History: The game is primarily inspired by the events described in 5 major Icelandic sagas:
Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar (Egil Skallagrimsson’s saga)
Brennu-Njáls saga (Burnt-Njal’s saga)
Laxdæla saga (The Saga of the People of Laxárdalr)
The Vinland Sagas: Eiríks saga rauða (Eirik the Red’s saga) and Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders)
Sturlunga saga (The Sturlung saga)
All of these sagas have connections to one another, and so form a giant network of soap opera style relationships.
Additionally, I’ve pulled characters from other sagas and tales:
Gísla saga Súrssonar
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu
And more besides. You get the idea.
There are 52 individual named characters, with somewhat more than half taken directly from the first 4 sagas (representing a significant portion of the Sagas of Icelanders), and players have their home base at one of 6 locations from which the 6 major families of the Sturlung saga originated. Those locations are represented by cards, on the back of which is a short blurb about the relevant family and their role in the Icelandic Civil War that spelled the end of the Commonwealth.
When I get there, the full rulebook will include historical context and notes on the sides, to explain the history and how I’ve chosen to represent it. I’ll also be delving into racial and ethnic diversity as well as gender roles, as explicit push against the long-standing white supremacist appropriation of Norse history.
My goal is to present the history of a slice of the Norse people as it was both factually and emotionally - a nuanced complicated people who balanced a diverse population in an effort to sustain their ways against a colonizing force. This is a view of the Norse that is tragically under-represented in popular media and that has allowed their history to become tarnished by hate.
Archaebotanical and soil analysis tells us that Iceland could, at best, sustain subsistence-level agriculture for its ~50,000 inhabitants. The vast majority of wealth that was brought into the country came from elsewhere - either what the settlers took with them when leaving their home country, or the products of Viking raiders. Overseas trade allowed for some extra income, but the Icelanders never knew anything approaching “abundance” or “excess.” Given that the Norse were a primarily agrarian people, trying to farm a volcanic hellscape does not lend itself well to a rich culture - and yet, they did it.
We also estimate that the Norse had almost completely deforested the island by about 970 CE, so there is a large degree to which unsustainable environmental practices may have prevented the island from flourishing.
I’ve tried to reflect this principle by making the basic mechanisms of engagement slow and inefficient. In order to run efficiently, you need to interact with other players directly, and you need to design a clever system to exploit your actions as much as possible.
In may places in Norse and earlier Germanic cultures, we find a consistently held principle - generous distribution of wealth is the hallmark of a good ruler. This is stated as much in Beowulf, Odin mentions it in Voluspa, and throughout the sagas we see this explicitly discussed and showcased as a critical principle.
Wealth was not considered of value unless it was given generously to those who need it - and in some cases in the sagas, we see many instances of people enriching those around them to their later downfall. Giving other people the means to unmake you was seen as an act of honor, but the sagas of full of betrayals of trust and honor.
To reflect this, the most efficient points-generation mechanic, Feast, involves giving your own wealth directly to other players. You get a bunch of points now, and they get a resource that they can later use against you or to generate points for themselves.
This system of trading gifts and wealth was critical to sustaining the meager resources of Iceland - if any one person hoarded too much wealth, it mean they directly deprived people of the means to live, and was held as akin to murder. Thus, largesse was not just a virtue - it was a necessity, and the abrogation of that principle is what ultimately lead to the events of Sturlung saga and the eventual collapse of the Commonwealth.
Jesse Byock, a professor of Norse studies at UCLA, has written a book studying the system of feuds in Iceland, and concludes they were a necessary outgrowth of the aforesaid resource scarcity. If the principle of largesse was a necessary part of the social contract, then the feud was the means by which that contract was enforced.
Feuds were often started for seemingly small reasons - literally over fence placement or abuse of grazing lands - and could continue for generations, seeing spurts of fighting and bloodshed followed by lawsuits and settlements in the courts.
Feuds were rarely wars nor were they fought to the last man - rather, there would be killings on each side as tempers flared, and compensation would be paid to the respective families. I have reflected this by making combat a short affair with a limited body count and the possibility of enriching the loser via compensation. It’s one way to get Wealth that you can later leverage.
If I do it right, combat shouldn’t be a goal, but rather a tool to get you from one point to another in limited scope.
At least, at the outset anyhow.
The Laws of Free Men
This game will use the voting mechanic I devised by default. Iceland was home to the world’s first formal parliament; there were no kings, only the goði representing the interests of their district at the legal assembly. Life revolved very significantly around the proceedings of the Althing.
Lawsuits were a common part of Assembly life. I’ve reflected their importance and some of the way they operated by allowing a bonus to a declared Lawsuit if you have Thingmen around Thingvellir - in many places in the sagas, thingmen “ride to Althing” in preparation for a major lawsuit, so I want to reflect that marshalling of forces to prepare for legal action.
And of course, the inevitable feud that comes out of the decision.
Almost all law in Iceland was civil law. Lawsuits were used to settle everything from border disputes to killings, and penalties for various civil offenses were readily outlined. Gragas, The Gray Goose Laws, includes an entire section on weregild, the prices paid for the killings of various people, as well as the standardized worth of various goods.
The only criminal penalty in Iceland was outlawry, of which there were two types: lesser and full. Lesser outlawry lasted 3 years, while full outlawry was permanent. Lesser outlawry might be assessed for an offense like accusing someone of infidelity unjustly, whereas full outlawry was typically reserved for murder (which is separate from the lawful regulated killings in a feud).
The penalty was the same: outlawry meant you lost all civil rights in Iceland. You lost ownership of your property, you lost the right to sue or be heard at various Things, and nobody would need to pay compensation to anyone for killing you. You were very literally voted off the island.
I haven’t fully fleshed out the mechanics, but I intend to include a mechanic whereby a player can become Outlawed, and when that happens they play by a different set of rules. Somewhat like a traitor mechanic crossed with the Vagabond from Root, I think, but I’m not totally sure yet. All I know is I want outlawry because it was a major concept at the time, and it was the most dramatic enforcement of the Commonwealth way of life.