Posted on 26 Jan 2018 by Stephen Haselden


The Defence

Developer: Shiro Games
Publisher: Shiro Games
Genre: Indie, Strategy
Platform: PC
Review copy: No
Release date: No data.

The Prosecution

OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 260
AMD Radeon HD 4850
HDD: 150 MB
DirectX: 9
Controller: None
Mod Support: No
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 120+

Northgard is a Viking RTS. It’s also a 4X, and a Management Sim too. All of these classifications are relevant, but what Northgard feels like is a modern board game.

I’m not talking Snakes and Ladders here, I’m talking Eurogames, like Scythe or Eclipse. To quote Wikipedia:

Euro-style games emphasize strategy while downplaying luck and conflict. They tend to have economic themes rather than military and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.”

As board game descriptions go, this is a surprisingly accurate description for Northgard.

Northgard is played on a generic island located somewhere with abysmal weather. You can set the difficulty for each game along with the win conditions (up to eight), number of opponents (up to three), size of the island (small, medium, large), and tribe. But other than that, the islands are procedurally generated and offer a fair amount of variation for each play-through. Apart from the occasional battle, gameplay consists largely of allocating Vikings to different roles (everything from druid to fisherman), your other important choice is deciding when and where to expand too. This can open up borders to new enemies, new resources, and new trade routes too. Unlike most other RTS’s, expansion is severely limited in Northgard. The whole island is segregated into sections, which can be added to yours for an increasing cost each time. But territory costs (usually in food) are not the only limitation; you cannot expand until you have paid for the new territory, you cannot buy a territory until you have defeated the creatures inhabiting it and you cannot fight in a territory until you have scouted it. Scouting takes time (like all the other steps) and the whole time this is happening, the season indicator on the left is steadily creeping towards winter.

Even Vikings get fed up with snow eventually.

Winning in Northgard can be a matter of simply smashing in skulls, but that’s not necessarily the easiest option. There are five win conditions that can be set at the beginning of a game: Domination (conquest), Wisdom (technology), Fame (achievements), Trade, and a Special victory condition that depends on the map. Sometimes advancing towards one of your goals can feel abstract; Krohns for example, are a kind of reputation resource which unlock new abilities (depending on your clan). But even the most abstract elements of Northgard still supports a gentle (almost peaceful) Viking theme. Despite the Viking theme, Northgard certainly downplays combat. Warriors are essential for expanding your territory but you can comfortably play to the end without recruiting more than two warriors. You can also win the game without fighting another faction even once. However you can also lose the game very quickly if you don’t plan for winter.

Winter is always coming in Northgard; not in the White Walker way but in the starving-to-death through lack-of-food way. With the constant concern of how you are going to last through the next winter, expanding and improving your tribe is a constant balancing act. The tension this adds is palpable, not least because Northgard is a difficult game and it’s a rare player who doesn’t lose his tribe to starvation or the cold at least once. The season mechanic in Northgard is an inspired design. Along with season changes, the season dial also warns you of various impending disasters (blizzards, plagues, earthquakes). Not only do the environmental changes add an urgency to your resource gathering, but when winter hits (especially blizzards) you can feel the cold coming through the screen. You don’t need to watch your resource counters rapidly dropping to know things are bad, you just need to look at the poor bastards freezing their beards off.

Odin had many names: Lord of Ravens, The Allfather, some Vikings called him Odin the Absentminded.

Northgard has been in Early Access for the best part of a year now. I can’t say how much it has been developed during that time, but I suspect that a whole lot of balancing and polishing has gone on, because that’s how it looks now: very well balanced and polished. The main campaign is still locked but you can access skirmish games (with all clans) and multiplayer has also just been added with various options for team games and free-for-alls. With the exception of a minor bug when alt-tabbing, Northgard runs smoothly and looks beautiful throughout. If the idea of economic balancing and careful expansion doesn’t sound like the Viking adventure you expected, I can tell you that Northgard still gives the impression of being a chapter from Norse legend. The urgency of certain tasks helps to build a sense of peril which, combined with the great art design and the various mythical creatures, all help build a picture of a harsh environment that’s ripe for a classic Viking adventure. Northgard is an engaging strategic experience, with the convenience of not having to pack the bits up afterwards.

Comments (0)