(Edit: 7/26/19 – This is coming to digital! Woo!)
(Edit: This is one of my Top 25 Games Played of all Time, as of February 2019 anyway. Check out the other games as well!)
I’ve always wanted to be a viking.
Not because of the ability to pillage the coastal regions of the North Sea (though that does have its appeal, especially if it lets me shop at Harrods).
No, it’s because of the hats.
I think I would rock one of them.
However, since I will never be a Viking (unless I invent a time machine or get my own History Channel show), I will gladly settle for playing Raiders of the North Sea, the fantastic worker placement game designed by Shem Phillips with art by Mihajlo Dimitrievski (aka: the Mico) and published by both Garphill Games and Renegade Game Studios in 2015.
It plays 2-4 players.
In the game, you are Vikings trying to raise a crew for your raiding ships, then going across the water to raid and pillage various settlements for all of the booty, and perhaps get sent to Valhalla on the way.
They knew what they signed up for.
Let’s see how it plays.
You start with a board, loaded with plunder.
All of the locations north of the water are pillaging spots. There is a mixed assortment of gold, livestock, iron, and….DEATH!
Yes, death can be waiting for your warriors, and that’s not always a bad thing. Because dying is the Viking Way!
The worker placement method of the game involves your viking figure. Everybody starts with one black Viking, and what’s semi-unique (Editor: The way you make up words is breath-taking) about the whole thing is that you will always have one worker. When you place your worker, you will do the action of that space and then you will pick up another worker on the board and also do that action.
When you start raiding, that’s when you will potentially pick up grey and white Vikings.
The bottom part of the board is the Viking village. This is where you will be doing actions in order to build up your ship for raiding. Here, you’ll be collecting money, provisions, recruiting crew, building up your armor, that sort of thing. All that you will need to finance your raiding.
Each player starts with three crew cards, and they can use them in a couple of ways.
You can use the Town Hall action to discard the card in question and take the action on the bottom right (the Barbarian lets you steal one plunder from an opponent, for example). Or, you can go to the Barracks and hire the crew (money cost on the left side of the card, the coins). If they are in your crew, you will get the benefit on the bottom left.
You can have a maximum of five crew placed in front of you, though you can replace one at any time if you wish (though it’s better to have them die in battle). The Gate House will let you draw new crew cards into your hand.
Eventually, you’ll get bored with all of this village life and want to go out on an adventure.
That’s when the northern part of the board comes into play. There are some harbors, monasteries, outposts, and fortresses that are filled with goods that really should belong to you.
Ultimately, you will want to hit the fortresses because while they may not have the most loot, they will get you the most points, but you will have to work your way up to them.
Each location will require a certain amount of provisions and crew, as well as possibly gold to be spent in order to raid that location. Harbors will only get you one point, but you’re assured of that one point.
As can be seen above, Fortresses can get you a lot of points but they take a lot to raid. This particular one requires five crew, three provisions, and two gold. However, if you achieve 22 strength, you’ll get 7 points. If you have 28, you’ll get 9 points, and 36 will get you 12 points.
What is your strength? It’s the strength of all of your crew (the number in red on the top left corner of the card), as well as the amount of Armor you have.
Plus, some locations will have you roll a couple of dice. The dice have values between 2-5 and you will add the total to your strength to get your total.
No matter whether you get any points or not, you will collect all of the plunder there.
In addition to the gold, livestock, and iron that might be there, you might find these little gems.
These are Valkyries, and they are bad. But yet they are good!
Why is that?
The bad part is that for every Valkyrie in the plunder box, you have to kill one of your crew. That means they’ll have to be replaced (or maybe you want that miscreant off your ship anyway).
The good thing is that, for every crew killed, you will move up on the Valkyrie track.
The higher up you go on this, the more glory your warriors have received by dying in battle, and the more points you’ll get at the end of the game.
As one of your Village actions, you can turn in plunder to meet one of the three face-up offerings that will get you approximately double the points that the plunder would have given you at the end of the game by itself.
The game ends when either all but one fortress has been raided, all of the Valkyries are off of the board, or there are no more face-down offerings.
Total up all of your points (you also may get a few points for your Armor level) and whoever has the most is the winner.
I think Raiders of the North Sea is a fantastic game with some interesting decisions to make in how you run your Viking compound.
Let’s talk about components first.
I love the metal money that comes with the game. I bought this at a retail store, so I don’t think this is Kickstarter exclusive. It really adds some heft to the game.
The other pieces are nice wood blocks except for the provisions, which are are cardboard bags.
The artwork by The Mico is really marvelous. The board looks amazing and the card art is very stylized. You will always be able to see when you have Mico art in a game, and it is really cool.
The rulebook is fairly short and well-laid out. There were a couple of minor questions I had that I had trouble referencing from the book, but that was a minor issue for me. For the most part, it’s a pretty good reference and going through the book will allow you to learn the game fairly easily.
How does the game play, though?
I really like the “Place a worker then Take a worker” action sequence. I think it’s fairly intuitive, though sometimes a player I’m teaching the game to will have trouble with it for some reason. It is very simple, though.
There will always be three workers on the board in the village. If you go raiding, you won’t be taking a worker from the village. Instead, that raiding location will have a worker that you take instead (somebody who decided to join you instead of meeting the fate of their co-workers?).
This is how you will be getting grey and white workers in the village. Somebody will earn one from raiding, and then they’re available to pick up by the other players as well.
It’s a really elegant system, and it still leaves room for some agonizing decisions. I can’t count the number of times where I desperately wanted to pick up a worker before placing one, and you can’t do that. I love how the game creates these situations. (Editor: Or maybe you’re just lame and put yourself into these situations?)
The plunder is randomly distributed at the beginning of the game, and not all of it will come out. This will create a little bit of variety in the game, as some locations will be more appealing than others as far as loot goes (they’ll always be worth the same amount, or same range, of points). The distribution of the crew cards will also add a level of unpredictability as well.
That being said, there is a danger that the game play will become a bit routine. Everybody’s going to be going for Armor because it adds strength to your raiding, but thankfully it has a maximum of 6 points if you come close to maxing it out.
But there seems to be two avenues to winning: either do a lot of raiding to get a lot of plunder and turn that plunder into offerings, or do a lot of raiding to kill off crew and get high on the Valkyrie track. And players are going to be doing a little of both those things anyway, so ultimately it will come down to how well you raid.
All of this will require good crew management, especially if you’re trying for Valkyries. Then not only do you need to replenish your provisions, you also have to replenish your crew.
I haven’t hit that point yet, and I’m not sure I will, but it is something to watch out for.
I’ve also heard that it’s something the expansions help with, so we’ll see.
How random is the game? There is of course the randomness of the card draw, as you don’t know what kind of crew you’ll be able to get. However, it’s fairly easy to use what you end up drawing to help yourself in other ways.
Maybe there’s a crew member that you don’t want on your ship at all but has a good Town Hall action. Or you can just go to the Gate House to draw more instead.
There are dice, but you really shouldn’t be relying on those to get you points when raiding. Most of the time, you’re going to have enough strength to get the points you want even before rolling the dice (or at least enough strength for the points you’re willing to settle for). The dice just add something extra.
I wouldn’t consider the game too random at all, but there is some randomness so be aware.
Another small fault, though it’s not a big one, is that the actions aren’t really building to a climax in the game. In some games, you’re building an engine that will continue to generate VP as you hone it. As you hone it, bigger and better actions will become available to you.
In Raiders of the North Sea, you’re not really doing that. You’re building your crew, gathering provisions, raiding. Lather, rinse, repeat. As you move to take on bigger plunder locations, the gathering part will take longer and longer.
In all three games I’ve played so far, the end game got a little tedious. There are two fortresses left, and it’s just a race to see who can get the most provisions (and possibly crew if Valkyries have taken their toll) together in order to take out one of them.
All of that being said, Raiders of the North Sea is a game I will actively try to play again, not just be willing to play. It’s a fun way to be a Viking without all of that, you know, messy stuff like blood and guts.
And all of this in a worker placement setting.
It’s all enough to make me want to go out and sharpen my axe…OF DEATH!
(This review was written after 3 plays)