Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Alfred the Great - The Great Heathen Army 871 AD, "Wash Up" and Post Game Comments

Just to conclude the series of posts on our play-through of "Alfred the Great - The Great Heathen Army 871 AD" by Mark H. Sheppard, Steve and I decided to write up our thoughts about our strategy and what we might have done differently now we have the experience of of first game.

As Steve was the victor I think it only fair to let him have the first say, followed by my own thoughts as the humbled loser.

Mr Steve's Thoughts:
So the world is once again free from the tyranny of the West Saxons, however sitting here now with my feet up on a pile of Saxon skulls I am thinking that things could have gone a little differently.

Sometimes I think the most enjoyable games are those played when neither side has any idea about what they are doing as it only takes roughly four or five games of any boardgame before the set moves and optimal strategies kick in and then all future games tend to follow a similar course of events. I certainly had no idea what I was doing and it is therefore possible that I may have made some less brilliant moves than normal so lets review our game .

I think there are three main points I want to look at and after going over each one in turn I will chip in at the end with some minor ones as the thoughts come to mind.

The key to this game is occupying towns, to do so as the Vikings you will have to capture them from the Saxons and there are two ways to do this, Assault or by Siege.
Both Jon and I had unpleasant experiences early on whilst assaulting towns and this made us very wary of repeating it but my attitude changed after closer study of the rules. Assaulting towns isn't that hard if you pick your targets and look at the odds, Religious Towns can be breached with a 50% chance and Royal towns on 33%, once inside you will then normally overwhelm the defenders. Without a king the defenders chance of hitting you back in both cases is also only 33% and if you are attacking small garrisons of 5 to 10 then you can usually survive two or three turns of being hit before considering giving up. Sieges take time, a long time and not only that but your individual hexes are open to be attacked whilst doing so. Jon’s assault on London whilst probably worth an attempt was always going to be difficult as he had to throw a 6 to breach the wall of a Castle which is the strongest type of defended area in the game plus he was a little unlucky in that all three of the defensive rolls were hits whilst he was trying to get in.

Linked to the above, as the Vikings you should spend your time while waiting for the Summer army to arrive by occupying as many easy supply points as possible, this will both deny the Saxons extra troops and will boost your starter army. This was something I singly failed to do and I should have spent most of my early turns moving along the Thames occupying the many supply points that are located in that area.

We didn’t have any, not through want of trying on my part, which I suppose reflects to some extent the inherent fear of the “One Big Battle” complex, fine if you win but devastating if you lose, you can see why many Kings /Generals avoided fighting battles unless they had a really big advantage over the enemy, had no choice or were bonkers.

Odds and ends.

River Thames
The river is key for the Vikings, you get free movement along it and after enjoying a pleasant boat trip you still get to move off into the countryside with any of your remaining movement points, when I cottoned onto this I started to dangle out many little single “worms” who by occupying supply points might just get Jon to bite and attack them, meanwhile my army, seemingly well out of range was cunningly poised to sweep down the river and gobble them up if I got a nibble. Unfortunately Jon was too dense to fall into my trap; I will have to be less devious next time.  

Jon’s original plan was to get Aethelred killed off in order that the much more powerful King Alfred could take over, knowing this I decided that I wouldn’t oblige and deliberately tried to keep him alive. My thoughts on this have changed and if the opportunity now cropped up to do painful things with pointy sticks to him then I would definitely do so. The advantage of having two Kings available as opposed to just one is huge, as far as the actual casualty’s the two Kings themselves cause then the combined total is roughly the same as those caused by one Super Alfred however what they really do is to greatly boost the chances of your warriors and earls hitting in combat, with a king its 66%, without its only 33%. As a Saxon I would try and keep both leaders alive for as long as possible so that I could campaign in two armies rather than just one. I believe Jon has also reached this opinion as well having recently read a reply of his to the game designer, Mark Sheppard.

Could the Saxons have done things differently?

I spent more time reacting to the Saxons rather than scheming for them so it’s a bit tricky for me to say and obviously I was not aware of what their master plan was, if there was one. Jon maximised his supply points very well and therefore increased the size of his army greater than it should have been however I might have considered risking an early battle in order to degrade the Vikings options even at the risk of losing Aethelred. Towards the end when the Great army was sat in front of Basing I think Jon’s decision not to attack was correct as a defeat would have been devastating and it wasn’t as if the enemy could actually threaten anywhere. (My plan was to pin the main Saxon army in place out of the way and that is what happened).
The one thing I would definitely have done differently was at the end when the real threat was Guthram, I would have attacked him with Alfred’s army mustering up everything I could find because Guthram's force was positioned to threaten so many places that couldn’t otherwise be adequately defended and especially as it was the last turn with the Viking’s getting a free go at any points in range. Then use some of the Earls in the Basing army to occupy the empty towns as, given average luck, there wouldn’t have been many surviving Vikings from that army to take advantage of weak garrisons.

What other general tactic do I see for  the Saxons to follow in the game; they need to restrict the Vikings rampaging about and also to try and recapture any fallen towns whilst still maintaining the highest possible supply score however it is tricky to chase someone down who can just jump on a boat and sail away, perhaps Royal towns along the river could limit movement if still held by the enemy but there are many recorded occasions when the Viking longboats coasted past defended burghs and it was only places with bridges that could really stop them so perhaps not.  

This was a fun game to play and I had forgotten how enjoyable it was waiting for your opponents turn to appear in your inbox. I would imagine that this could easily be played in an evening in around an hour across a table with a few tankards of mead.

Oh yes, don’t abandon Reading at the start like I did and instead make the Saxons fight for it , by adding in a spare King not only are you more likely to inflict casualties more often but it will also attract them like moths to a flame . 

JJ's Thoughts:
Wow! I think Steve has pretty well covered all the areas I was thinking about when I got his thoughts through on the email and then decided that it was so flipping good, what can I add?

So I might as well keep my comments succinct and use them to highlight and emphasise the points Steve has so eloquently covered.

The Villages, Religious sites, Royal Estates and Castles are the key to gaining the advantage in this game as they impact on victory conditions and supply, which are the two factors that will decide if you will win and by how much. The occupation and control, particularly of the defensible "fortified hexes" which are all of the habitations except villages, offers the defender a force multiplier by adding in the potential to inflict casualties on any unlucky sole who fails to breach their defences. In addition their control generates the points that pays for all those troops you will need to replace your losses and to add to your numbers.

I totally agree with Steve's comment about the fun of learning the game as you play and the potential generated from mistakes that more experienced players probably wouldn't make. Thus my taking of Readingum early in the game when Steve vacated it was all part of an early cunning plan to take advantage of his vacating the town and follow that up by grabbing Lundene and shutting down the river to Viking landings and movement. It was a bit risky attacking Lundene with its high defence but if you are going to try, better to try early in the game when you have time to recover any losses incurred with all those Saxon supply turns coming up.

The attack on Lundene didn't come off and I incurred higher than average casualties in the attempt that forced me onto the defensive whilst I rebuilt my forces. Steve wisely recognised the importance of  building his own force during my inactivity which again left me little time to do much about the situation before the Great Summer Army turned up.

I think the forward defence on the river was probably the right strategy, because it forced the Vikings to clear their rear areas before advancing inland, but I made the cardinal error of not putting the King or Alfred into Readingum thus causing them to miss out on really hurting the Vikings when they inevitably broke in over the walls.

I agree entirely that losing Aethelred, particularly whilst the Vikings are still a force to be reckoned with, is a poor swap for getting Alfred the White instead of Alfred the Grey. The benefit of having two leaders able to hype up the combat effectiveness of the troops is really important particularly when the Vikings have five such characters running around the map.

The big battle temptation was close to being taken, and I did seriously think of stripping out all my Earls and King Aethelred from the garrisons to join Alfred in one last hurrah attack on Guthrum at the end. The risk in going for the big battle is that with much riding on the result for me as the Saxons, the Vikings had the luxury of fighting the first round and if there was no advantage to them, retreating back to their stronghold on the Temes or trying to take out the two Saxon Royals for a knock out major victory. Either way, their main force was sitting pretty in Readingum waiting to mop up at the end.

Perhaps the Aethelred of the Sagas might have risked it all on one last throw of the dice, but I think, on reflection that discretion was the better part of valour limiting the overall victory as it did, although I am kicking myself for not putting a forlorn hope force of warriors out on the road to Wilton to stop that final raid.

My final thought, and the one which prompted me to get the game is that I am confirmed in my thinking that herein lies a great little map game to generate tabletop encounters with figures, be they big set piece battles or assaults on walled fortifications and the fights in the towns when the walls are breached. The forces involved would be easily assembled with a few boxes of plastic figures and the game would add that, oh so important, context to the tabletop clash.

I agree that there is much fun to be had from this game and I am looking forward to resuming the struggle over Cyberboard in the next in the series "Alfred the Great - The War in the West Country 876 AD".

If you missed the earlier posts on our play-through, just click on the label "Alfred the Great" at the bottom of this post or in the "Labels" section in the side bar to the right to follow the game.

Lots more fun to come on JJ's with next up our annual Xmas-New Year game in North Devon with Chas, then we're back at Talavaera as Will leads the German Division against Steve M holding the Pajar Vergaga Redoubt and a review of 2015 and New Year Plans.


  1. Hi Guys, from a designers point of view it looked like it was challenging and fun, what more could i ask for? i will watch with interest your tactics in "War in the West Country". Have a great New years.

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for your comment and for a great game. I know Steve and I enjoyed puzzling out the problems presented to both sides and I am looking forward to battling over terrain I am very familiar with.

      Happy New Year to you