eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Northgard

Northgardtitle

As I finished my first game of Northgard, I was grinning from ear to ear. It is one of those games where the mechanics, theme, and overall experience just clicked with me. And the more I played, the more I appreciated the nuances of its design – whether in the UI, the pacing, the struggle for survival, or the thrill of victory. The game fires on all cylinders which is an infrequent observation these days.

Northgard, developed and self-published by Shiro Games, is a beautiful coupling of traditional RTS gameplay and 4X-style mechanics, wrapped up in a lovingly conveyed Norse theme. We’ll dig into the specifics of this marriage below, but the game has nevertheless sparked an interesting internal debate about whether it’s a 4X-RTS hybrid or something else.

From my perspective (the only one that really matters here, right?), I think Northgard is right on the line between RTS and 4X. Whether or not it can appeal to audiences on both sides of the line will be interesting to watch. While I’m not normally the betting type, I think the potential is there – because Northgard is a well-polished and thoughtfully articulated strategy game design.

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Happy little villagers just cutting down the happy little trees. Bob Ross abides.

Structure

Northgard is fundamentally a strategy game about growing a Viking clan, exploring the landscape, expanding your territory, exploiting resources and managing survival, and of course, achieving domination over rival clans. The scale of the game focuses on the real-time management of individual units and buildings, within the confines of one slowly-sprawling settlement. It bears a strong resemblance in this regard to traditional RTS games. Think Warcraft.

However, the game also features procedurally generated maps, survival, upkeep mechanics, and multiple pathways to victory, not all of which rely on vanquishing your opponents. And while the game is real-time, the level of micromanagement and twitch-based player mechanics required are relatively minimal compared to traditional RTS games. It feels like smaller scope, nordic-themed version of Sins of a Solar Empire, a game routinely held up as a RTS-4X hybrid.

Northgard has a sandbox skirmish mode, boasting the aforementioned procedurally generated mini-continent to battle over, as well as a bona fide campaign mode. Call me crazy, but I have to admit that I strongly dislike scripted mission-based campaigns in RTS games. Thankfully the full campaign wasn’t available prior to release, so I was spared from having to suffer through the entirety of it. However wonderful or terrible it is, I’m content to remain blissfully ignorant.

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Boar clan for the win. Look at his tusks and regal majesty!

As for the sandbox mode, you choose one of the six clans to lead to victory. Each clan is themed around a particular animal: Wolf, Bear, Stag, Raven, Boar, or Goat. Obviously Boar Clan is the best, just on principle. Nevertheless, each Clan has a unique set of bonuses and maluses, clan-specific research options, and sometimes a special unit.

While the variations among the Clans don’t lead to radically different styles of gameplay, they can nevertheless affect your strategies and tactical-level decisions in pronounced ways. For example, the Wolf Clan gets extra food from defeating foes in battle, which can make up a key part of your food economy. The Boar Clan‘s(the best, remember?) happiness is not impacted by living in the squalor of non-upgraded hovels. The audacity of the Boar Clan is unrivaled!

Northgard plays in a relatively compressed manner. On a medium size map, a game can be finished in a single session and typically takes about two hours to complete. In this regard, it is not as short as a traditional RTS match (usually less than 30 minutes). But it is also not a dozen-plus hour epic. I’ve long been on the hunt for a game that scratches the 4X-itch and yet plays in a shorter time frame – another positive mark for Northgard.

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A new journey into the dark.

Discovery

The landscape of Northgard is broken up into dozens of randomized map regions or tiles (as the game calls it). These tiles are the building blocks for the game, as ownership of a tile governs which Clan can safely occupy, build, and work within it.

Tiles contain a range of features: cliffs blocking access to adjacent tiles, ancient ruins, shipwrecks, beaches, fishing ponds, fertile plains, forests, stone, ore deposits, and more. Of course, it’s not all resources ripe for the picking. Many tiles will be occupied by hordes of wolves, hostile dark-elf-look-a-like Draugr, giants, bears, and kobolds.

Northgard starts each player in a single map tile containing their town hall and a handful of villagers surrounded by the fog of war. In order to explore nearby lands you’ll need to convert a generic villager into a scout – more on that in a moment. Suffice to say, the scouts gradually peel back the fog of war and reveal the surrounding landscape. One subtle feature is that the player always starts in the “center” of the map and so you don’t really know where your starting position is relative to the rest of the island landmass. It’s a nice wrinkle.

Your town hall automatically creates new villagers over time provided your happiness is high enough and you have enough housing. Each villager is capable of basic food gathering or building construction. Workers can be reassigned to a specific tradecraft by assigning them to the appropriate building type. Need a healer? Build a healer’s hut and assign a villager to it. Ditto for scouts or loremasters (e.g. Viking PhD candidates). The same process is used to build your military units – which means getting your village growth bumping along is crucial.

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Behold the very, ummm… “Extensive” technology tree.

The other aspect of discovery pertains to research and technology. Unlike most RTS games, Northgard has a proper, albeit pint-sized, research system. There is a “lore” resource that you accumulate by assigning loremasters to study ancient stone rings and/or sending off longship raising parties to explore foreign shores. When enough points accumulate, you can unlock one of the 20-30 technologies arranged in a miniature tech tree.

The technologies mostly provide bonuses to various aspects of your clan (e.g., less wood consumption in winter, extra damage on offense, etc). It would be nice to see more technologies that truly expand your capabilities instead of providing bonuses. But even so, I found decisions around which order to unlock a technology relatively interesting. Much of it depends on deciding when to boost your resource generation versus when to augment your combat capabilities. Timing and forecasting future needs is of paramount importance, as we will see.

Development

At its core, Northgard challenges the player to keep their clan fit, happy, and productive, as there is a distinct survival aspect to the game. Unlike a typical RTS where constructed units have an upfront cost only (and maybe count towards a unit cap), in Northgard your village workers require significant upkeep in terms of food and shelter (and mead!).

The need for addressing upkeep is most acute when dealing with the seasonal cycle. At regular intervals (every 10 min or so), the seasons will progress to winter, changing the landscape to a snowy wonderland. Food production drops off sharply during winter for gathering and agriculture tasks (better hope you have some hunting grounds!). Likewise, your wood consumption will skyrocket as your reserves are burned for heating.

Consequently, planning ahead is critical. If you don’t leave enough food and lumber in your reserves, you’ll risk running out during the winter, leading to starvation or sickness. This challenge is further compounded by random events like blizzards (requiring even more firewood!), earthquakes (requiring costly building repairs), or rat invasions (decimating food reserves). While you get some advanced warning about upcoming disasters, their impending arrival often requires you to adjust your long-term plans on the fly. It’s a great dynamic.

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Winter has, most definitely, come.

Beyond food and wood, other essential resources include gold (used for converting villagers to military units), stone (used for upgrading buildings), and iron (used for advanced units and tool crafting). All of these resources have different buildings associated with them, which in turn requires more land (i.e. tiles) in order to construct. Speaking of land, one of the design wrinkles is that each tile can only support a certain number of buildings (two, three, or four typically). So to get more building space you have to expand.

Expansion in Northgard works by first scouting adjacent tiles, then using military units (warriors, axe throwers, shield maidens, and so forth) to clear the tile of any hostile threats if necessary. Once cleared, you must pay an escalating food cost to claim the tile. An essential aspect of internal clan management is planning for what resources you need, and dovetailing that with your expansion plans so you have enough space to support the necessary buildings. This is all finely balanced, and a critical misstep can quickly snowball into an economic catastrophe if you aren’t paying attention.

There are a few other interesting aspects to clan management as well. Happiness increasingly becomes an important factor. A growing clan will demand higher quality housing, mead halls, and other fineries that place further demands on your resources. But failure to get ahead of happiness will cause a drop in productivity, which will make it even harder to dig yourself out of the proverbial hole. Fortunately, there are also marketplace buildings that allow you to trade off excess goods and purchase those you might need – which can be a lifesaver when you’re in a pinch. And if all else fails, provided you have enough food reserves, you can declare a feast, greatly boosting happiness and productivity for a limited period of time. Timing feasts effectively is a skill unto itself.

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Just a little friendly visit to my neighbors. Dropping by for a little pillaging, as it were.

Domination

This couldn’t be an RTS game about Vikings without a little head-smashing, raiding, and battling mythical beasts. While Northgard delivers on this expectation, it nevertheless takes a streamlined approach to combat compared to other RTS games. There are only half a dozen different units in the game. Warriors, axe throwers, and shieldmaidens are the core units – and each faction also has a special leader unit at their disposal.

In terms of combat tactics and required micromanagement, Northgard, in comparison to say WarCraft, is practically hands-off. The amount of twitch play (i.e., reflexes) necessary is about the least I’ve ever seen in a proper RTS game. Battle tactics are limited to the most basic actions: making sure all your warriors are focusing on the same target, and select the warriors close to death to pull them off the front line. That’s about it.

When it comes to the strategic level, combat is a little more interesting and where the primary decisions lie. With the tile system, your military forces don’t have free reign to move wherever they please, and are limited to only attacking areas adjacent to your controlled lands. If the attacked tile hasn’t been claimed by another clan previously, you’ll need to pay the food cost to expand into it, enabling you to attack targets father away. If the tile is owned by a rival clan, your warriors will slowly convert ownership of it, along with whatever buildings are in the tile.

Linking strategic combat to the tile and expansion system effectively eliminates rush tactics and early harassment from the game – which could be a good or bad thing depending on your playstyle. But overall it works well in Northgard, letting each player get a good foothold established. There are neutral monsters that will control tiles and will even launch small raids against you – so you do still need to be thinking about building up your military forces early in the game. You just don’t need to worry about other players attacking you right away. Late in the game, when the map is fully explored and built out, the clan’s territories will all be in close proximity, and the need to defend yourself on multiple fronts becomes a more critical decision.

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Look at that wonderful victory progress!

Victory

Were I to pick one thing that most differentiates Northgard from a traditional RTS, it would be its handling of victory conditions. Specifically, there are multiple conditions and not all of them are tied to military actions.

There is a renown victory based on achieving a high level of fame for your leader (fame earned by winning battles and other feats). Another victory condition is tied to technology and another to economy (based on trade income). Most unique, is that each map will also contain a special, legendary victory objective. For example, one objective requires you to find and secure a mythical forge to reconstruct the Sword of Odin.

The variety of victory conditions ties in exceptionally well with the nature of Northgard as a combination of clan management and traditional RTS-style gameplay. It creates multiple lines of pressure over the course of the game, creating interesting inflection points in your strategy where you may need to readjust your master plan in order to stay ahead of, or undercut, your rivals as they approach victory.

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A veritable Viking metropolis.

Experience

Northgard is one of the finest and mostly thoughtfully designed and executed games I’ve played in a while. The mechanics combine in a way that is truly unique, yielding something neither like a traditional RTS game nor a pure management game. The randomized landscape and varied victory conditions make it feel much like a 4X game – with each clan expanding and competing with one another. Yet compared to a traditional 4X, the entire experience is compressed into a dense and streamlined package.

One of the other highlights worth mentioning is the user interface. While Northgard is inherently non-demanding in terms of twitch or fast reaction speed, the efficiency and effectiveness of the UI reduces this demand even more. For example, the villager info panel (right side of the screen) lets you easily select and cycle through any given type of villager. Click on a landscape tile and a panel will display all the assets (buildings, workers, resources, etc.) located there, allowing you to easily select specific items. Notification icons tell you when people are sick, injured, unhappy, out of a job, etc., and likewise let you easily cycle through the different needs.

Last, the audio and visual design of the game is top-notch. It reminded me almost immediately of a Blizzard game in terms of polish. Units are responsive and utter distinct Viking-grunt confirmation messages when assigned a task. The graphics, while a bit cartoony, nevertheless retain a charming appeal and are vaguely reminiscent of the style seen in Warcraft.

All in all, I feel Northgard offers a bit of everything for the strategy-inclined gamer. It’s RTS-like enough to scratch that itch, while not being too demanding for those wanting a more relaxed pace. On easy or normal difficulty, the game can be quite tame as you build up your clan and start rubbing elbows with the rival clans. On hard difficulty, the game can be downright challenging, taxing your strategic planning capabilities in a most delightful way.

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The hearty Viking crew returning home from a season of raiding.

TL;DR: The viking-themed Northgard strikes a curious balance between traditional RTS gameplay, 4X-style mechanics, and management sim. The need for fast reaction speed gives way to deep and nuanced decisions concerning your clan’s need to survive and thrive against rival clans. The aesthetics are charming and coupled with an exceptional UI that makes playing Northgard a sheer joy. Few games come out of early access as polished and refined as Northgard, which shines through in every facet of the game.

You might like this game if:

  • You enjoy slower paced RTS-style games
  • Simple, simulation management and survival-style games appeal to you
  • You’re on the hunt for a lighter weight game that manages to scratch the 4X itch
  • Viking helmets get you excited

You might NOT like this game if:

  • Non-pausable real-time gameplay is a deal-killer (even if it’s slow paced)
  • You want a deep tactical combat layer in your RTS-like games
  • You expect the playable factions to be highly differentiated from each other
  • You don’t like Vikings (Seriously? What’s wrong with you?)

Game Information: Oliver Kiley has played 25+ hours of Northgard on a Microsoft Surface Pro 2, with Windows 10 and Clevo Notebook ( i7-6700HQ Skylake CPU, 16GB DDR4, GeForce GTX 980m). Oliver purchased Northgard of his own volition.

6 replies »

  1. Excellent write up, entertaining as well as informative, thanks! I’ve been considering this title for a while, sounds like it’s time to give it a try. And heck, of course I love Vikings, doesn’t everyone?!

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    • It a great game. I’ve heard good stuff about the campaign so I might even try that. Anyway, one of my favorite games from the last year or so without question.

      Like

  2. I’m in the campaign and it is not very good. It suffers heavily from one true path design, by which I mean you will almost inevitably mess up a scenario until you figure out what the designers want you to do.

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      • That sweet sweet confirmation bias! <3

        I enjoyed the campaign on Normal. Hard is ridiculously hard, possibly to the point of being boring, though. I tried hard for the first several missions and then realized I would have to do some trial and error to figure out a strategy optimal enough to survive.

        In my opinion, the designers don't "want you to do" anything other than survive the conditions they set up for you. Even the missions that I found too difficult on hard (for how much effort I wanted to put in) had multiple ways to achieve victory. On normal, however, I think I only failed a mission once or twice. I guess I can see newer players struggling through the campaign. Many RTS campaigns introduce units and concepts slowly to allow players to get used to the mechanics of the game, so they're easier than jumping into skirmish with the full menu of options. In Northgard, I would say the campaign is harder than skirmish, and that might throw some people off.

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