. And it is also the only aggressive-aggressive point of conflict in an otherwise passive-aggressive design.
Battling monsters in distant lands is a little more complicated but also more rewarding. You’ve got to either rent a publically available longship or build a private one with wood and gold. You can then load your vessel up to capacity with any combination of warrior dice and food that you like- with the provision being that the journey to the closer monster cards requires that you have one food for every two warriors and to get to the more distant ones you have to pack one food for every die. And then there is a journey card that is flipped to see what happens on the way- which may include battling a Kraken. I really enjoy the logistics and risk-taking present in this element of the game. This portion of the game reminds me quite a lot of the Ragnar Brothers’ classic Fire & Axe.
There are eight rounds of play but it almost feels like two too many because it can feel somewhat repetitious. The monster decks are random so there is no sense of ramping up the difficulty or an escalation pushing players to keep up with a power curve. The overall tension in the design is very low, despite some do-or-die dice rolling. This is a game where the worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose all of your warriors. And then on the next turn you might wind up with more than you had last round.
The ups and downs of sending out warriors sounds exciting and it is, but those three spaces are in the center of the board for a reason. Claiming those spaces and sending the warriors out is the most important element of the game and everything orbits around those functions. The result seems to be that the development curve- considering that this is most definitely not any kind of “engine building” game or “efficiency exercise”- seems to be fairly flat across the entire game. Other than players maybe building their own boat or gradually having more Destiny cards to pursue (goals such as “have the most red monster cards at the end of the game” or “have the most wood the end of the game”), it doesn’t feel like turn seven is fundamentally different than turn two aside from a player’s current resource holdings, and I think this is the biggest weakness of the entire package. There is an extra worker that players can unlock and that increases options, but there have been more than a few points where the choices have felt too restrictive. Particularly in the late game.
Reflecting on Champions of Midgard, I’m inclined to argue that worker placement burnout is one reason that I’m not just completely over the moon about it but I think more significantly that the repetition and relatively flat development curve are more culpable. I keep thinking about Lords of Xidit or Waterdeep where there is a buildup to larger battles that takes time, requiring you to make several profitable choices before you can work up to bigger rewards. But in this design, the strongest monsters in the game might hit on the first four turns and go down easy to a player with a strong warrior pool and lots of favor tokens. But hey, that’s fun too. And this game is fun, no doubt. There’s a lot to be said for a game that offers a great meat-and-potatoes gaming experience with broad appeal and an exciting setting and Mr. Steiness has given us exactly that.