I’m not sure if I’m showing my age and/or my relative immaturity here… but any time I play a game about Vikings, this is what pops into my head.
So, let’s just start with a simple statement of truth. The Muppets, led by Jim Henson, are one of the cultural touchstones of the 20th Century.
Oh, yeah… I’m supposed to be giving you, dear reader, my first impressions of Northgard, the new board game based on the popular video game. (Actually, I have no idea if it’s popular or not – I don’t play that many video games any more. I do know that I can order it in a variety of different formats… and since I have teenage sons, at my house I could play it on Steam, the Nintendo Switch, or our Xbox One.)
Once again, I have managed to chase a rabbit (this one made of pixels) and get away from the point of this article: a preview of the Northgard: Uncharted Lands board game which is currently on Kickstarter. Seeing as how I am unsure of your level of patience, I’ll proceed with that forthwith.
First, thanks to the good folks at Open Sesame Games, who know how to do prototypes right. The quality of the components were top-notch and made for a good solid first impressions experience. In addition, they provided me with the means to create a proxy version of the Creatures expansion – more on that later.
Second… well, there is no second. It’s just time for me to play the music and light the lights!
Welcome to the wonderful world of Vikings! In Northgard: Uncharted Lands, you lead your Viking clan to explore the wilderness, harvest resources, build a variety of structures, and occasionally engage in combat in order to emerge as the victor in this race for glory and fame. Long past your death, warriors will tell stories in the mead halls of your feats of daring, my friend. (Alternately, you may have to hoist your own can of Coke Zero and brag about it on Facebook – that’s kind of the way we’re leaning these days.)
At the end of 7 rounds, the player with most fame wins… fame which is amassed by
- Exploring and closing in territories (similar to finishing a city in Carcassonne)
- Keeping control of those territories at the end of a round
- Controlling an Altar of Kings (a building which sheds fame like a long-haired poodle)
- Playing certain special action cards
- Having leftover resources (3 resources = 1 fame) at the end of the game
Alternately, a clan that controls 3 closed (complete) areas with a large building at the end of any round automatically wins the game.
The Way the Game Rolls Along
Each round, players draw four cards from their action deck to make up their hand… and as many cards as the number of players from the common deck are laid face-up for drafting.
Then, in turn, players take one action by playing action cards or taking an alternate action until they decide to pass and draft a new card. The first player to pass becomes the start player for the next round.
Alternate actions include:
- Wait: Playing an action card without using the action
- Replace: Paying a Lore resource to discard an action card and draw a new card from your deck
- Remove: Paying two Lore resources to cull an action card from your hand and draw a new card from your deck
- Upgrade: Paying three Lore resources to add one of your Level 2 Clan cards to your hand
After all players have passed, each clan collects fame from their closed territories as well as resources (Food, Wood, Lore) based on the symbols in those territories and/or buildings. Players can trade any 3 resource tokens for the resource token of their choice at this time.
As George R.R. Martin told us, “Winter is coming” – and so players must spend food to feed their clan… based on the number of clan members currently hard at work in the uncharted lands (instead of those freeloaders who sit in front of you, laying about as if they hadn’t a care in the world.) If you are unable to pay, you must take an Unrest card, which not only gums up your deck but also penalizes you with negative Fame at the end of the game.
With that, the round comes to an end and players check for a winner (remember: 3 large buildings in closed territories). Repeat up to six more times and you’ve got yourself a game of Northgard.
The Clever Deck-building Bit at the Heart of the Game
Each player begins the game with seven action cards:
- Build (which allows them, you’ll be surprised to know, to build a building)
- Explore (which enables them to draw a new map tile and place it adjacent to an open territory with one of their clan members)
- Move (which lets them move 1 clan member to an adjacent territory… and potentially start a brawl with a neighbor)
- Recruit (which allows them – and again your surprise will be palpable – to place a new clan member on a territory they control)
- Feast (which is a wild card allowing a player to do any of the above actions)
- Their Level 1 Clan card – each clan has a different set of powers and action cards they can use
On a turn, a player can take a variety of actions… but most of the time, they’ll be playing one of the four cards in their hand in order to take that particular action.
When a player decides not to take any more actions, they pass… and part of passing is drafting one of the face-up action cards to the top of their deck. Pass early and get the card you want; wait till later and trade a less favorable draft for time to act uninterrupted by pesky neighboring clans.
The drafted action cards have a variety of twists on the basic actions:
- Build cards that allow building more than one building or offer a discount in resources
- Explore cards that allow more tiles to be drawn or explored
- Move cards that allow more units to move… and sometimes with extra combat symbols
- Recruiting cards that allow more units to be recruited
- Draw cards that allow you to cycle your deck
- Special action cards that reward you with extra fame for fulfilling certain criteria
Over the course of the game, the cards you choose to draft will change the way your clan is likely to participate in the game… and, due to the random way the cards become available, the tone of each game may be markedly different based on the draft row. For example, if a lot of move and recruit cards show up early in the draft, it’s likely to be a game filled with the sounds of combat… or if the focus is on explore and special actions, it will be a more peaceful race to close territories and build buildings.
There are also some cards which have a lightning bolt symbol (called “Flash cards” in the game rules) – these cards can be played before or after playing an action card – and can help a clan leap into action or solidify their defense, as well taking less time to get to the point where they want to pass and draft a new card.
The map is generated by players exploring… if and only if they have clan members in an open (aka “unfinished”) territory. Take an Explore action, draw a tile, orient it as you wish (as long as no stray boundary lines appear, and the uncharted lands become slightly less uncharted.
There are four main features on map tiles:
- building sites (more on that in a minute)
- border lines (dashed lines are “normal”; solid lines indicated mountains which are more difficult to cross)
- resource symbols (Food, Wood, or Lore which are there just for the taking)
- lairs (where creatures reside if you’re using the expansion)
When a player finishes a territory (completely closes it in) that they controls, they receive one fame for each tile that is a part of that territory.
There are eight different buildings that can be built.. five smaller buildings at the bargain cost of a single Wood resource and three large buildings which will set your clan back a hefty three Wood resources. Buildings must be built on the appropriate sized building locations (unless you draft a card that allows you to bend the rules).
The small buildings include
- the Food Silo (which adds a Food resource symbol)
- the Woodcutter Lodge (which adds a Wood resource symbol)
- the Carved Stone (which adds a Lore resource symbol… but can only be built on “standing stone” building sites)
- the Training Camp (which gives you an extra clan member when you recruit to that territory)
- the Outhouse of Death (OK, that’s not the official name… it’s the Defense Tower, which adds a skull for combats when defending the region. But it looks a little like a privy/water closet/etc., so that’s what we named it.)
The large buildings includ
- the Altar of Kings (the aforementioned site harvests 3 Fame for whoever controls it at the end of each turn)
- the Fortress (which adds two axes to combat when defending the region)
- the Forge (which increases your hand size by 1… so, if you have multiple Forges, even more cards to play each turn)
The building system is simple and clear – and the artwork on them (even the Outhouse of Death) is easy to read across the table. (Those of you wanting cool miniature buildings should heed the problems of such foolishness as illustrated by the Kickstarter buildings from Dice Settlers, a game I like very much but who made building minis that actively make the game more difficult to play.)
When two different clans occupy the same territory, a battle begins. A clan’s combat strength (axes) is determined by:
- The number of clan members present (+1 per figure)
- The number of clan members fed (+1 per Food token spent… but no more than the number of figures present)
- Any combat symbols (axes or skulls) on buildings or the move card played
- The roll of the combat die
Skulls mean your opponent must choose to remove one of their clan members – and if one side is decimated before comparing axe scores, then the combat is over. If both sides have clan members remaining, then the scores are compared and the higher score wins and forces the other to retreat.
As befits Viking warfare, combat can be absolutely brutal in Northgard. I strongly suggest that part of teaching the game be a couple of sample combats so players can see how “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” (Yes, I know… Robert Burns was not a Viking. But he’s not wrong.)
Northgard includes an “in-the-box” expansion with the warchief figures for each clan. For folks with a little bit of gaming experience, it’s not a big deal to add this to your first game – it just adds some mild twists to combat. (The warchief powers are on each clan player board, so it’s clear that the design team feels like they are an important part of the game design.)
Creatures of Northgard
Part of the Kickstarter is an expansion that adds non-player creatures to the game – hence the descriptive “Creatures of Northgard” name. These various beasties can co-exist peacefully… but also can decide to attack neighboring territories based on their card AI.
Players may also decide to hunt them down for fame – it can be your own personal stab at recreating Beowulf. (Note: as an English major, I’d encourage you to read Beowulf in the original Old English. This, for many of you, will make me even less popular than my usual suggestion to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. But that’s the way I roll.)
The creatures offer a slight bit of complication to the rules – but the subsequent tightening of the board space will increase the number of balls which players have to juggle.
We’ve played four games of Northgard prior to me writing this first impression – and I’ve enjoyed each one. Both of our three-player games ended in round six with a player holding 3 closed territories with large buildings. Our two player games (one with the Creatures of Northgard expansion, one without) went the full seven rounds and were won on fame points.
The game clocks in at 45 minutes for two players and just over an hour for three players… which leads me to believe that four & five player games should end up in the 75-90 minute mark. The playing time feels right for the weight of the game… enough time to accomplish some of your goals without the game overstaying its welcome.
As I noted in my explanation above, the tiles drawn and cards available for drafting can determine the tone of a game. While the common deck is weighted towards move & recruit cards – nearly half involve recruiting clan members or moving them into position – there is the possibility in lower player count games of having a much more “Viking festival of friends” vibe instead of a “Vikings plunder and pillage mercilessly” vibe. (Note: I am playing with the prototype version of the game that does not include any stretch goal cards.) The map tiles have a similar effect – if a number of large building sites become available early, the game is likely to focus on the race to three large buildings.
Northgard: Uncharted Lands is on the lighter end of the 4x game spectrum – but it does contain a good bit of the rough & tumble that goes with the genre. I think that the shorter playing time helps ease some of the pain of getting sandwiched and/or run over, but players should go in knowing this isn’t Carcassonne with cute Viking miniatures.
One more note about the playing time: for those out there who want their 4x games to be an event (I’m looking at those folks who were excited to see the Twilight Imperium expansion announcement), Northgard is going to be painfully short. As I am not one of those gluttons for day-long punishment, I take that as a real positive.
Remember, I really like the game… but I do have some questions/quibbles/concerns:
- The rules reverse standard usage of “rounds” and “turns” – which is confusing when you’re teaching/learning the game but inconsequential once you actually know how it works. This may be an artifact of the game being designed outside the U.S. market.
- One of our players was really frustrated with his lack of resources based on his initial placement draw of a tile with no resources on it. We house-ruled for the rest of our games that an initial placement tile with no resources on it could be discarded to the bottom of the stack and a replacement tile drawn.
That’s pretty much it for my quibbles… so take that as you will.
As a reminder, I received no compensation from Open Sesame Games except the prototype copy of Northgard in order to play it. I am not an actual Viking, or even a very good pretend Viking. I don’t like mead – and wearing a horned hat is guaranteed to make my ever-so-patient wife more likely to make fun of me.
Pictures here were either (a) from the publisher, or (b) taken by me with an iPhone using the wonderful Hipstamatic app. In my mind, I’m a hip photographer with an artistic flair; in reality, I’m a middle-aged guy with a smartphone in his basement.
If you’re interested, the Kickstarter for Northgard: Uncharted Lands runs through September 1, 2020.