A Deodorant for Excessively Hairy Men
“Northgard” sounds like a deodorant brand. Probably one that smells of pine needles and draugr leather. Northgard: Uncharted Lands, on the other hand, is the latest adaptation of a video game that happens to be considerably more competent than its bastard offspring. Based on Norse mythology in the loosest sense, players are tasked with leading a clan to preeminence. Mostly this consists of exploring terrain, fighting monsters, fighting other Vikings, fighting the winter, and never once setting foot on a boat.
At times, bits of flint shine through the muck. The rest of the time, it’s gone to mud.
There’s a visual metaphor at the center of Northgard that sums up both its cleverness and its unfortunate marshiness. Starting on one or two central tiles, your clan blooms outward with all the ambition of a young warrior on the eve of his first expedition. Unlike many games of this nature, Uncharted Lands is true to its subtitle. Rather than stick around in that central contested territory, it’s generally wiser to strike outward, exploring new tiles to uncover fresh resources, building sites, and existential threats. There’s no balance to this exploration — a positive trait, really — allowing players to generate surprising regions that sprawl around each other or terminate in minor pockets, filled with abundant resources or nothing of note whatsoever, bounded by dangers or rival clans or maybe kept relatively safe by rough terrain.
The world feels alive, in other words. The result is closer to real-world boundaries, all squiggly lines and incomprehensible concessions, with nary a straight line or sensical delineation in sight.
But it doesn’t take long before the whole thing blurs into an indistinct mess. The world is drawn in shades of pastel green and tan, not especially suited to the candy colors duking it out up above. The exploration itself is chancy, often handing superior regions to some and the Norse equivalent of scrub desert to others. Worse, at higher counts there’s a very good chance that the exploration tiles will run dry altogether. In a game with four main actions, that strips exploration-oriented clans of their principal benefits. The key is to squat on a few starting resources and erect the building that gives you an extra warrior with each recruit. Nobody will be able to stand against you. Unless, of course, they’ve also sussed out the game’s preeminent strategy.
What’s left after that? Lots of uninteresting combat. Lots and lots.
The core feeling of Uncharted Lands is constant struggle. The deck-building provides a good example. Unlike most deck-builders, where cards have costs and triggers and oh so many effects, Northgard pares them down to their barest essence. For one thing, they don’t have a cost. Every round begins with a few cards laid on the table. Passing means you get to claim a card. There’s a sublime tension at play, a contrast between playing all your cards to further your clan’s aims or passing early to nab the best cards. That the card goes on top of your deck rather than disappearing into the discard is the hedonistic cherry on top. You’ll use these cards early and often.
But your deck soon becomes an enemy in its own right. There are only four basic actions to consider — move, recruit, explore, and build — and these appear alongside a few others on the cards you’ll accumulate. From there, it isn’t uncommon to find yourself gridlocked. On one occasion, I entered a turn with three explore cards and a move, except a bear was squatting on both of my territories and preventing me from taking even a single action. Another time, a friend drew his build cards despite having run out of wood the previous year. To make up for this, a few cards throw their hands up and let you take whatever basic action you’d like.
To some degree this is inevitable, even desirable of a game that’s about balancing your deck and coping with what spills out of it. But Northgard is obsessed with limitations. Movement cards that can’t bypass rough terrain. Scarce resources that are easily overtaken by attackers. Structures that act more as beacons for predatory neighbors than as benefits in their own right. Did I mention that Northgard’s combat is bland? It makes up for its blandness by letting you have as much as you’d like. For the most part, nothing matters apart from sheer numbers. Barring the odd roll — very odd, given that both sides only roll one die, and one that doesn’t leave much room for surprise — you can nearly always guess which side will prevail in any given conflict. That side is usually the team that will also prevail in the game itself, if only because it has the manpower to seize essential regions and hold them. Say it with me: recruit, recruit, recruit.
At times, something lustrous shines out from the mud. This is doubly true once you add the creatures. These appear during exploration and add some terror to the unknown. Bears staple your people in place, wolves gobble up your resources, draugar and fallen valkyries feed on your soldiers. Sure, they’re also an enormous hassle. Thanks to a rival exploring a wolf into my backyard, the first three rounds of our most recent play saw me harvesting one resource. Total. Across all three rounds. It also doesn’t help that they activate at the oddest time, slotting awkwardly between phases, so that a wolf squatting on your apple orchard will depart for a nearby region before stealing your harvest. Or inversely, appear when you least expected it.
Oh well. The advantages outweigh the downsides. The creatures are such a pain to handle that they nudge Northgard over a conceptual cliff. It doesn’t quite elevate the game to the existential struggle of Greenland, but it’s close enough to feel its breath on the back of its neck. If anything, I wish it had doubled down. The video game version of Northgard made expansion tenuous by throwing winters at you. Along with the creatures defending neutral lands, these harsh seasons made it necessary to stockpile food and hunker down at regular intervals. Here the winter season is reduced to an upkeep phase where you pay some resources to keep your people fed and warm. These amounts increase with the size of your clan, but not sharply enough to curtail wanton expansion. It would have made more sense to make large clans harder to support, possibly with structures that kept them warm or increased how many warriors you could safely feed. That would have slowed the game’s on-ramp and asked aggressive players to account for their growth. Instead, the security of numbers will almost always guarantee more resources than you’ll spend. Contrast that with Greenland, where a large population brought its own perils, and you have a game that favors brute force over subtle or clever play. Do I need to say it again? Grab those bonus recruits as soon as you can.
There’s no denying that Northgard: Uncharted Lands presents itself well. It’s smooth to play, doesn’t overwhelm with minor rules or tricky exceptions, and everybody loves a baby-sized Viking. But for all its smoothness, it never comes together into a pleasant play experience. At every turn it offers new challenges to strive against. Some, like the creatures, are deliberate. Others, like its wonky deck-building, tedious combat, messy map, and favored approaches are less so. Consequently, it swaps much of the original game’s charming wildness for mild winters and uninteresting clashes.
A complimentary copy was provided.