Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Brief Tale of Norse Tiles (A Review of Voluspa)

In Norse mythology, Odin sacrifices his eye to gain great wisdom.  That's him on the cover of Voluspa, watching you with his one good eye, judging your moves.  Will you be lucky enough to have him on your side, whispering useful tips in your ear like his trusted ravens?  Or will you team up with Loki and Fenrir to dominate the ever-evolving world of Norse tiles? Will you tell a tale as timeless as Voluspa? Probably not, but luckily playing won't take nearly as long.

How It Works
Voluspa is a tile laying and hand management game populated with characters from Norse mythology. These characters are represented by tiles, each with a value indicating how powerful they are ranging from 1 (The weak trickster Loki) to 8 (The powerful Odin). The game starts with one tile in play and players take turns placing one tile, from a hand of five, adjacent to a tile that is already in play. If the placed tile is the most powerful (has the highest value) in the line it was placed in, looking separately at both horizontal and vertical lines, it will score a point for every tile in the line. Lines are restricted in length to 7 tiles so players are forced to branch the board out. At the end of their turn players draw a new tile to replace the played tile and play continues in this manner until all the tiles have been played. A score board is provided to help track the scores during the game with the highest score winning at the end of the game.

A game in progress, the board expands

The most straightforward tiles are Thor and Odin with the highest power values in the game, 7 and 8 respectively. Because they are so powerful, and obviously useful for scoring, they don’t have any special abilities. Just plop them down in an opportune spot and add up your points. Things get more interesting once you bring in some of the other tiles that have special powers which affect how they score, how they are placed, and the current state of the board.

The simplest powers have to do with special scoring conditions. Fenrir has a base value of 4 but if there are any other Fenrirs in the row then it adds their values as well to determine total power. Thus two Fenrirs are already equal in power to Odin and more are able to dominate any line. The other character that has a special scoring power is the Valkyrie. With a low value of 2 the Valkyrie is unlikely to score by being the highest tile in it’s row so it has a special condition that allows it to score in a different way. If there is a Valkyrie on both ends of a line it will ignore power and automatically score the line.

The Valkyrie's special scoring condition allows it to score this row despite Thor's presence

Some tiles use their own placement rules, allowing them to ignore the requirement to be placed in the traditional manner. The Dragon can be played on top of any tile on the board, nullifying the tile it was placed on. Skadi is similar but instead of being placed on top of a tile he actually swaps places with the tile allowing for the swapped tile to be taken back in hand for later use.

The third category of powers are those that affect the state of the board once they have been played. The Troll affects the placement of other tiles by blocking the spaces adjacent to itself preventing anything but other Trolls from being placed next to it. Loki changes the value of all tiles he is adjacent to to 0 as long as he remains in play.

All tiles from the base game (first two rows) and the expansion (third row)

There is also an expansion included with Voluspa, Saga of Edda, which includes four additional characters that may be added to the 8 from the base game. This lengthens the game somewhat as no tiles are removed when adding in these tiles. Each of the new characters have unique abilities that allow for more interesting interactions. Hermond allows for an additional tile to be played in his same line, letting a player place two or more tiles in a single turn. Jotunn is placed at the location of another tile and bumps that tile to either end of the line it is in. The Sea Serpent can score either a row or column but doesn’t score just the line it is in but jumps over gaps and scores all empty spaces between tiles. Last is Hel, who is limited to one tile per player and is always available to play. Hel can be placed on any tile and creates a gap where it was placed.

Odin’s Wisdom or Loki’s Trick
I don’t normally start my reviews by talking about the artwork of a game but in this case I’m going to make an exception because Voluspa is beautiful. I first noticed this game because of the incredible cover and fortunately it led to the discovery of this gem. The portraits of the 12 characters are spectacular and the varying color palette of each one not only creates a magnificent looking board throughout the game but also helps to quickly identify the tiles in your hand. Even though the theme is pretty loose, I don’t mind one bit because of how pretty everything is to look at. If I could just stop gushing over how nice this game looks for a minute I suppose I might be able to talk about how it plays.

A pile of beautiful tiles!

When I first read the rules I immediately drew a comparison to Qwirkle, not that I thought it would play the same but just that it followed a pretty similar structure. This is a great thing for rules explanation: turns are as simple as place a tile, score, and draw a tile. The scoring is also straightforward and easy to grasp so it’s easy to get an idea of what you should be doing. The special abilities are the bulk of the explanation but there are only 6 or 10 powers to explain and some of them are simple enough to group together so it really doesn’t take long. At first I thought that it could make an excellent gateway game because of the simple rule set and quick turns. However, I think it will vary widely by group because I didn’t realize just how much thinking this game would require. Sure it’s all innocent and simple at first with a small number of tiles in a couple of rows but as the board expands the possible placements increase and it’s not so easy to figure out which tile to play or where to place it. It’s safe to say that Voluspa quickly becomes very puzzly in nature, almost like a very complex optimization puzzle if you wish to approach it that way. Your AP warning sirens might be going off at this point but I think that the first play is the most daunting as players learn how to use the tiles well and once you get more experienced players involved the game can go at a nice pace. In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised to find out just how deep this game got. There are usually many good plays you can make so the game becomes about quickly identifying the optimal placements on an ever changing board.

There is a very interesting mix of tactical and strategic play involved in finding a good placement for your tiles. It’s tactical in that you have to adapt to the placements of the other players, finding spots that will score well given your current tiles. But simply finding places where your tiles will score the most points is not enough. You have to also attempt to create opportunities for yourself to score well in future turns without immediately providing that opportunity to your opponents. Perhaps you will gamble that your opponents don’t have the key tile that is needed to score a crucial spot. But this is sure to backfire often enough to only make it worthwhile if in doing so they create an opportunity for you to score even more points. Maybe instead you could set yourself up when you notice your opponent is occupied with their own plan or create a scenario that allows for several ways to score well. Or simply hold on to your key tiles and wait for your opponent to set up a great opportunity for you. I personally found that Voluspa plays best with 2-3 players because it gives your more control over the board and actually allows players to plan ahead. With more players the game becomes a bit chaotic and much more tactical in nature.

The nice variety of colors allows for easy identification of tiles in your hand

Knowing when and how to play strategically and create scoring opportunities for yourself without allowing your opponents to capitalize on them first is probably the biggest learning curve in the game. The tiles that allow for board manipulation and unique scoring opportunities are really what makes the game interesting and utilizing them well is both challenging and rewarding. Some of the tiles that seem useless or difficult to use at first, such as Loki or Valkyrie, can actually allow for some really interesting and clever plays.

The tile values and powers are very well thought out and actually minimize luck of the draw by making all of the tiles useful in their own way. Sure Odin is pretty much always going to be a great tile but there are times when you want other tiles to set up the opportunity for him to score big. The range of values and meaningful ways to use lower valued tiles creates a board that presents a wide variety of plays.

The scoring track is nice as long as you follow the path correctly

I played a number of games with just the base game thinking that adding in the expansion right off the bat might be too much. However, the tiles included in the expansion are so interesting that I would not want to go back to playing without them. Each new character allows for exciting opportunities and expands the strategic space in an elegant way. Hermond’s ability to place multiple tiles in the same turn allow for more meaningful planning and allows you to pull off plays that would otherwise be too risky to execute over two turns. Jotunn gives another option for manipulating the tiles on the board, actually allowing you to move tiles around. The Sea Serpent can score in an entirely new way, encouraging the board to branch out more to maximize their ability to bridge gaps. And finally, Hel can break lines up providing opportunities to place on a line that was previously frozen. There are simply more options for creative play and this is playing to Voluspa’s main strength.

Voluspa is a game that takes the simplicity and speed of a tile laying and provides a deep and strategic experience. The unfolding board injects complexity into the game as it progresses but there are enough restrictions in place to keep it from getting overwhelming. The clever mix of tiles allows the board to develop naturally in a way that keeps the game engaging and allows for good variety.

Beautiful artwork
Simple rules and quick play
Clever tile variety results in deep and meaningful options
The board expands elegantly throughout the game
Good mix of tactical and strategic play

Puzzle like optimization can induce AP
Can be overwhelming in the first play
Becomes chaotic with more than 3 players

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing a review copy of Voluspa.


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  1. This reminds me a lot of Knizia's "Kingdoms" (Our review here: but without the obnoxious and tedious scoring rounds. Lack of miniatures aside, this looks more fun.

    1. I have the Beowulf version of Kingdoms. There are a lot of similarities between Knizia's game and Voluspa, but you hit the nail on the head with scoring. The scoring in Voluspa is much more transparent and, I think, lends the game more tension than the Kingdoms where you only score a few times per game. Plus, with Voluspa you're always moving forward and there's pressure on you to maximize the points on each move.

  2. +1 for Knizia's "Kingdoms" comment.
    I feel a very serandipitus relation with this review site now, it seems whenever I buy a game or think of buying a game a review of said game seems to appear within the week! I bought this game last Saturday and haven't had time to play it. Amazing top notch review, yet again guys! :D

    1. We've been closely monitoring your collection! Okay, not true. But apparently, yes, same wavelength. :-)


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