If you are in this hobby and haven’t’ heard of Ravenfeast, you probably either A) don’t like Vikings, or B) don’t follow Little Wars TV. The good folk at Little Wars have been heavily promoting this simple Dark Ages skirmish game as a free introductory rules set. At one point, they put some money into publishing the rules in a nifty slim little perfect bound rule book to be distributed FREE at the last Historicon convention. I love that idea. The original was written by my old friend Al Hayden, deceased. It’s a nice gesture to give away a nice sturdy bound copy of a decent skirmish game to people who want to jump into the hobby– if you can’t get your hands on one the files are located here. The last two weekends, The Scrum club has convened to play Ravenfeast, with guests of honor Zeb Cook 2/5 and Joey McGuire 2/12. Meggo (Pete Megginson) was present both games as well. It was my first time playing Ravenfeast. I have a decent horde of Saxons and Vikings that badly need some upkeep and rebasing. I’m also having some more Saxons painted up.
I do like this historical period and have gamed it before. I have yet to find the perfect rule set but I do like SAGA 2nd Edition and and even Viking Looters. Ravenfeast is far simpler than SAGA but more in depth than Looters.
Each battlefield was very different.
Game 1: The Smash and Grab was a “look for hidden treasure coins” kind of game, reminiscent of Frostgrave’s standard “run for the loot” basic game. Saxons and Vikings alike were scrambling into wagons, digging up midden pits, and killing each other to prevent the other guy from doing it first. It was amusing. I was deployed across the table from Zeb Cook, who got stuck in like a good un. Tactical tip: archers are worth their pointy little heads in gold in this system. I had a few bondi archers as did Zeb. We both inflicted casualties upon each other until we got cagey and started hiding our archer units better. My guy got to search a wagon, and pulled out some treasure, which I simply walked off board like you do in Frostgrave. In this game it doubled the coin reward. So I guess I was a Saxon looting England, which is kind of an interesting notion! Anyway the big scrum took place around the wagons and I was (as my next game proved) very glad we didn’t form shield walls. Zeb had a tiny four person shield wall going but we managed to kill off the edges of it and that broke it. Still, he had me outnumbered so I couldn’t exactly bring the force of numbers to bear. I had better troops, though, and my Leader, his Huscarls and 1 Hirdmen managed to stay alive until end of game, and I killed a few of his guys, too.
The game devolved into three mini-scrapes– My smallest Saxon band against Zeb, who separated his Bondi to attack Meggo (Pete Megginson) to my right. Pete also mixed it up with Joe Procopio in the center and John and Rich fought mostly against Steve at the far end. This gave the battle an episodic feel and most of the action I encountered was in a smallish area. As it happens, I firmly believe Ravenfeast requires a smallish board to play quickly– say four by four or so. We didn’t feel the impact of the low movement rates (6″ in all cases, except cavalry), because we were fighting close to the enemy at start. I lost some archers in the fight at long distance. Cover is everything.
Game 2: Get to the Choppah! (er.. Longships) was one week later and had some features not tried the previous week, which was a learning game. For one thing we tried out the Rune Cards which are basically “fate” or “random events” cards that give either you a bonus or your opponent a penalty in the same generalized category of action. These worked pretty well, if you had a card that fit your specific action. I did, but forgot to play mine at critical moments. I won’t make that mistake again. I was a Viking in this game and (reference the battlefield picture above) the idea was to run to the water’s edge and have a ship come and pick you up (if you were a Viking) and prevent that (if you were a Saxon). It became pretty clear by turn one that the Vikings were not going to win this one, based upon our starting rates, move rates, and the general terrain. There just wasn’t going to be enough time to move that far, that fast, in one evening. Add to that the general problem of the woods in the center funneling movement to either flank, and the game was going to devolve into static shield walls fighting each other at some point, as the Saxon forces moved up and the Vikings rushed into them. I deployed my “Bondi” poorly on the right, hoping I could move to overwhelm my Saxon opposite number, but that literally wasn’t in the cards. I couldn’t get them to close fast enough, and I got decimated by the largest archer unit in the game, which had the new capability of height advantage. Oh well, live and learn. I caught some online flack for not instantly getting into shield wall, but the way the troops moved the previous week, it seemed to me to be more decisive if I could get into melee with my opposite number– but his archer advantage did me in. Add to that I had miserable luck all night. My Vikings killed exactly one Saxon, and that’s with multiple melees and archer fire as well. So although the combat system is extremely bloody, it is very luck dependent as well– which can be mitigated somewhat by good positioning and use of terrain and shield wall bonuses, to a point. As we’ll see presently.
I realized my long term prospects might improve on the fight if I combined and supported other Viking units, so I joined up on the far right of this giant scrum going on in the center near the big woods road block.
Here’s the thing, if you commit to a melee and your shield wall buddies hang back a turn, it can get pretty sticky for you and then eventually for your mates as you start to crumble. So timing of shield walls is important. In this game, EVERY UNIT COULD MAKE ONE. Which is okay I guess but man, did it slow the game down to a grinding mess. A unit could move — very slowly at 3″, when in shield wall. Getting within range to form a shield wall at the last second must have been an art form. The problem then became probability and statistics. When you are in a shield wall with armored foes your ability to hit them drops to 1 in 6.
The second game was fun in places but really dragged to a slow paced slugging match that was a forgone conclusion. There was no way to retrieve Viking fortunes in a shield wall to shield wall confrontation. It’s just too slow and there isn’t a lot of change from turn to turn. At six inches a turn for most troops– Vikings just weren’t going to pull this off. We called it early and BS’d about what rules need a house rule.
Observations: Raven Feast is a fun simple skirmish game– but I think it has some holes. Many rules changes had to be implemented under fire. Like firing at a parabolic arc** — which you will have a hard time convincing me Dark Age archers never tried. The game is hugely luck dependent– I stand by that statement. Once you are in shield wall your odds of receiving a wound reduce to 1 in 6, which helps, but you’re not going to see things change quickly. Critical elements that would give it a period feel (like a charge attack) are missing and I think they would enhance the game. Vikings did charge into battle from time to time and if everyone is moving at a serene 6″ a turn, well, that doesn’t’ seem right to me. A suggestion in the AAR discussion was to give units a one time charge capability. That could work, but I would just put fatigue markers on them if you ask me. Too many fatigue points? you can’t charge. Also, I’d consider variable movement rates for different troop types, even if that sounds like needless complexity. Raven Feast is literally a game of inches– if you’re off even by a little you get to be really vulnerable really quickly. Don’t try moving into contact with a prepared shield wall, it’s a bad idea.
Verdict: It’s a fun game because it’s free and easy to teach and easy to learn. There are parts of the system that might need some house rules and revisions. I liked the fate cards. You can probably run this game just from the QRC sheets. Considering the support and value (for free) I think it could be a big winner. Somehow, somewhere, Al Hadden approves from on high!.
** for some reason, my question about why we couldn’t just fire over formed ranks from your own side on an arc (you know, like you can do) has provided comedic fuel to my comrades, as hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t bring this up. Comedy jokes!