Here I give my thoughts on The Banner Saga: Warbands, a cooperative board game by Megacon Games, in association with Stoic and Versus Evil.
I'm a long-time board-gamer and also a huge fan of the Banner Saga video games (as of now that's BS 1 and 2 in the trilogy, plus Factions, the multiplayer battle game).
I also tend to think strategy games should be about strategy, and coherent with strategy alone--I'll play RPGs for role-playing, etcetera. I'm also not an enemy of randomness, but in small doses, thank you.
For the uninitiated, Warbands is a cooperative boardgame for 1 to 4 players, set in a viking-themed fantasy world (only loosely connected to Norse myth). The conceit is that you're in charge of a caravan, trying to safely get it to the next location.
You draw missions that indicate travel routes on a map, which indicates encounters along the way. Many of the encounters require group decision-making, either through negotiation or blind bidding. The outcomes of these decisions are then revealed. There are also battles, where you may lose caravan members; and skirmishes, tactical combat games-within-a-game, using tokens or minitatures (sold separately). Each player has a character who fights in these skirmishes, using basic attacks and some special abilities. Each character also has a role in the larger strategic game, managing different kinds of resources on a mat. There are quite a few resources ot track, and several decks of cards for the various encounters.
In outline, Warbands seems basically like the video games, and the art is also comparable--but in execution, they are quite different designs.
Combat is not like in the video games: it's deadlier, much simpler, and not as central. I was expecting a close match, since the rules of the video game seem easily portable to the board--but no. The mehcanics are not random at all, except for what encounter you face, which is highly random.
Components are nice: everything looks well-made, with good art and design, especially the minis. The main board might be an exception, in terms of durability.
The rulebook is junk: there is so much that's unclear and simply never described. I have to assume the playtest groups always had the game explained to them by the designers. You'll have to consult online Q&As simply to learn what rank units begin the game at (silver), or when you can upgrade them. The timing of different actions is especially hazy...but from online forums, one senses that the designers don't think this matters much. Well!
Decision cards are basically sound if you can tolerate unpredictability. There's no real way to know what the better option is; usually they're all bad, it's just a matter of degree or kind. There is a real question about replayability once you've seen too many of the results.
But the decision process seems flawed: there is a pretense of players disagreeing and using bribes or bidding to get their way. But why should they disagree? Why should they hold strong opinions about any choice they face, when the results are so unknown? In fact, agreeing nets players rewards, and bidding uses up the most valuable resource in the game. This deflates two central mechanics. I've heard it said that one should role-play these encounters out. But the goal is winning as a team, not maximizing characters' emotiveness; there is a mismatch that does not work here.
The goal may have been to distribute control of resources between players, and thus create interaction and tension. But since there's not a lot of control over those resources, the value of this approach is limited. For example, the quartermaster is in charge os supplies, but mostly this means reducing the supply count during travel and events, and possibly buying more at a city--there's nothing more dynamic or interesting to it.
Licensed game properties are often problematic. It feels like Megacon had a list of elements they needed to include. And by golly they did include them! But what kind of game did they make? Did they capture what was good about the original Banner Sagas? Not really.
There are a lot of elements in Warbands that don't come together. There aren't very compelling decisions to make--since most are extremely unpredictable, and others are fairly obvious (buy supplies if your victory conditions require them). There is a hint of it being only semi cooperative, but this potential isn't realized; and the alpha-gamer problem that bedevils cooperative games isn't dealt with either.
I've read that Megacon games has something of a reputation for making beautiful minis but dubious rules, and Warbands doesn't seem to be an exception. It's unclear how playtest groups could have been satisfied by the experience, or the rulebook. Perhaps the whole thing was rushed to take advantage of the license. If true, that would especially be a shame, because if they had simply made a Banner Saga:Faction boardgame, it would at least have worked--I would have been content.
I just have to hope that with some nice minis and a printed map, I can make a good homebrew that does more justice to Banner Saga.