Like any card carrying geek, I have an instinctual attraction to Vikings and Norse mythology. Mead halls and raiding. Longships and battle axes. Godly offerings and plunder. Romanticizing about Viking life and forgetting about all the cruelty and chaos that came with it is easy, making it a great subject for games. And as an avid boardgamer, I’ve long been on the hunt for my “go to” Viking board game. Well, I think I’ve found it.
Raiders of the North Sea, from designer Shem Phillips of his own Garphill Games, first drew my eye because of the incredible artwork. Artist Mihajlo Dimitrievski illustrated his characters to reflect a wonderful range of archetypes, from the powerfully bearded Berzerker to the stalwart Shieldmaiden, and from craftsman to warmongers and everything in between. The game board and other components are gorgeous and dovetail nicely with the overall graphic design. The game has a great table presence, and so out of the stacks of possible Viking titles I was immediately drawn to Raiders.
Ironically, Raiders isn’t the type of game I usually go for from a mechanics standpoint. A major genre of modern hobby games emphasize engine building and internal optimization over player-to-player interactions in a shared space. These are typically worker placement or tableau building style games. When taken to the extreme, such games are branded as “multiplayer solitaire”, where we might all be playing the same game but are really doing our own thing in near isolation. Not my cup of tea.
Raiders is a mashup of worker placement and hand and resource management, with a light dose of tableau building. All things I frequently avoid. And yet the way in which it handles these elements keeps the complexity relatively low, the turns quick, and the action focused on the shared board space, specifically the competition over the juiciest raiding locations.
The gist of the gameplay is that on your turn, you do one of two things. Option one: stay in the village and build up your resources. This is where a clever twist on the usual worker placement game kicks in. Each player only has a single worker, and when they stay in the village, you choose an open building to work, take that building’s action, and then pick up a worker in different building and perform that building’s action. It’s very quick and fluid. Building actions range from earning silver to hiring crew, gathering provisions, and improving your armor. More advanced spaces allow you to make godly offerings with plundered goods and in the process collect tiles worth points at the end of the game.
All of the village activities are oriented around building up your crew and getting the necessary supplies to go raiding, which is the second option for your turn. The majority of the board is devoted to an array of different raiding locations – coast lines, monasteries, fortresses, etc.. Each location provides plunder (gold, iron, or cattle) that is randomly seeded at the start of the game. The arrangement of raiding location gets progressively stronger, requiring an investment in more provisions and crew but with the benefit of earning “potentially” more points.
I say potentially because the game features a compelling “press your luck” element. The points you earn from raiding are dependent on how much strength you bring. Strength is determined by the strength of your Viking crew, your armor level, any bonuses on your crew cards, and the roll of the dice. Raiders is a great case where you can mitigate the die roll by exhaustively building up and preparing prior to a raid – but that runs of the risk of a juicy raiding spot being cleared out by an opponent first! Of course, you can raid with less preparations, but then there is a risk you won’t roll the higher numbers you’ll need and thus earn fewer points.
This, in a nutshell, is the game: build up supplies and an effective crew in the village, go raiding (and earn points), and collect plunder to make offerings to the gods (also earning points). While there is a little bit of player interaction in village through the worker placement system, it is relatively minor. The majority of the interaction relates to timing your raids around your opponent, trying to deduce when they might pull the trigger and what location they are going after. There are a number of character card abilities that also add some direct interaction. One of my favorites is the Avenger, who, if killed in a raid, allows you to kill off an opponent’s crew member too.
Speaking of risky raids, Raiders does a splendid job weaving thematic elements into the gameplay. For instance, in addition to the plunder earned from raids, Valkyrie spirits also inhabit raiding locations. For each Valkyrie present, one of your raiders will die in glorious battle (ascending to Valhalla of course). However this isn’t all bad, as you earn an increasing amount of points for each crew you lose to the Valkyries. Indeed, you can even build entire strategies around sacrificing crew. The Berzerker character’s ability, for example, lets them return to your hand instead of being discarded when killed in a raid. If you couple this ability with characters that make it easier or cheaper to recruit new crew, you can get a sweet combo going and rack up tons of points from Valkyries..
While Raiders presents fairly straightforward gameplay – and I admit it isn’t the deepest game around by any means- it nevertheless offers lots of variability from game to game. The different disbritutions of plunder in raid locations coupled with the staggering number of different character cards and potential combinations of abilities create room for many different strategies to emerge.
Hall of Heroes adds a new section to the village with a Mead Hall, providing another way to add character cards into your hand while earning mead – which you can use as a one-shot boost to your raiding strength. Heroes also adds a very light questing system where you discard cards from your hand (different from the hired crew in your longship) to collect sets of quest tiles. The questing system creates an entire additional economy and means of scoring points that works in tandem with raiding in the base game.
Fields of Fame adds a system for hostile, competing Jarls (Viking lords) from other clans that you can stumble across during raids. When encountered, you’ll have to decide whether to fight the Jarl and earn fame (another victory point path), subdue the Jarl and add them into your crew, or even just run away! Halls also adds a system for tracking wounds on your Vikings, which in turn reinforces the Valkyrie system, as wounded Vikings make great candidates for a glorious death in battle!
Overall, Raiders is a game that continues to deliver despite it being the type of game I don’t usually go for. The fact that the action stays focused on a shared board (village and raiding locations) helps tremendously. The individual player turns are also so quick that it is easy to stay engaged and maintain a close watch on your opponents. And downtime between turns is minimal because the types of optimization decisions you need to make are really quite simple and easy to parse. All of this makes the game feel interactive and dynamic, which of course fits the theme spectacularly.
TL;DR: Raiders of the North Sea is an excellent euro-style board game combining worker placement and hand-management but structured around a relatively more interactive system that keeps the action focused on shared board spaces. A dose of press your luck combines with a flurry of thematic touches and absolutely stunning artwork and components makes for a resounding winner of a game.
You might like this game if:
- You’re looking for a solid Viking themed board game
- You enjoy worker placement and resource management games but still want player to player interaction
- You’re looking for a game that’s easy to learn and teach with little downtime
You might NOT like this game if:
- You want more complexity than what Raiders provides
- You have a low tolerance for any amount of luck or direct interaction
- You want a more focused scoring and victory system (Raiders is a little point salad-y)
Oliver has purchased Raiders of the North Sea and expansions. Oliver has played the game approximately 15 times along with its expansions