Not so long ago there were two schools of design within board games. On one hand, the uninteresting theme, no luck, all strategy games that came primarily from Germany – called Euro games or Euros. On the other hand, we had American style games where it was all randomness all the time, extremely high player interaction and jam packed with style. These games were lovingly referred to as Ameritrash. While these terms aren’t used so much today, as these styles have bled together over the years, this board game I’m reviewing demonstrates the differences each style brings while attempting to find a middle ground.
Name: Raiders of the North Sea
Publisher: Renegade Games and Garphill Games
Designer: Shem Phillips
Artists: Mihajlo Dimitrievski
Raiders of the North Sea allows players to live a week in the life of the Vikings of old. On Monday: you’ll work at the Mill getting food or gold. Tuesday: The Silversmith gives a silver for any help he receives. Wednesday: time to meet the townsfolk at The Gate House, make friends and they’ll join or aid your crew later. Thursday: make an offering to the chieftain at the Long House who’ll honour you with glory and victory points. It’s a good time to note this board game is not historically accurate. Friday: it’s one silver beer night at the Barracks making it a great place to pick up new crewmates and a hangover. Saturday: spoil yourself. Take the crew out raiding and pillage a nearby settlement. Sunday: pour some mead out for those who journeyed to Valhalla – the Viking equivalent of the big farm upstate, and then loot a now defenceless village. Monday: it’s time to do it all over again.
Raiders of the North Sea is a worker placement game that takes on one of the biggest challenges of the genre: having too much choice. When you have a choice of one of seven or eight actions per turn, players tend to spend long periods of time using their Time Stones, to look for the one future where they win. Raiders of the North Sea breaks this by segmenting a player’s turn into two or three parts and by reducing the active actions available to a player at any one time.
The player begins their turn deciding whether to spend time in the village or to go raiding. Time in the village follows the traditional route of placing a worker down on an action space (not already taken) and performing that action. The twist here is you must then pick another worker up, performing the action of the space. This makes it easy to remember how to play: you always begin and end your turn with one worker in hand. Because you always have a worker, there’s never a clean-up phase between rounds. The game flows from beginning to end. Additionally, whenever you place a worker you’re closing spaces for other players, likewise when you pick up a worker you’re opening it up for someone else. This elevates worker placement from being a vicious spot stealing exercise, to something more tactical.
Within these tactical decisions you’ll need to add the meeple’s colour into the equation, as some of the actions work better or worse depending on that colour – and in 2018 I don’t feel comfortable making a joke about that! This also applies to raiding, as some settlements are only allowed to be raided by specific coloured meeples. Settlements also reward coloured meeples, so throughout the game you’ll find different meeples entering and exiting the village, changing the landscape of the available actions.
Speaking of raiding, each vulnerable settlement has randomly placed supplies to be pillaged, and workers to be meeplenapped – if you’re willing to fork over the costs. Raiding introduces Valkyries who take one of your crew members to Valhalla when picked up. Fortunately, they replace the crew member with victory points, which is great, but you also lose all the strength and abilities that the crew member offered. This creates an interesting recruit and sacrifice tug of war between having enough members to raid and letting them die for the greater good i.e. victory in a board game.
Raiding also introduces another mechanic, this time from the dark side of Ameritrash, and that’s rolling for points. Most settlements require a certain strength of crew to gain points for the raid, and the stronger your crew the more points yielded. The settlements with the highest requirements allow players to roll one or two die on their assault, adding from four to ten strength to their crew. Depending on the settlement, and if you’ve loaded the dice, these rolls grant two to three points per raid. Over the course of the game these can add up significantly, or if you’re unlucky; no points at all.
This die rolling falls in a hole where it doesn’t fit within the dichotomy of the American or European game style. It’s an Ameritrash mechanic but doesn’t come with the usual flair or thematic overtones that other games with this mechanic bring. As such it detracts greatly from an otherwise strategic and well-balanced board game, without bringing anything new to the table. There’s already enough mitigatable randomness built into the game through crew cards, and board setup. The only thing this die rolling does is break the flow of the game and create more bookwork in trying to figure out your actual crew strength. This wouldn’t be such a thorn in my heel if the games I played weren’t always so close, as it left me thinking: did I lose because of a die roll?
While building up your crew and raiding is at the core of Raiders of the North Sea, all the long-term strategies revolve around what you do afterwards. Is it better to appease the chieftain by letting him rummage through your spoils of war, or to reinvest that cattle into the next offensive? Then the question becomes is it better to raid a settlement filled with silver for later game strength, or filled with Valkyries for short term victory points? As you can see there are different rip currents to victory, but it’s up to you to steer your longboat true.
As a gamer, I prefer logic, strategy and seeing my plans come to fruition, so while there’s only one blemish – the die rolling – it’s a doozy for me. Regardless, Raiders of the North Sea is the most fun I’ve had with a worker placement game. It’s a successful fusion between the Euro game mechanic of worker placement and a lot of what makes American games great; player interaction, card play, and more style than the Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli. The place worker take worker mechanism keeps downtime to a minimum, while the numerous paths to victory, and tactical worker placement, will leave you thinking about your strategy and turns days after you’ve stopped playing.
If you liked the sound of that, Shem Phillips and Garphill Games have recently released a new game called Architects of the West Kingdom. Given how much I really liked this game – despite not loving it – I’m looking forward to giving that one a go. What about you?