The following Blood Rage review incorporates experiences from 15 plays, including those at every possible player count, 2-5.
The sky burns red in the distance. The howls of creatures not of this Earth raise the hairs on your neck. Ragnarok comes and it boils your blood, axe beating your shield rhythmically as you wait for the order to Pillage. To run rampant through the halls of men and women, fighting for Glory and Glory alone.
If ever I doubted a board game could fill me with the thrill of a blood thirsty hoard of ravaging warriors, it is gone. Because, Blood Rage(!) is the epitome of theme meeting mechanics in a seamless blend of beautiful production design, nail-biting decisions, and table slapping combat.
It is one of a very few near-perfect games and an ideal representation of Eric Lang’s unique talent for tapping theme and gameplay.
Blood Rage Review of Gameplay
Blood Rage is a spot on example of the modern trend in board games to do what’s been done before…but better.
Eric Lang has reimagined and revamped much of what made Chaos in the Old World a good (but long) game in a tight, engaging, and beautiful package. The result is Blood Rage, a production by Cool Mini or Not, released toward the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 (depending on which shipment your FLGS got).
In its barest form, the game is a combination of dudes on a map and action selection with card drafting. All familiar mechanics. All familiarly implemented in this game.
Where Blood Rage(!) steps away from the familiar and does something wholly unique is in tying this theme together and creating something that feels like a game called Blood Rage should.
The game is played in three Ages, each with five phases. At the start of the game, a board consisting of 11 regions is stricken with a number of Ragnarok tokens dependent on the number of players. Four players get one Ragnarok to start, three get two, and so on. At the end of each of the game’s three Ages, another one will hit the board until upwards of half or more of the board is destroyed.
Sounds bad, right?
Not so fast. Ragnarok can be nasty and can obliterate a good chunk of your units from the board, but Blood Rage does something fantastic and rewards you for the obliteration. One of my biggest pet peeves in board gaming is having long turns negated with the flip of a token or roll of the die.
It’s why I hate trick taking games (for the most part) and why area control games tend to get under my skin. You spend a lot of time building to something before someone kicks your ass back to the stone age and wastes an hour of your time.
It’s not fun.
Blood Rage does not do this (very often). When you die in this game, you are frequently rewarded. You get to keep your valuable cards. You get points from Ragnarok. And if you’re smart enough to play the right cards or load up on Loki upgrades, you actually get points just for dying.
It’s a brilliant mechanic that makes it so almost no round goes without reward.
After setup, players will draft cards from the deck assigned to that age. Each player is dealt 8 of these cards and will ultimately select 6 during the draft. This part alone is nail-biting as you see powerful cards come up time and again, only able to choose one of them and knowing your opponents may get the rest.
Cards vary in quality but most are interesting and all are useful. You can join Loki, the trickster god and fool your opponents into giving you points by destroying your forces. You can recruit monsters, Valkyries, and mystics to your cause. You can upgrade existing units to become unstoppable killing machines. You can go on quests to control large chunks of the known world.
The actual action selection in the game goes quickly. Every player starts with 6 rage that act as action points. When you reach 0 Rage, you cannot do anything, including take free actions. So you must carefully manage your Rage and ensure you get everything you want done.
During this phase you will deploy units, recruit monsters, use your upgrade cards, and most important of all, pillage villages.
The most interesting part about Blood Rage is that there is never direct combat between players. You can’t just point at a guy and say “I attack!” It’s this element that tends to make games like this last forever.
Instead, you pillage. Pillaging is done in any region that has not yet been successfully pillaged. You’ll know because there is a token face up with a reward on it. What really makes this game sing though is that when you pillage, others can jump into the fray.
If there are another player’s units in the area they are automatically in the battle. But if there are open spaces in the region, other players in adjacent regions can choose to join in. This makes for some very interesting eyeballing of different stats as you try to remember just how powerful the combat cards were in the draft.
Once the pillage starts, all players choose one card from their hand (it doesn’t have to be a combat card) and play it blind. All flip at the same time and that card’s strength is added to that of their units. The winner gets the Glory, but only the player who tried to pillage can claim the rewards. If a defender wins the battle, the village remains safe for now and must be pillaged again.
It’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s not nearly as frustrating as other area control games where 2 hours of work can be undone in 5 minutes if your opponent out maneuvers you.
Blood Rage Review of Components
Unlike most euros, Blood Rage is more than its tight mechanics. In fact, the game is so showy and so beautiful that I ignored it when it first hit Kickstarter.
Too many games rely on lofty production value and gorgeous miniatures to mask a shitty game. I didn’t read enough and didn’t connect the dots with the Eric Lang pedigree to see what this game truly was.
Fortunately, a lot of other people did and it was funded easily. Daniel backed it, and by the time Gen Con rolled around and I had played it a bit, I managed to squeeze myself into the backing pool with the later backers in September.
And it is gorgeous. Dozens of miniatures, from the multiple sculpts for each clans, to the brilliant and massive monsters and Valkyries you’ll be calling into battle, every corner of this game looks fantastic.
The miniature quality is, as usual from Cool Mini or Not, top notch. Highly detailed faces, spectacular scale of the largest monsters, and a perfect fit on the board even when large forces converge. The games cards are tiny (think Ticket to Ride or FFG size), but they have to be to fit the player mats and overall scope of the board. The base game’s chits are not that exciting (though for those lucky enough to back via Kickstarter, every bit of cardboard in this game is replaced with a plastic bit).
The only knock I can think of is the player mats, which are thin, easily chipped or bent, and frequently scuffed on the table. Not abnormal and not unexpected, but if you have a laminator I would recommend protecting them before too many plays, along with your cards.
The Blood Rage Experience
What makes Blood Rage truly unique is the experience of sitting down at a table with 1-3 other players and declaring war on each other for 90 minutes.
Where other area control games or even miniature war games that force you to attack your neighbors can be unforgivingly cruel to the losers of their battles, Blood Rage rewards you no matter what you do. Winning battles. Losing battles. Staying out of battles completely or hedging your bets on the biggest and strongest player in each battle.
You can win this game doing any of the above, and the experience it creates is unique in the genre.
I’d go so far as to stay this isn’t a game that fits any one genre. It is a very much a euro in which you must manage board position and resources, spend your points efficiently and build an engine that works with your card draw. But it is also an Americlash brawler in which you must attack each other. Every skipped attack is a missed opportunity to grow your influence, gain Glory, and upgrade your clan stats.
So, Is This a Perfect Game?
I love Blood Rage. It was easily one of my top 3 games of 2015 and was only beaten out in the very end by some very strong story-based games (and earlier in the year by one of my favorite Euros of all time, The Voyages of Marco Polo).
But despite that love, Blood Rage has some issues.
Let’s start the most visible randomness the game has – the card drafting.
In each of the three rounds, you will draft 6 cards to your hand that will determine much of what you can do. These cards dictate your attack abilities, upgrades, and which units you will gain access to.
But much more than that, they dictate the way in which you will attack, whether you want to lose or win those fights, and how your opponents should treat you.
So it can be frustrating when the Loki card you pull in the first round isn’t matched by any more Loki card for the rest of the game as other people pull them in the draft or they sit out from the deal. It’s possible to effectively waste draws, the same as you might in 7 Wonders if the player to your right or left decides to go science as well.
The balance of cards makes it so you can almost always strengthen your strategy, but if someone gets lucky and pulls the exact cards they need each round for a perfect Loki run, or they draw perfect upgrades to reduce costs and enhance combat strength from Thor, playing against their roided up forces can be frustrating.
There are plenty of ways to mitigate this. Don’t attack Loki. Turtle on important spaces. Build your own strategy.
But there will be games in which you simply cannot do what you need to do to counter an opponent’s near perfect draw.
The counter to this? The game is short.
It would be extremely frustrating for a 3-4 hour area control euro to rely on a card draft that so thoroughly impacts strategy and performance. Blood Rage’s 60-90-minute play time mitigates this well. And even if you can’t combat someone’s brilliant draw or if they hit you at JUST THE RIGHT TIME to knock that ONE CARD out of play, you’re going to have fun playing regardless.
The Bottom Line
Blood Rage is an all-time great game, and one that will be on my shelf for a long time to come. It is quick, it’s merciless, and yet it’s fun for everyone involved, even if you don’t typically like confrontational games.
Combined with the best components of 2015 and brilliant artwork and theme integration, it’s the first real non-zombie breakout hit (not because of the miniatures) for Cool Mini or Not, and for me, Eric Lang’s strongest design to date (which is saying a lot).