Designed by Ole Steiness
Art by Victor Perez Corbella
Published by Grey Fox Games - 2015
2-4 Players - 60-90 Minutes
Review by Luke Muench
Luck is a rather polarizing aspect of board gaming as a hobby. Too much of it, and there’s no strategy to the game, players relying on drawing the best cards or rolling dice well, making it feel unfair. Too little, and the game becomes a giant math problem that have one path of least resistance, making all players follow the same strategies, resulting in a boring and tedious experience. All good games, in my opinion, should have some luck injected into them to allow for interesting and exciting moments, but at what point is it too much?
One of the first modern board games I played was Stone Age, a game that focuses on gathering resources to allow your tribe to rise in prominence over time. The problem? Every time you collected resources, you would need to roll dice to see just how much of that important thing you would get. This quickly left a sour taste in my mouth, as more often than not I found myself only getting one or two pieces of wood when I desperately needed four to accomplish one of the goals on the board. Yes, there are ways to mitigate this, such as obtaining tools that alter odds in your favor or spending more workers on an action to roll more dice, but the game still required you to roll to see how well you were doing.
And yet one of my favorite games to date, and one of those games I have fellow players ask me to bring to game nights week after week, is Champions of Midgard, a game that once again involves rolling dice at crucial moments to see if you get the “resources” you need to succeed. So what does this Norse-inspired dice-rolling rampage do that makes it so much more rewarding that it surpasses what made me grow to resent Stone Age?
In Champions of Midgard, players are rival chieftains, trying to prove themselves the most glorious. Whoever obtains the most glory, aka victory points, by the end of eight rounds wins.
Players will primarily do this by violently slaughtering the great and mighty beasts found in Norse lore, from Trolls to Draugr to the Cubs of Fenrir. Each of these creatures provide not just points, but resources and other benefits to allow you to progress on your future ventures that much more easily.
The process of actually fighting these monsters, however, can be daunting and difficult, and like any euro worth its snuff, it forces players to live off of next-to-nothing in hopes of squeaking by with just enough glory to outshine their neighbors. Resources are tight, but with some clever planning and by thinking three turns ahead, you’ll watch as a variety of unique plans collide, often derailing one another in hilarious ways.
At first glance, Champs may be seen as a rehash of every other worker placement game out there, an unhealthy stigma that I admit I suffered from prior to trying it for myself. Each round, players take turns placing one worker at a time on different spots, allowing them to gain the benefits of that spot while preventing others from doing the same for the rest of that round. Many of the spots will allow you to gather important resources, like food, wood, a variety of useful other tokens, cards, and effects, and most importantly, warriors.
Warriors, and how they fight, are what makes this game stand out from the rest. Rather than having players turn in their collected resources for a pre-defined set of points, players may place a worker in front of land-based monsters to claim them as combatants in the second phase of each round. Similarly, players may claim boats and particular locations at the seaside in preparation to set sail to the stronger but more profitable monsters that await on the other side. Then, after all workers are placed and resources are collected, players may dedicate a certain number of dice to each battle.
Determining how many or how few warriors should be sent into a given fight can be one of the most stressful yet rewarding decisions in the game. I’ve spent turns charging into three different battles, spreading my forces unadvisedly thin in hopes of squeaking out an extra five or ten points that round. What further incentivises players to diversify their warriors is that some monsters cannot be attacked by specific types of dice, meaning you’ll need to change your strategies now and again in order to have enough opportunities to earn points.
Players can choose to send no warriors at all, simply claiming the space to skunk other players out of that battle, or they can send up to the maximum of eight warriors, stacking their chances for success. However, when setting off to sea, where most of the larger valued bounties await, boats have a finite weight they can carry, limiting how many tokens can be on board. Furthermore, warriors need to be fed if they are to make it to their battle, meaning some of those slots will be taken up by food. And let’s not forget that, before any warriors have eaten, a hidden sea card is revealed, potentially dooming some of the passengers. So overstocking in order to be safe or using one of your precious workers to check the hidden card might be prudent, but costly.
Even then, once you get to the fight, you need to roll well enough to take down your target, or have enough reroll tokens to allow the fight to swing in your favor. One-time use effects can also be bought, providing a handful of glory as well as instant abilities that can save you when at the fate of the dice.
Each of the different types of dice represent a different kind of warrior, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Swordsmen are the easiest to obtain, sure, but with three blank sides, there’s a good chance they could miss altogether. Still, they can strike once or twice in a single roll, or block one damage with their shield. Spearmen have one less blank, replaced by another single-hit, and axemen throw away their shield for another double-hit, making them powerful but vulnerable. That’s because for each damage that the monsters do to you, even with their dying breath, you must discard one of the dice you brought on the venture, sending the warriors to Valhalla… or back the dice pool, take your pick.
In other words, every fight is carefully planned for and considered, yet the battles maintain an exciting and invigorating tone, sending a rush of adrenaline through your body when your last spearman delivers the killing blow, netting you twelve points and some useful reroll tokens for your trouble. You’re constantly keeping an eye on your opponents to see what they’re up to, doing your best to stymie them at every turn, because if you don’t, they will defeat you. Not paying attention to who fights the Troll each turn? Well, that could mean you taking negative points due to the townsfolk blaming you for not dealing with it yourself. Deciding to let your friend get the resources they need so you can aim for another one-time use ability? Well, now they have a private boat that gets them points and means they don’t have to fight over the public longboats to head out to sea. Didn’t take the first player token? Now the next person did, meaning you’re going last next round. Every decision is meaningful.
Last match I played of this (a 4-player battle royale), I had a friend who was taking up the rear for a fair amount of the game, only to go on two overseas expeditions at the end of round seven, earning himself roughly 30 points, and ultimately the game. Everyone is always a contender as long as you’re fighting for it, and this game is far from being just about the luck of the roll. Much like Roll Player, Champions of Midgard lets you manipulate and utilize your luck in hopes of getting just what you need.
Now, this review may be coming across as a bit one-sided, but Champions of Midgard is by no means a perfect game, and has some flaws that are worth mentioning. Firstly, this game does obviously have some luck to it, and get unlucky enough and it can be hard to come back from it. This is rare, but certainly a possibility.
Secondly, some of the tokens, particularly the food and wood cubes, feel pretty underwhelming compared to the chunky and detailed dice. Frankly, none of the components are particularly good, with the insert feeling especially cheap if functional. I’ve since replaced my food and wood tokens with those from Imperial Settlers, a game I didn’t find myself playing nearly as often.
Third, the leaders each player starts with feel unbalanced, with some of their powers feeling much more powerful and flexible than others. One of the leaders, Gylfir the Seaworthy, allows a player to take the resources from the traders space on the board for free each round. While this may be useful, other players can block this spot easily, making the ability overall pretty situational.
Some players might be disheartened to see the score progress over the course of the game. A few matches I’ve played, it became painfully obvious to those paying attention that one player had such a significant lead that very little could be done to stop them. Trolls can give players negative points, but this rarely factors into any significant losses for any player, with most players end the game with zero, one, or two blame tokens.
Lastly, make sure you have a table large enough to handle the gigantic board and numerous tokens featured. This game quickly takes up a ton of space, and those unprepared may find it difficult to find the space to sit everyone comfortably.
With all that being said, Champions of Midgard is one of my favorite games to date. As everyone sweats over every dice roll, whether it be yours or someone else’s, as each person curses you out for taking the precious spot they needed, and as the players quietly stare at the board wondering what they need to give up that turn if only to get a few more points of glory, it becomes clear why this is one of the best euro-games I’ve played in some time.
Champions of Midgard allows you to prepare as much as you want, knowing what resources you’re gathering; you just never know if it’ll be enough to survive the nasty creatures you challenge, presenting a level of press-your-luck that I find endearing and invigorating. It leaves you with more varied and intense avenues of getting points, the theme helping to make your actions feel epic. So while it may only hold the 183rd spot on the BoardGameGeek ranking chart, I’ll take the satisfyingly smart and tight competition of Champions of Midgard over almost any game found in the top 100 any day.
Luke Muench is a freelance writer and the founder & host of the youtube series Budget Board Gamer.