In 2015, Blood Rage, a board game featuring mythological Vikings seeking glory and death at the end of the world, stormed Kickstarter and seized nearly $1 million in crowdfunded loot. Now, it’s finally available to people who didn’t back it – which is most people. And after playing half a dozen games, we’re ready to give the following piece of advice: Get a copy. Blood Rage is a Scandinavian doom rock album cover transmogrified into tabletop game, an outdated issue of Heavy Metal rendered playable, and the best cardboard ode to piece Zeppelin on the market.
Blood Rage exists in a universe not just filled with warring Vikings, but one where giants wield massive swords of flame and elves slice throats at the foot of Yggdrasil, the world tree. (If there’s one area where the exquisitely rendered plastic of Blood Rage misses the mark it’s the female armor: The cleavage to protection ratio is nuts.) Otherwise, Blood Rage delivers on the Cool Mini Or Not brand name, down to the troll’s ass cheeks that playfully peek out of his loincloth. (No, we’re not making that up).
Gameplay-wise, Blood Rage is neither sluggish power ballad nor breathless thrash metal. Blood Rage is more efficient than that, a driving “Immigrant Song” beat marches players through three rounds in about an hour and a half. The rules are a fusion of classic and modern design sensibilities. Like a Settlers of Catan with swords and spears, controlling certain areas will yield resources, like rage, that enable upgrades and actions; like a Cosmic Encounter, battles are decided by playing the highest numbered card added to the troop values in combat.
Blood Rage has a few fresher tricks, too. For instance, each round, called an age, begins with drafting cards. (That is, fistfuls of cards will rotate between players and to be plucked, one at a time, to form a hand.) The cards come in three flavors: Upgrades, which allow you to improve your warriors and leaders or recruit sea and land monsters; Battle cards, which are played during battles; and quests, which when completed earn players glory, Blood Rage’s take on victory points. Because each hand is culled from a larger pool, no two games of Blood Rage need be the same.
When coupled, some cards enable brutal combos (by the same token, familiarity with the decks give a competitive edge). An upgrade called Frigga’s Domain, for instance, allows dead units to be redeployed at a huge discount — so bringing the normally pricey, but immediately devastating, Fire Giant back from Valhalla on the cheap can be a particularly nasty move. Upgrades and Battle cards align with certain gods; in early games, Loki-type cards, which reward failure, were quite powerful.
But the idea seems to be that every card, when used at the right moment, should keep the game balanced by virtue of always breaking it open. Whether the drafts and combos will stay fresh for the next two dozen games is not quite clear, though after a few plays it feels there is still plenty of room left to explore.
At the end of each age, units in a specific area are consumed by Ragnarok, earning glory — a flavorful twist on Viking battle death. Likewise, all units who are destroyed are sent to Valhalla, a cardboard rectangle decorated with a rainbow, only to be released for new battles at the end of each age. Losing a raiding party, therefore, is not a complete setback, which means that there’s no reason to take a defensive stance. Appropriate given the game’s inspiration.
For all its bluster about rage and the end of the world, and despite the massive box, Blood Rage is not a game that demands deep reflection. Its moments of tension come in quick succession, and are resolved just as swiftly. It turns out when you combine “Ride the Lightning” with “Ride of the Valkyries” you don’t end up with a flawless meditation on apocalypse — but the closest thing a board game can be to a pop hit.