Blood Rage is a game of Ragnarok. The world is ending, and you are leading your warriors to die gloriously in battle. Lead your troops to victory and Valhalla! The game supports multiple strategies, and balance and specialization are achieved via a card-drafting mechanic, similar to Seven Wonders. And then pillaging and battle, glorious battle!
Blood Rage was a lucky find at Gen Con. A limited number of copies were available each day. A friend went to ask booth staff where the line started, and they handed him a copy. He quickly paid, escaped, and went to look at his new miniatures.
The miniatures are in fact nice. Blood Rage is not Cthulhu Wars, which has such nice miniatures that I am suspicious, but its monsters are suitably monstrous. It has detachable colored bases for each team, so you snap a red circle on the bottom of a miniature to indicate that it belongs to the red team. Elegant.
The game has excellent theme, which bleeds into gameplay. You are viking warriors! Fuel your attacks with Rage! Pillage villages for power and glory as the world ends! Slay your enemies and see them driven before you! Harness mythic monsters! Use too many exclamation points! If you refuse to fight, you deserve to lose, for death itself is no loss. It is the doorway to Valhalla! Few games tie together fluff and crunch so well and use them to enhance each other.
Play proceeds in two phases over three eras. You first have a drafting phase, where you pick a card and pass your hand to the next player. This lets you pick your strategy within constraints, gives you information about opponents’ strategies, and gives you a chance to influence opponents’ strategies. You do not get to pick completely freely, beacuse the cards you want may not be in play this game or might be in someone else’s hand, so you need to adapt to the options available to you.
I have mixed feelings about the cards because they are not perfectly balanced. In some sense, the drafting mechanic balances that: you pick the worse options after the better options are gone, and even if you draw a hand of only “worse” options, you pick the best of them and pass it along, while drawing three “best” options just means you get first pick then pass them to opponents. On the other hand, some options are just clearly better, and if there is One Best Card, whoever gets it in an initial hand has a big advantage. There is not One Best Card given all the other factors in play, but something like the Frost Giant can be a 30 point swing with one card for the right player, and the right player drew it in our game. On a smaller scale, some cards give +5 and others give +3; no special abilities, no text, just one card that is absolutely better than another. If there are no cases where you would prefer having +3 to +5, and no reason not to pick +5 over +3, it is probably a design problem to have both +3 and +5 as options.
The second phase is battle. Player sequentially take actions like upgrading, accepting quests, deploying warriors, and pillaging villages. This leads to combat as players compete to pillage. Pillaging villages makes you stronger; win to keep winning. Winning fights gives you glory, the currency of victory. Losing fights means you lose all your warriors in that fight. The battle mechanic is to play a hidden card to add to your warriors on the field; high score of warriors plus card wins, factoring in special abilities and effects. Fights can be multi-sided, so lots of warriors can die at once in glorious battle.
Battle is a mix of strategy and bluffing. You can see what troops someone has on the field. You pick the hidden card at the moment of battle. Do you want to deploy more troops or spend your Rage on upgrades? Troops come in a few varieties, including monsters you recruit using the same upgrade system. Do you go all-in to win this important fight, knowing you will not have your best card for the next fight? Do you provoke your opponent into doing that while you have little loss, or fake doing that while having an ace in the hole?
Another level of strategy is your multi-turn plan. Surviving troops stay on the map. Upgrades stay between turns, and you get a free deployment with each upgrade, but you must pay for those upgraded troops again if they die. There is also a cap on how much you can do each turn and how many troops you can have on the board (both raised by winning fights). What you pick in the second card draft depends on your position at the end of the first turn. Do you build upon your previous strategy, pivot to a new one, or forge a middle path?
Cooperative PvE tabletop games frequently have a traitor, and Blood Rage has Loki. Loki provides weak abilities that reward you for losing. Dabble in Loki’s influence as a bit of insurance or invest heavily in Loki and lose as a strategy. Of course, if several people are trying to play a Loki game, the abilities are spread across them, so no one can win with that strategy; but now no one wants to play a Loki game and is picking other cards, so someone could pivot to a Loki strategy, unless too many people get that idea at once. Following the trickster god is a risky proposition, but it was my accidental path to victory in our first game. Loki can reward you for the deaths of your own troops, let you deploy more free troops when you lose, and steal Rage and Glory from your opponents when they defeat you. I specialized in losing fights where I invested almost nothing, claiming Glory from my foe’s clutches. Someone joined me in that strategy on a smaller scale, and the strongest player was constantly frustrated that his opponents scored more points than he did when he won. Of course, Loki cannot steal all the benefits of victory, and that meant I had lots of points but very little power as the end game approached…
Quests add hidden objectives to the game. Given my Loki strategy, I invested in quests that rewarded me for having warriors in Valhalla (dead). One opponent carefully selected the same quest twice in each round of drafting, quietly scoring lots of points for leaving a few warriors on the battlefield. That superstrong warrior, who was also the lucky owner of the Frost Giant, got too preoccupied with a quest and failed to capitalize on his greater strength. My problem was selecting quests I could not win, which effectively made them dead cards, the risk of inexperience (and some lousy fortune). One upgrade lets you channel those dead quests into battle power, adding another path in both phases of card drafting and battle.
The map shrinks over time as the world ends. This is thematically appropriate and provides exciting incentives. You gain Glory for each troop in the section of the map that is destroyed, so you see competition for glorious suicide. You want to get your troops there, but probably your weakest troops, or maybe your one stronger (but free to redeploy!) leader. There is no “kick someone out of a zone” ability (that I know of), so do you get your troops in early before others claim all the spaces or keep your troops available for battle? Go for that Glory or save on Rage for troop redeployment? This also has balance implications for waterborne troops, which are destroyed if either side of the river falls to Ragnarok, and for troops that give rewards for dying (bonus for fireships, waterborne troops that give rewards for dying). I criticized the cards for their balance in that there can be absolutely better options; here you get indecision and trade-offs, hallmarks of balance. Finally, it forces conflict by reducing the resources while bringing the players into closer contact; see the book Battle Royale for a good example of that design.
I have played just the one game of Blood Rage, but we will probably play again this weekend. I had more to say about the game than I expected, and the good seems to strongly outweigh the bad. I am told that there is a Kickstarter bonus pack with more variety in monsters and cards; I do not know if it adds more replayability or increases the problems I cited with card balance.