Villainous Vikings has some egregious interface issues. The rules are a mess for their inconsistent language and poor organization. And it has nearly ruined Tunis for me.
So why am I going to recommend it to you anyway?
After the jump, welcome to the plunderdome.
In the stacks of games I regularly play with my friends, Villainous Vikings occupies a unique and sadly rare space. It’s a short game that offers intense competition, tough decisions, variety from game to game, and just enough drama that’s it’s in demand even after several playthroughs. It’s the perfect game to bring to the table after some three-hour opus, before the next three-hour opus. Not casual, but not intensive. Not a time waster, but not an evening buster. It’s in a narrow and underpopulated Goldilocks zone.
Each player is a Viking with unique powers, plundering the world and fighting the other Vikings. A typical game might include a badass shieldmaiden, the undead captain of a zombie ship, an explorer, or the inevitable shrewd trader. A small deck of cards represents the locations we’ll find in the wider world, ranging from Iceland to Spain to Byzantium. But in any given game, the deck will only include about half the cards. Tonight the world is clustered in the English isles. So much for the explorer captain’s bonus. Tomorrow it will scatter widely and wildly. You’ll wish you took the explorer.
Most cards are locations you’ll want to seize, lining them up behind your ship’s cards like a trail of conquests. A fundamental tension in Villainous Vikings is whether to save something for victory points at the end of the game, or use it for immediate gain. This mostly keeps the scoring dynamic and exciting. Who’s really winning? How can we get him to burn his points? And what new locations will flip up before the Ragnarok card ends the game with a battle royale among all the players?
Battles are determined by dice, with the loser often getting beat up badly enough that he or she has to limp back to the Northlands to regroup, or put into port somewhere to hire a new crew. The game is short enough that the real drawback for losing is the wasted turn. This means the tricky Asgard cards, that represent challenges and gimmicks from the gods, might be attractive, but really, shouldn’t you just go ahead and plunder the Hebrides?
All the design work in Villainous Vikings is solid. The implementation, on the other hand, isn’t. Here’s another worst-case scenario where Victory Point Games has released something that doesn’t feel finished. The manual is in terrible shape, particularly given that Villainous Vikings is relatively simple. I might even say elegant. But you’d never know that from the rulesbook, which reads like a loosely organized first draft. Furthermore, some of the cards refer to concepts that either don’t exist in the rules or don’t make any sense. How is it that a game goes through the final stages of the design process without addressing these sorts of issues?
The interface of the game itself is awfully spotty. The font certainly looks like something from the olden days (a.k.a. actual history), but it’s horrible for what it’s designed to do. Namely, be read. For instance, the Tunis card looks like it’s the card for a particularly profane word. I apologize for pointing that out, because I might have spoiled the conquest of Tunis for you. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it. Here, see for yourself:
Villainous Vikings has no way to designate which player is which color. I don’t think I’ve played a game since Monopoly where you just had to remember what everyone was. Okay, I’m the dog, Ernesto is the battleship, Lucy is the thimble, and, uh, which one of you is the iron again? I can cut Monopoly a break, because it was made 112 years ago. Villainous Vikings was made more recently. Even once I remember that I’m turquoise, Ernesto is celadon, Lucy is mauve, and the last player is dark salmon — who knew Vikings had such a subtly tasteful palette? — the little ship standees do a terrible job revealing their color. Victory Point loves to use their laser-cut printing machine to make things that stand up, which is certainly cute. But it limits a piece’s functionality. If a ship counter laid flat, everyone at the table could see what color it is. But when it’s a standing 2D image, only half the players around a table can see the color of the piece. And even then, only by peering at the small portion of the ship that represents the sail. It’s a terrible interface choice.
(By the way, check out this image of wooden pieces for the ships in an early prototype. Lovely!)
Scoring, which assumes you’re just going to jot stuff down on a piece of paper, could have used a little more thought. The less said about the dice, the better. Almost all of the admittedly evocative artwork is reused in multiple places, which I imagine is a budget issue. For a game that manages to look pretty good, Villainous Vikings also manages to look pretty cheap. Also, let’s talk about that name. It sounds like something I’d accidentally tap on the iOS app store that is going to charge me 99 cents for ten doses of Viking juice to cut my build time in half. As a game, Villainous Vikings isn’t nearly as precious as its name.
But, in the words of a Danish prince, the play is the thing. Villainous Vikings is far better than its name, its production values, or its rulesbook. It’s a hearty history-meets-mythology brew of die rolling, card flipping, elbow throwing, and Euro-scoring that understands the value of brevity.
Amass as many Valhalla Points as possible so that after Ragnarok occurs your Captain has the best seat in Valhalla to tell his tales of battle and drink his mead. Or whatever his beverage of choice is. Ginger ale. Apple juice. Milk. You won, so you won't be judged.