Northgard Review (PC)
Picture the moment. Your big group of tough axe men have fought their way through a pack of wolves to reach their opponent. They mess them up real bad and bloody their noses…but then snow starts to fall. The weather starts to turn colder and colder and your big burly axe men decide it’s time to head home. Winter has caught them unawares. If only they had researched the tech for warm coats before they left, just like mum told them to. But they didn’t and because of this they’re weaker. The snow slows them down, they can’t hit as hard and those wolves they killed earlier? Their family are pissed. Passing back that way to get home is going to be tough, if not suicidal. There’s no hope for backup either. It’s all hands on deck back at the colony. There’s barely enough food in storage to last out the winter and, like the british railway system, everything has ground to a halt thanks to the snow. So your axe men hunker down where they are, hoping the wolves don’t get to them or that the other clan you just took a pot shot at don’t have warm coats to brave the cold and follow you…
Northgard is great. So what makes Northgard great you ask? It is great because it’s an RTS that isn’t about domination, it’s about survival. You’re not really trying to destroy your opponents, you’re just trying to survive better than them. This is a feeling accomplished by constant limitations being inflicted on you. The map is split up into different regions and you can only build in regions that you’ve colonised (using food). Even then, each region can only usually have 2 or 3 buildings in it unless you develop it further (using money). So you found a region with a forest in it? Great, you colonise it (now you’re down between 80-320 food) and build a woodcutter’s hut there. You send two villagers to build and then staff the hut (as these sheds are limited to a max of 2 workers until upgraded). But that means you have two less villagers doing everything else. By default if they don’t have a job villagers will gather food. So let’s assume these were jobless villagers, now you’re in a food deficit! Your food reserves are being reduced until eventually they hit 0 and people start starving.
The solution to this? More people, right? So you build a new house so more people can come colonise. You build a pub (which also needs people to staff it) to keep everyone happy to encourage more people to come colonise and all of a sudden you need to expand again because you’re out of places to build. But also you’re still losing food until more villagers come or not cutting wood because you pulled those woodcutters back to gather food so nobody would starve… Then Winter hits and you have no firewood so people start freezing to death and you have no healers to fix them up.
Meanwhile those smug motherfuckers over in the Wolf Clan are having a goddamn feast just to rub your nose in it. Those bastards. But that’s the story of Northgard, you survived Winter, good job. Don’t worry about the Wolf Clan having their goddamn feast because you can catch up, you can rebuild. They’ll hit snags soon enough, it’s impossible to invest in everything there’s too many limitations put on you. You need to pick and choose your battles and very rarely are those literal battles. They’re means of survival. Then you come out the end with your village of frozen, starving vikings and you start expanding more. You learn your lessons. You stockpile wood for next winter, or find Sheep to keep your village warm. And maybe next winter you’ll be the one with enough food to waste on a feast.
The only real direct conflict between players comes from a bit of border friction between factions. Suppose your neighbour has the stone deposit you were eyeing up. Or you have a nice fishing spot that gives you the food advantage over winter. These fights usually result in border skirmishes though, because of a smart system where your units can only move through unoccupied regions. That doesn’t just mean by your opponents. There are other neutral factions that could be inhabiting a space (usually wolves or draugrs). To pass through that region you’ll need to wipe them out. That means you can send an army across the map to attack an opponent. But by the time they get there, odds are they’ll have had to fight through a horde of wolves, a bunch of draugr and maybe the odd valkyrie or two. Your raiding party is a lot less scary when they show up at a heavily defended border with only a sliver of health left. And worst of all for your poor soldiers, if a region has a Wolf Den or a Draugr Crypt on it then they will respawn enemies over time. So sure, maybe you manage to find a less protected border to cross over, you kill some villagers and trash the place a bit. Maybe your opponent lost that region as a result and now needs to waste a bunch of food to colonise it again. Does that actually benefit you? Does that outweigh the cost of the units you lost getting there, fighting an opponent and then getting back again? Or instead of making those villagers into soldiers at all, would they have been more useful as farmers, helping stock up for the next winter? More often than not I found the latter to be true. War was a last resort. Soldiers were for dealing with neutral threats and border disputes. Not for fighting large-scale battles. And come winter? Those people hung up their axes and went back to farming because you never know, maybe there’ll be a blizzard this year and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
Instead, the main conflict between players isn’t war based. It’s economic. There’s a variety of win conditions, based around a variety of resources. Get the most Fame by gathering it in raids, capturing more regions or by hiring Skalds to sing at your pubs about how great the heroes of your nation are (only one faction can do this, but it’s one of my favourite faction abilities). Or get a knowledge victory by learning everything on the tech tree (using a resource called Wisdom, gotten by sending people to look at some rocks). Or better yet there are a variety of map-based victory conditions which I love because they encourage players to explore the map more and expand their colonies out, while trying to defend and hold all that land. These are generally all some variation of “take over X position on the map and do Y thing” but Y thing can vary in a couple of ways. Maybe you’ll take over the Magma pits and use them to reforge Odin’s sword (which costs a buttload of Iron, probably the rarest resource in the Northgard). Or take over the gate of Helheim and have to defend it against not only your opponents but also an onslaught of the toughest AI enemies in Northgard. These victory conditions are fun and varied. But it can feel a bit disappointing to be playing a game for an hour or so, then suddenly lose because the goddamn Wolf Clan had another goddamn feast and of course that gave them enough fame to win the game. Those bastards.
There’s a lot of plates to spin in a game of Northgard. Thankfully there’s a pretty lengthy single player campaign which does a great job of making missions tailored to a variety of different aspects of the game. Or revolving around specific clans and their unique abilities. It doesn’t feel like a tutorial though. The campaign is great fun in its own right, with a simple story and some memorable characters that are fine but nothing special. It’s also hard to care about the story because the campaign missions default to the Hard difficulty. And when they say Hard they are not kidding around. The difficulty ramp up here is steep and I ended up dropping down to Easy for the last third of the campaign. But that could largely be because I suck. There’s also Skirmish and Multiplayer modes if that’s more your speed. I’ve been sinking a bunch of time into the Skirmish mode too to get a better feel for the nuances between each of the different factions.
It’s also worth noting that Northgard is one of the most polished games I’ve seen escape from the depths of Steam’s Early Access program. It’s graphically impressive with a simple cartoony art style akin to something like Warcraft 3 or the Settlers series. This works exquisitely well in keeping you aware of what’s going on at any given time. The UI is also similarly simple and clean, making it easy to read and figure out what you’re doing. Pathfinding, one of the major hurdles that so many strategy games stumble upon is solid across the board. Hell, you can even set scouts to autoexplore the map without any input from you and it just works so that’s pretty great.
I could rant about Northgard pretty much all day and maybe someday I will. But suffice to say it’s a pretty outstanding RTS with some smart and unique ideas. Even if I maybe have some misgivings about the difficulty in the Campaign, or how victories can come from nowhere sometimes, I can’t help but recommend it.
8 Apples Stored For Winter Out of 10