Shiro Games’ Northgard, a strategy/exploration/city building mashup, hit Steam Early Access on February 22nd, 2017. Northgard is a significant departure from Shiro Games’ previous Evoland releases and immediately caught my eye with it’s Norse Mythology theme and Settlers-esque presentation. The game is an RTS, but it handles unit creation in a unique way, and it has varied victory conditions similar to 4X games. Instead of firmly sitting on one genre or the other, it straddles the line between both, which took some getting used to when I first fired up the game.
Northgard is very easy on the eyes. The art direction is stylish and attractive, and the game has run butter-smooth for me so far, even as my computer is approaching full-on potato status. The visuals are cartoonish and inviting, and set the tone of the game very well, keeping things light and colorful without feeling childish or silly. The sound design and music are pleasant, although nothing really stands out as particularly memorable aurally but nothing is especially grating or annoying sounding either.
Northgard is a mashup of various pieces, and the game wears its influences on its sleeve, although it does so in a way that ends up feeling fresh and fun rather than stale and derivative. It is played in real-time, but it isn’t really an RTS. It has multiple paths to victory and requires that you expand your area of control like a 4x, but it isn’t really a 4x per se. It has a sprinkling of city building, and you have to assign your Vikings to their various jobs like the Settlers games, but it’s less laid back than that series tends to be. At first, the combination of styles and the speed of play felt a bit too slow, but after playing multiple times I’ve realized that the pacing of the game is deliberate.
You aren’t limited by your ability to bang out actions-per-minute in in Northgard, nor are you given enough time to think through all of your plans, nor sit back and assess threats before you take action. You have to constantly manage your Vikings, and you have to balance expanding your area of control, and building and upgrading buildings versus producing and storing enough goods to keep your people alive and happy through harsh winters, and other semi-random hardships. The game doesn’t move so fast that it will overwhelm you. If you’re being diligent, you should be able to spot and respond to threats as they appear without feeling like the game suddenly sprung something on you that you can’t handle.
Your people and territory will come under attack while you play, but war and fighting are only a small part of the big picture to consider in Northgard. You are automatically given new Vikings at set intervals, and you have to decide how to assign them based on the buildings that you’ve constructed. Regular units will automatically gather a bit of food for you, and they are also your workforce when it comes to constructing new buildings. Once you have those buildings, you assign regular units to them, and they take on the role befitting that building; woodcutters will harvest wood, farmers will farm, and warriors will stand idly around waiting for something to fight.
Because your population is limited to the amount of housing you have, and indirectly limited by how much food and wood you can procure, Vikings need to eat, and they need to keep warm in the winter. After all, it’s difficult and expensive to maintain a large fighting force. Converting a regular unit into a warrior not only costs you the food production that the regular Viking would have given you, but the warrior consumes food without providing anything tangible in return. You also need to keep your workforce happy, and you will see your Vikings’ production plummet if you neglect them. Combat is a fairly hands-off affair as well, although you can assign your warriors to a War Chief and issue the warband orders as a single entity, and you can assign your military units to specific targets, but other than regular warriors and a single War Chief, there is nothing you actively can do with your warriors aside from telling them where to go and who to fight.
You certainly can win the game militarily, but you will need to sacrifice balance somewhere else in order to accomplish it, and you need food to sustain your campaign. As you discover, or attack, new parcels of land you need to be able to Colonize them in order to take control of them. Colonization has a straight food cost that increases with each new territory that you Colonize. Even if you choose to remain peaceful, and don’t attempt a military victory, you will still need to expand your territory because building space is limited in each zone, and certain resources, such as stone, ore, and deer, are only found in certain territories. You can’t sacrifice your military altogether, because many of the zones in the game contain hostile NPC’s that can become aggressive and attack you, and some zones can’t be Colonized until all of the threats that live there are eliminated.
That sense of balance is everywhere in Northgard. You have to balance your resource production (food, wood, money, stone and ore) versus your need to expand and defend yourself, against your total amount of territory, building space, population and the jobs that you assign your Vikings to. Grabbing as much land as quickly as possible can leave you vulnerable and desperate for more food. Building too quickly can leave you without enough wood to continue your expansion, and building up your military too rapidly can leave you with empty pockets, and without enough bodies to fill vital roles elsewhere. You do need to tilt your strategy in one direction or another in order to pursue one of the game’s various victory conditions, but you can’t really ignore any one area of the game without consequence.
There are certain strategies that are going to be most effective for chasing each victory condition, but the presence of the NPC’s, the inclusion of random events, and the fact that the landscape is different in each game keeps you from effectively ‘solving’ the game. You can attempt to follow the same path to victory from game to game, but it’s a winding path that will require you to pay attention and deal with problems. In one game, I kept getting hit with extremely harsh winters that dramatically increased my resource consumption, and made campaigning outside of my territory virtually impossible. In another, rat infestations kept showing up and putting my food stores in danger. In yet another game, portals would spawn at random times and spit out hostile NPC’s in the middle of my territory that would wreak havoc until I killed them.
Chasing the various win conditions make each playthrough feel surprisingly varied, and further increasing the variety of play are the different factions that you can play as. While they are all Vikings, the Fenrir, Eikthynrin and Heidrun clans all have different strengths and weaknesses, and each has a different tech tree. They generally tend to lend themselves to one playstyle over another, Fenrir gives your warriors a boost for example, but they don’t lock you into a certain playstyle, and each clan can achieve any of the victory conditions if you employ the proper strategy.
Northgard just hit Early Access and it already feels polished and has good replay value that will only increase if the multiplayer community thrives. An average game against 3 AI opponents lasts about an hour, which feels about right considering the pace of the game. As it stands now, you start to bump into your neighbors fairly early during each play, so you have to be on your toes from the beginning of each game, and you need to keep an eye on your opponents and try to get a feel for how aggressive they are playing militarily.
It looks as though Shiro Games plan to implement at least two more clans, multiplayer, and a campaign mode over time although some options for choosing the size of the continent that you play on would be a welcome addition, especially for players who like to spend time building up their strength before being forced into conflict with their closest neighbors. Northgard is already worthwhile, and it could easily become a must-play for strategy fans if Shiro Games continues to add to and improve the already solid foundation that they’ve laid so far.
Northgard was previewed on PC via Steam Early Access with a code provided by Shiro Games.