20 February 2018

Saber & Blood [Beta version] board game review

A couple of weeks ago I received a beta version of the upcoming board game "Saber & Blood" from my friends over at Kazrak Miniatures in Poland. Saber & Blood can be described as a turn based, card driven board game where resource management of command points limit what you can do each turn, and combat is performed using a very clever dice system. The setting is 17th century central/eastern Europe, the core game as I understand it will feature Poles and Cossacks but other factions will become available during the Kickstarter if it becomes popular enough. The goal of the game is to guide the 3 heroes of your faction to victory in a tavern brawl over a specific objective.

I had heard about the game many months ago but it was not until now that a playable version was made available or presented. The game is still work in progress, but many aspects such as the gameplay mechanics are solid enough to move beyond the playtesting stage and further into sneak preview territory. The game will become available following a Kickstarter campaign which is soon to begin.

Having played a bunch of games with Caroline I do feel like I have enough experience with the game to write a review, though bear in mind that the game is still not finished. I do not, however, think that the core mechanics will change. What will most likely happen is a fine tuning of some cards and a proper version of the rulebook that will iron out some language quirks that made the rules a bit hard to understand and fix language issues on some of the cards. If you are interested in learning about the rules, there is a very good video on the internet by the manufacturer - watch it HERE.

OK, so the setting in the beta version that I received is a 17th century tavern represented by a 8x8 square board. The board has several different features printed on it which impact movement such as barrels, pillars and the bar counter. More locations are said to be released with the game later, but in the beta version all scenarios in the rulebook focused on the tavern setting. The factions, at least how they are presented in the core set, are made up of 3 individual characters all of them with their own stats and special rules.

Each faction has a deck of command cards that allow you to play out more advanced movement and attach schemes as well as abilities that boost your characters or impair the opponent in one way or the other. There is also a neutral deck of location cards that also include attacks or abilities tied to your location. Cards are played by spending command points of which you get 6 at the start of each turn. All factions also have access to "special points" which can either be used to unlock additional effects on your command cards - or - to be used for a faction specific special ability. In the  core set, the Poles can use their special points to lower the cost of command cards, and the Cossacks can use their special points to add extra movement when activating.

You can also perform standard actions instead of playing out card abilities, by scrapping a card from your hand and paying 1 command point. Standard actions allow you to move 2 steps, move 1 step and fight, become ready to intercept opponents or boost your defensive abilities. 

The game follows a set number of sequences in its turn based system. At the beginning of each turn, players will refresh their command points, draft new command cards, stock up on special ability points - and then activate one model at a time or play cards to help or hinder characters on the board.

There are several ideas that I like with the early part of each turn. First of all, your command points are always capped at 6. Your hand of cards can also never exceed 7.You will always refresh back to 6 command points at the beginning of each turn. However, the number of cards you draft each turn depend on how many command points and/or characters you have left in the game. Furthermore, you will receive special points based on how many command points you spent (rules for the Poles). This means that on one hand you may want to perform many actions during a turn, spending lots of command points - meaning that you will draft fewer command cards next  turn. At the same time you may want to regain special points by spending command points, but that too will limit your next draft of cards. It's a nice balance and gives way for planning and tactical thinking.

As your fighters are few in number, and the board is quite small, the first question that popped into my mind was "how did they solve the problem of fast deaths". In games of similar size the problem is often that combat results in an opposed dice roll and the winner scores a wound. There is little to think about or little finesse.

But here is where I think Saber & Blood has a truly unique, at least to my knowledge, solution. There are 3 stats in the game, Dodge/Attack/Feint. The quality of skills range from "poor" to "master", so far nothing new, but each quality step is represented by its own D6 dice. Each skill dice has a number of success symbols, the poor skill dice has very low success ratio and also blank sides, while the master skill dice has lots of successes and no blank sides. That is also perhaps nothing new. But - then you add the 3 "fencing dice" that represent each of the 3 skills Dogde/Attack/Feint and things start to become really interesting.

The fencing dice are always the same, only your skill dice value is different. The fencing dice also have a rock/paper/scissor advantage over on other dice in the collection. Dodge beats attack, which beats feint, which beats dodge. When combat begins, players will secretly pick one of their fencing dice, and reveal their picks simultaneously. This choice will, unless both player pick the same dice, show who has advantage in combat during this fight. The player who has advantage will add the result of his skill dice with the "advantage" symbols on the fencing dice, while the opponent can only count the result of his base skill. The player who rolls the highest combined result wins combat, and often scores one wound on his opponent.

The fencing dice are not neutralized by who has advantage however, there are several special and unique symbols on the fencing dice that can still come into play even if the advantage symbols do not. And the unique and special symbols on the dice allow dodging attacks, evading damage, ending the combat instantly in a draw, scoring additional wounds or a critical hit that always counts even if you lose combat to your opponent. There are in other words a lot of mechanics built into the dice system of this game, that is very clever.

On top of that, winning a combat with the feint dice allow you to move your opponents figure, and winning combat with the dodge dice allows you to move your own figure 1 space on the board.

There are also several rules for how you gain advantage in combat by ganging up on opponents, which increase the acting players combat skill, rules for intercepting attacks, lowering/increasing movement, cards that can heal wounds and effects of alcohol that can both hinder and help you in combat. You can also push around opponents on the board using command.

The combat in the game is based on melee for most part. I missed the ranged aspects a little, but considering the low number of hit points on characters it may be understandable. There are cards that have shooting effects, and though limited in number they do feel really powerful if you manage to use their effect.

So what is the goal of the game? Well, in the core game beta rules there are 6 basic scenarios. One of them is a basic brawl where players fight each other to death and the player with least number of wounds by the end of the game is declared a winner. The other 5 scenarios include both contested and opposed objectives where one player is attacker and the other player is the defender. For instance, one scenario has you trying to beat the secret of where the inn keeper has hidden his money before the opposing player succeeds in doing the same. Players focus both on fighting each other and trying to interrogate the inn keeper at the same time. Another scenario has one side trying to kidnap a civilian, while the other gang is trying to protect her.

Games usually last about 60 minutes and the scenarios are interesting enough to keep you occupied. But more scenarios and settings, as promised in the Kickstarter, as well as more factions would inevitably be required to increase longevity and replay value.

If there is something to complain about, it is mainly the language quirks as some translations that are a bit too convoluted or hard to follow. This is however nothing that is impossible to solve during the further development of the game before release. I also hope for more terrain/location interaction - I think an easy way to do this would be to add terrain tiles representing furniture or the like that you can throw around or move about. I don't know if the manufacturer is interested in going down that road however as the board is already representing fixed artwork of terrain.  

Location interaction can also be expanded in the location cards. There are supernatural factions hinted at for the Kickstarter, that could be great, but a bit more ranged abilities would also be nice to see. Caroline also wondered how the game would cater to the pure board game crowd with metal minis that you have to put together. I don't think that will be a huge problem, but I see what she means. At the same time I understand that a small independent company may not have the means to support the game with plastic miniatures. An alternative could be to cast the miniatures in that rubber like resin, or as Caroline said "just add cardboard stand-ups for all characters as an option".

Back to the praise worthy aspects of the game, beside the very clever dice mechanics I have to say that the artwork is gorgeous! The game has fantastic artwork, it may be hard to see on the pictures for this review, but it has a gritty and suitably dark and graphic novel kind of feeling to it. I also have to say that I really liked the metal minis, sculpts are great and they painted up well. The miniatures are 28-32mm scale and mix well with other miniatures of similar size.

All in all I think this game has great potential, and I really look forward to what the end product and Kickstarter campaign will give us. Meanwhile, check the facebook page of the Saber & Blood group for more information and news updates.

1 comment:

  1. Great preview! Thanks for going into depth about the mechanics, and providing great photos of the minis, components and rules. Intrigued!


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