The North Goes South
It’s been two years since we saw a proper Small Box Games release from John Clowdus. Unless we’re counting Kolossal’s printing of Omen: A Reign of War. Which I’m not, in case you were wondering. A professional printing may be glossy, but there’s nothing quite like the home-packaged feel of Clowdus’s limited runs, right down to its too-tight box and ribbon for prying the cards loose.
Thankfully, Clowdus hasn’t lost a step. The North is, at the absolute least, one stylish set of cards, with Aaron Nakahara’s chilly artwork raising the occasional goosebump. It also happens to be a deck-builder. Of course, Clowdus being Clowdus, that doesn’t make it like any deck-builder you’ve ever played before.
That’s one of the first things you’ll notice about The North. It’s right there in the rules. On the rules, technically, since the rules are printed on cards rather than in a rulebook. How do start your turn? By shuffling together your deck, hand, and discard pile. Wait wait wait — this isn’t how deck-builders work. You’re supposed to make your way through everything, all gradual-like. Pick up a hand, use it, discard it, pick up a new hand. That’s the cycle. The covenant. The compact our species struck when Donald X. Vaccarino first shuffled around with a deck of cards and realized he’d accidentally summoned Dominion into our realm.
And for your first play or two, it might prove too jarring, like coming face to face with a tentacled alternator on the frozen prairie of the Yukon. Perhaps your perception will blossom and your mind will fragment. More likely, you’ll spend so much time fretting over how this darn thing operates that you’ll fail to see how it glides from one beat to the next.
Yet it does glide. Most of the time, anyway. And it has everything to do with the way Clowdus lets you sharpen your deck to a fine razor while also flooding it with new cards.
What am I talking about? Deck-building. More specifically, deck-winnowing. As everybody who’s played a deck-builder knows, the genre isn’t only about what you can cram into your deck — it’s also about what you can throw into the trash. A big deck is a flabby deck, as prone to coughing up some mismatched cruft as something useful. A slim deck, on the other hand, guarantees you’ll continue to draw your best cards over and over.
The North doesn’t always seem interested in letting that happen. At the end of every turn, your opponent will claim a card from the market. One of your leftovers, which also means it’s, well, a leftover. Not the strongest card, let’s say. Along with everything else, that card will be shuffled into your new deck. Even tougher, do you know how many cards you draw? Three. Three measly cards, from which you must lay the foundations of a successful turn. Further, do you know what one of your primary actions will be? Discarding a card to claim yet another card from the market. At least this acquisition provides a minor bonus, like letting you peel a card from the top of your deck or zap your node.
Your node is an actual in-game thing. That wasn’t euphemistic. Hold your horses and I’ll get to it.
Anyway, between that forced acquisition at the end of your opponent’s turn, a couple more during your own turn, and that (tiny) random draw, your deck isn’t exactly the most perfectly curated cardstock ever shuffled into a pile. Or so you might think. Although The North lends itself to the tactical, often forcing you to make do with mismatched draws, it also provides the tools to take back some measure of control. A whole pile of tools, in fact.
This being a Clowdus game, the foremost of these tools is the possibility of making some awesomely zany combos. Any of your cards can be played into your “zone,” a permanent holding area that activates your unit’s protocol ability and takes it out of your deck. Sounds great! The rub is that any card in your zone is worth one point at the end of the game. This can be good, neutral, or a real bummer. You see, every card in the game is worth one, two, and three points. In general, you’re shooting to keep high-value cards in your deck while dropping lower values into your zone.
Except the abilities provided by the cards don’t always line up with their points value. There are three copies of every card, but each is worth a different amount of points. Your Switchkeep won’t have the same scoring potential as my Switchkeep — but they will have the same protocol ability. If you’re hoping to play something that activates a second something that charges your node for a free action and some damage and another free card, you’re going to have to make sacrifices. At least temporary sacrifices. It isn’t surprising that much of the game’s strategy comes down to gaining powerful cards, using their abilities, and then rescuing them from your own zone.
Meanwhile, The North is also unapologetically aggressive. Rather than gaining points during play, your immediate goal is to chip away at your opponent’s score. Both sides begin at 40 and gradually choke each other; as soon as somebody croaks (or the deck runs out), you tally up the value of everything you’ve gained.
There are a few ways to perform said choking, and they’re all worth paying attention to. Unplayed cards from your hand, matching facilities piled into your zone, and the discharging of your node all deal damage. The node itself is a bit of a side-hustle, gradually charged or drained by card abilities. Discharging it harms your opponent, but higher levels bring secondary perks, including an all-important free action. This prompts you to take risks, holding onto a middling charge over multiple turns even though your opponent might downgrade it.
By comparison, the facilities are a bit of a misfire. They’re printed onto the back of every card, and loads of abilities revolve around deploying them into your zone. Along with immediate perks, they deal escalating damage once you have three of the same type. But hitting three matching facilities isn’t easy and, unfortunately, the card fronts don’t reveal what’s on their reverse. Short of pure memorization, you’ll be checking the south side of The North’s cards with infuriating regularity. This only grows more annoying when certain combos depend on recovering a particular facility-concealed ancient from your zone, or tossing down the right facility at the right moment, or lucking into a good pull from the market deck. Even a small reminder pip on the front of the cards could have saved a whole lot of flipping time.
This is emblematic of how The North operates. It’s an odd game to begin with: a deck-builder where you don’t march through your deck, cards that can be used in at least four ways, and preoccupied with action limitations. For everything it gets right — which is a lot — there’s some undeniable clunk in its clockwork. It’s possible to play skillfully and swiftly, but it’s also easy to get bogged down in weird pacing and unfamiliar planning. It certainly doesn’t help that your deck is remade at the start of each turn, forcing you to evaluate your options at that moment rather than charting a few tentative steps in advance.
For fans of Clowdus’s work, some clunkiness won’t be news. It isn’t to me. Nor is it much of a dissuasion. Even though The North isn’t a perfect game, it represents the work of an old hand at building games that pack impressive and unintuitive play into tiny packages. The rules are simple enough to print on a few cards, but there’s no hand-holding here, no fast food banquets. Pulling off a solid move feels revelatory because you pulled it off, rather than because a designer assembled and packaged it for you. Like many of the best titles from Small Box Games, it reveals itself in stages, often by way of contradiction: tight decks from total flab, powerful combos from unintuitive restrictions, damaging attacks from the infuriatingly hidden reverse side of a handful of cards.
Maybe that’s why I can’t decide whether The North is the best of Clowdus’s weaker oeuvre or the weakest of his best. Then again, either way, it’s a fascinating and combo-twisting take on the deck-builder.