Northgard is a viking strategy game from developers Shiro Games, known for their time-traveling romp Evo-land, and was released early access on Steam last week. In just that short time, it’s already generated positive reviews, produced high playrates, and created a lot of buzz. With just one of its three game modes released and more to come, it already has a 90.8% positive approval rating on steam, hit the top of the steam charts, and had an all time peak of over 2,000 players at once, which is especially high for an indie game. Gamers are raving about the adventures of these bearded and tough cartoon vikings, but what is all the buzz about?
Northgard is strategic, but it’s more of a simulator than a virtual boardgame. There are five ways to win—through domination, wisdom, fame, trading, and map-unique events—but more ways to play. You start the game with the choice of which clan you wish to lead to victory, and gain certain benefits based on your choice. Here is the first sign that Northgard draws a clear influence from the Civilization series, but rather than focus on turn based tactics it moves simultaneously. It also has the benefit of playing like a much lighter (and cheaper) Civ; it’s quicker to learn and easier to play, which can make it a more enjoyable experience for someone who is new to strategy games. And while trade routes must be established and resources are as valuable as a card in tabletop classic Settlers of Catan, it distinguishes itself from the tabletop genre immediately with its visual choice to not use regularly shaped tiles. Territories in Northgard are uniquely shaped and positioned; the board is different every game, and while its size can be loosely determined, its layout cannot. As a result, watching your warband travel across this treacherous map makes the game satisfyingly real. It takes time for things to happen, and you get to watch things play out. Though an intrusive (but necessary) UI can ruin the immersive feel, it’s nevertheless enjoyable to watch as your scouts peer into the dark abyss of an undiscovered territory or your hunters fell a deer.
The goat clan, Heidrun. (Northgard, Shiro Games)
The stag clan, Eikthyrnir. (Northgard, Shiro Games)
The wolf clan, Fenrir, (Northgard, Shiro Games)
This same simultaneous gameplay that can make the game so satisfying, however, can make it incredibly frustrating. Simultaneous play means that the player has to be much more attentive to their vikings’ every moves, and it means things can take sudden (and deadly) turns for the worse when you least expect it. As your territory and population grows it becomes even more difficult to watch over every little thing, and this difficulty is increased by a particularly dense AI. While it some sense that the tough vikings of Northgard are no rocket scientists, it’s irritating that they won’t figure some things out for themselves. For example, if a citizen is located in one territory, he will refuse to attend to anything outside of that designated area, even if it is just along the border of where he’s currently gathering resources. This means that building projects can easily get stalled and healers won’t attend to the sick or injured unless they’re sharing a space, which ultimately can lower your citizens’ happiness and lifespans. While the game does its best to keep you apprised of situations like these, the less patient player might find themselves wishing for their clan to be blessed with self reliance instead of some extra stone.
So What About the Gameplay?
Getting to command the vikings of Northgard is entertaining, there’s no doubt about that, but it can be hard to keep them working like a well oiled, burgeoning civilization should. Unfortunately, once you’ve realized you’ll have to tell your citizens every little thing, your attempts to control your world can be foiled by clumsy mechanics and a cluttered UI. The game is best played with a keyboard and mouse and has no official controller support, but perhaps that will come with further development. Regardless of what you choose to play the game with, getting things done can take longer than desired. Given how busy Northgard’s world is, perhaps the developers have done their best here, but it’s still frustrating at times to go through the process of selecting citizens to carry out certain tasks. While you can select all or one, there’s no ability to collect a group. Cycling through citizens can be tedious, especially because the camera automatically pans to find them and leaves you searching for where you had meant to send them in the first place. Perhaps a panel showing all your citizens, their relative locations, and current activity would allow you to select the best option with ease, rather than cycling through until you find the citizen that is the closest to where you need someone to go.
A wyvern’s den in Northgard. Northgard, Shiro Games
Victory, achieved by colonizing the heart of the land. (Northgard, Shiro Games)
That said, the sheer amount of control that you have over Northgard is just plain fun. Small details like the ability to rotate buildings, the changing of the seasons, and the affirmative exclamations made by citizens following your commands help Northgard to feel like your own developing world. The game has beautiful and simple art and music that makes it more relaxing than some other conquer and colonize types, and altogether the aesthetic portrays Vikings well. It’s definitely more on the cartoonish side, but that helps to make Northgard feel like a more casual and welcoming strategy experience. It does really feel like a new place to explore, and because Northgard’s maps are unique each time the game stays fresh. The map is also dotted with exciting landmarks and various enemies to keep the gameplay interesting. A lava pit, ancient tombs, a civilization of giants, and a wyvern’s den are among the unique territories you can find and conquer as you explore. My first win was achieved by finding, clearing, and colonizing the unique landmark tree Yggdrasil, and thus becoming the guardian of Northgard. The player does have the option to turn off map-based or any other victory conditions, however, which further increases your power over how the game is played. Combined with its unique, lore-backed clans that are suited to certain types of gameplay, this makes for a varied and rewarding experience.
So What About Northgard?
While Northgard can suffer from awkward mechanics, dim-witted AI, and some obvious oversights (such as the mind-boggling lack of women in this world, which births all of its clones from a town hall at the heart of your kingdom,) as an early access title it has room to grow. The game is being actively updated by the developers, and just a few days after purchase I started up a new game to discover new options available. Fans of this new hit will surely await the new clans, gameplay adjustments, and multiplayer and campaign modes with anticipation. In the meantime, the singleplayer mode is an enjoyable and casual experience for anyone looking to try their hand at strategy games, and a fun way to feel immersed in a Nordic world.
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