My settlements in RTS games normally look like a nightmare. Rows of farms and mining camps, the villagers working themselves day and night to feed my researchers and military. The land is left barren and deforested as I crunch through the natural resources like a locust. Northgard doesn’t allow that. Here we live off the land, even if it means possibly starving to death.
Northgard isn’t your typical real-time strategy game. It takes a lot of cues from city management games, making you manage an economy with a limited number of people. Rather than spending 50 food to queue up a new peasant to do all the dirty work, you have to wait for a new villager to join your settlement. You can’t build another town hall to speed this up, but you can make people happy to speed it up a bit, setting a cadence for the game. This is a blessing in disguise because looking after people in the harsh north isn’t that easy. Besides foraging for berries, there are very few places you can find food. Some regions might have deer or fish or fertile land, but slowly those food sources just aren’t enough to keep your people fed and your silos full. Then winter comes.
Brace for winter
In winter your farms don’t provide as much food and your hunters battle. Your people burn more wood to survive and your military fights poorly, making the attacks by roaming draugr and wolves slightly harder to repel and you want to repel enemies or you have to reclaim a piece of land or lose precious workers and suddenly you are shorthanded in the harshest part of the year.
Instead of managing locusts who deplete resources and then move on to new regions, most resources in Northgard are infinite. Build a farm and that farm works forever, but it only provides so much per tick, and that is where the city management part comes in. You will forever be looking for resources in small regions of the map, then colonizing them and building a farm or hunter’s lodge in that region. The twist on this is that regions are like large puzzle pieces of the map and each ‘piece’ can only accommodate so many buildings. These regions require scouts to map out and discover what lies in the murky fog of war. It reminds me of a board game: discovering a new region takes time and you aren’t sure what will be in that area, you then need to colonise areas to be able to farm or build in them and all colonised areas must be adjacent. Oh, and they cost more food each time you claim a region. In the early stages of the game, the first places you claim could decide whether you win or lose the game. They are that important.
A slower pace
Those important decisions run through the entire game and you will be grateful that the game runs at a slower pace so that you can keep track of everything. Focus too much on food and wood and later you might run into an issue because your land is full of buildings and you need coin for an army. Or suddenly you will stop spawning new villagers because your people are unhappy, forcing you to retask people or deal with the things that make them unhappy. Generally, a feast or beer will help raise spirits, but them being sick or wounded or living in hovels will make them unhappy. This constant management and micromanagement of your economy and your villagers is heaven to anyone who enjoys city management and economic sims. This carries through into the multiplayer and skirmishes and well, it turns out that armies aren’t all that great for your economy. Not only do those soldiers not work, they cost money and food and will need a lot of healing later. Having a small, efficient army to fight off draugr or wolves is enough if you want to chase for all the other interesting win conditions that don’t involve smashing the other guy on the head. Many of the maps also have a central tile that will achieve a victory if you can control them for long enough. From farming next to Yggdrasil to controlling a portal to another realm, there are many more interesting ways to win besides an arms race, and I appreciate games that offer these other options.
Important decisions run through the entire game and you will be grateful that the game runs at a slower pace so that you can keep track of everything.
The single-player campaign follows the story of a high king who loses his symbol of office when an invader arrives and kills everyone close to him. You survive, close to death and left for dead and you must help and prove yourself to the various clans before they will follow you on a path of revenge. For most missions, you are given a clan to control, but for some levels, you can pick the clan you want to use. Each clan has different bonuses as you increase in fame and a special building or ability that can help your conquest of the various scenarios and you will want to take full advantage if you want to win. Many of the campaign’s scenarios are very finely balanced, requiring you to play efficiently and cleverly to win against various loss conditions. From becoming the best trader in the land to feeding oppressed giants while fighting off another faction of giants, you have your work cut out for you. Most of the missions felt challenging but fair, with some close losses making me restart with new knowledge and tactics. It felt good to be in this small range between feeling hard done by and just narrowly taking the victory. Except for the very last two missions. Wow, those messed me up several times and whatever the trick is, I don’t feel like I learnt it.
That fine balance can be rather daunting though. If you are after used to playing games at your own pace, Northgard’s campaign will punish your tardiness with various mechanics, from running out of food to ever more powerful waves of angry giants attacking your settlements. The mixture between wanting to relax and make your nation prosper vs some time constraints or not being allowed to build farms in one scenario, as an example, run rather counter and could put players off the core experience of the multiplayer. While the campaign does much to prepare you for it, only two of the stages really felt like they were training grounds for how to excel in multiplayer, meaning you should go get some skirmish maps under your belt. Once you get the knack of how to be most efficient in the early stages of the game and weighing up what needs to be built next, you are well on your way. Until then, prepare to lose in the campaign, especially at later levels where you will curse your villagers and whoever thought those maps were a good idea.
Northgard’s mixture of board game, resource management, people management and real-time strategy is a lot of fun, but the difficulty curve might discourage those looking for a replacement to Vikings or Settlers.