Like so many of Phil Eklund’s games, including the hit Pax Porfiriana, the cards transform after a couple games. At first, they’re cluttered with text and competing symbols, so many that they’re nearly impossible to parse. After sending your tribe to hunt polar bears, you’ll reach out to pick up your failed rolls for another try, only for another player to bark at you, “What are you doing? You can’t reroll those.”
“Yes I can!” you’ll insist. “It says so right here.”
“That’s a Sage,” they’ll point out. They might even reach across the table and tap your tribe elder card. “Your Sage lets you reroll fours, yeah, but only for metallurgy rolls. See? See the difference? You’d need a Tracker to reroll fours while hunting on land.”
After a while you’ll spot them, the tiny symbols that represent metallurgy and land hunting. You’ll nod slowly, staring at the cards spread across the table. Then your opponent will clear his throat. “Oh, and hey, threes mean the polar bears ate your guys. So you just lost two hunters.”
Greenland may be just a dice game, though it’s possibly the most complicated “just a dice game” you’ll ever play. In a way, it’s a primer for Eklund’s more difficult designs, by which I mean it’s still going to kick you in the gonads now and then.
The setting is 13th Century Greenland, the frozen waste mistitled by Erik the Red to lure hapless settlers over from Iceland, which probably made for some very animated conversation for the next couple years. Climatological experts, who I understand make up the bulk of my readers, will recognize the date as the dawn of the Little Ice Age, five hundred years of cooling that transformed Greenland from unpleasantly frosty to blasted ice-hell.
With each round representing the passage of a single generation from childhood to old age, Greenland sees three players acting out the survival or destruction of three cultures in an environment that barely sustains life at all, let alone enough life to support three tribes’ worth of people. There’s the Tunit, excellent fishers and survivalists; the Thule (ancestors of the modern Inuit), a tight-knit community of notable hunters; and the Norse, immigrant jerks who love raiding and tending to their domesticated animals. Each of these tribes is subtly different; for example, the Tunit and Thule must often compete against one another for food and fuel in the north while the Norse have the run of the south — until the Little Ice Age moves too many of the cards to the “cold side” and it turns out the bundled-up northern trackers are better at surviving the cold than the hardy Norse.
Each side is managed through a card that shows that tribe’s elders, the animal-domesticating Shamans and tool-crafting Artisans. Like everyone else in Greenland, these elders die early and often, leaving their people devoid of guidance. For instance, it isn’t possible to raid other players without a War Chief to lead your fighters, and without a Mariner it’s difficult to move between the north and south reaches, and outright impossible to settle the resource-wealthy New World.
Greenland is about a lot of things, but foremost it’s about your tribe’s struggle to survive. Each round consists of three main phases, and each has the potential to leave your people in ruins.
Before anything else you have to draw an event card. You’ll soon grow to resent these, because instead of each event giving you one more crisis to struggle against, each hands you three or four. Easy prey might migrate to more pleasant climes. Multiple elders can die of old age, or even all of them during a harsh winter unless you burn most of your timber. Global cooling can move biomes from the “warm” to the “cold side” of the island, making hunting and gathering a far trickier prospect. Even marriage, that old technique of negotiation that binds people together and allows tribes to share their unique abilities, can result in disaster when your spouse spreads syphilis to your tribe.
And yet, these events often bring opportunities too. Foreign traders bring exotic tools — weapons! chain mail! books! — and will happily exchange them for ivory. Y’know, if you’ve got any ivory on hand. You probably won’t.
From there, it’s time to assign hunters to the biomes that make up Greenland. This is an agonizing process, full of threats (“I’ll fight you for those Arctic Cod!”) and the possibility of raids to steal cattle or the occasional wife. At the outset there are plenty of locations for everyone, though being forced to hunt boat-crushing Bowhead Whales because everyone else snapped up the Seals and Caribou can be galling, and may result in a tribal grudge-match over easier game. However, about halfway through Greenland, once multiple species have been made extinct or driven to the cold side, conflict becomes more common — as do the chances you find yourself taking.
Everything else is setup for that third phase, where you finally get down to the business of rolling dice to see how your hunters fared. There are a whole lot of ways for a hunt to go down. Consider the majestic Orca. A single successful Orca hunt can result in enough food and fuel for an entire generation of babies, though Orcas are also known for murdering just about every harpoon-bristling umiak you send at them. You might exterminate the Orcas, turning their remains into worshiped totems for your tribe, symbols of your supremacy. There’s also a chance of domesticating these magnificent creatures, herding prey into harpoon range on future hunts. And in a pinch, you can slaughter your domesticated Orcas (you monster) for emergency blubber.
Once you get into it, the dice portion of the game becomes exceptionally evocative. Long odds, dangerous prey, the use of technology and elders to carefully manage your chances, and the possibility of winning big by domesticating or wiping out a species make Greenland’s dice game surprisingly compelling. Your tribe constantly teeters on a razor edge between bounty and starvation. And while some people have noted that there’s a lot of chance in this game, the randomness serves to enforce a constant dread of extermination. One failed hunt, one raid gone wrong, or just a slow wasting as supplies and manpower dwindle, can all spell doom for your tribe.
If you’re constantly worrying about mere survival, how the hell do you win? Good question, in part because victory is rarely a simple matter. First of all, don’t die. Dying always means you lose. Unless you count it as a personal victory because your tribe’s suffering has now come to an end.
Barring that distressing view of death, the main way to win the game is through polytheism. All tribes begin as polytheists in Greenland, and as such the strength of your tribe is measured by the trophies you collect, the dangerous species made extinct and the tools you’ve invented. These measure your mastery over the land, and can be picked up in drabs or dollops throughout the game, Wooden Maps here and wiped out Sharks there.
The second method is a little less obvious, and often offers a way for someone to win even though they’re currently trailing in trophy points. The death of your tribe’s elders means there’s nothing tying you to the old ways, opening the door to the possibility of converting to monotheism. Embracing this new religion erases all your trophy points — they simply cease to matter at all — and instead it’s your accumulated stores of ivory and iron that matter, a new way of looking at a new world. It’s possible to leap from last place to first just by converting, and in the event your opponent still has enough trophy points to win, it’s possible to send missionaries to tempt their people into a conversion of their own, dashing their plans in the process.
All that for a dice game. And I haven’t talked about every nifty option Greenland offers, like the way the New World offers great rewards but also the great risk of being wiped out by grumpy natives, and how your tribesmen also count towards victory — and doubly so if they’ve settled the New World. Despite its tiny footprint and simple central mechanic, it’s a broad game, packed to the gills with ideas and possibilities.
It won’t be for everyone. It’s harsh to even the most careful of players, and the dice will screw you on easy hunts, and you’ll let out these infuriated groans that might belong to the same Beluga that just killed half your tribe. But for those who can get past the tough learning curve, the unforgiving gameplay, and the groans, this is one of the coolest dice games out there.