Cattle die, kinsman die; the self must also die: Raiders of the North Sea review

I recently picked up Raiders of the North Sea and it’s just a great game from a game design perspective, and that’s the view we’ll be taking of more games as we continue to review them.  There’s a lot to like about the game, especially a simple, beautiful rule set:  Place a worker, take an action.  Then pick up a worker, take an action.

Obviously there are some wrinkles on top of that, the most important being the crew.  You assemble a crew of up to 5 Viking characters, each with special abilities that give the player an immediate advantage, a long term advantage, or sometimes points at the end of the game.

Raiders of the North Sea was published in 2015 and designed by Shem Phillips.  There are 15 different publishers listed but Garphill Games appears to be the main one.

Overall Feeling

It combines the feelings of worker placement and resource gathering with that of Viking raids where you take plunder and sacrifice lives for the greater good. It’s mostly a resource gathering race between you and your opponents, but the game’s interesting characters give you ways to advance unexpectedly in the race.

It’s more worker placement, and a tight game engine, than it is a Viking game, in my opinion. You think of Vikings going on raids, looking for plunder and glory and it’s a total risk. In the game A Feast for Odin, you roll a dice, and that seems about right. In ROTNS, you know ahead of time what your plunder will be, and that’s not very Viking-raid like. You’re really just trading resources for crew, which are a special sort of resource, and then using the crew resources to get plunder type of resources in the raids, then using those for your victory points. It’s a great worker placement game and a tight game, but it’s not the most Viking-feeling game.

Do you do something in this game?
You do Viking things. There’s farming, crafting, paying tribute to your chieftain, but most importantly, building your raiding crew and going on raids. So yeah, there’s plenty of fun to be had by all players involved, from first place to last place.

What does this game do that others don’t?
To be completely honest, not a whole lot. It just combines a bunch of really good things, like a well-balanced worker placement with a Viking theme.

Was there anything I didn’t like about this game?
There aspects of the Viking theme that I think this game doesn’t really address. Part of Viking lore is that they ventured out, explored, and found new lands. The explore part designates some uncertainty, some adventure. This game doesn’t offer any of that. The raids you do are really just pools of resources that you need to meet requirements for. There’s no exploration, there’s no taking risks and uncertainty, only certain transactions of resources. At the end, it’s just a resource race, a really well done, worker placement resource race, but not much else. So, I think there is room to do more within a Viking game in terms of uncertainty in raids, combat, and exploration. Those things might not belong in this particular game but they do belong in a Viking game somewhere, and I’ll want to play that game.

How were the theme and components?
There’s nothing special or fancy about the components but they’re very well done, especially the use of wood chits for most resources. The game board is solid. The cards are what you’d expect.

The Viking art has a bit of a cartoony vibe but it’s very good art and it works well enough to immerse you in the theme. If you’re looking for a gritty Viking feel, though, look elsewhere.

Anything interesting about the mechanics and game play?
Just in terms of pure worker placement games, the place a worker, take an action, remove a worker, take an action mechanic is really elegant and should satisfy hardcore gamers. The different types of workers and advantages granted by crew members give you enough wrinkles to keep that mechanic interesting, and most everything is well balanced. The most fun thing is going on the Viking raids by getting your crew together and plundering. These are the big payoffs to a game that is otherwise concentrated on the mechanics of worker placement and resource gathering, and executing those mechanics very well.

How is the Replay Ability?
There’s plenty of depth to Raiders of the North Sea and multiple paths to victory. It’s a really good worker placement game by any measure and if that’s your thing, you can play it again and again. I think it beats, say, Stone Age. I think if you’re really looking for a Viking-feeling game, though, you’ve got plenty of other options like A Feast for Odin, a deeper strategy game, or Champions of Midgard, or Viking Jarl. S ince I’m still seeking other aspects of the Viking feeling, I might have to explore those titles rather than play ROTNS again and again.

Any other game design notes?
I think this is more a really great worker placement game that needed a theme. They’ve gone with Viking raids as the “big thing” you pool your resources together for, and it’s loads of fun. I’m not sure another theme would be as engaging.

Publication Notes
The expansions page on BGG shows a plethora of promo cards and what appears to be several expansions, all mainly concentrated on providing more crew, but the Fields of Fame expansion looks like it might add even more wrinkles to the game.

The most interesting thing, though, is that Shem Phillips and Garphill Games have a bunch of well regarded worker placement games in a similar vein, including Architects of the West Kingdom, Paladins of the West Kingdom and Explorers of the North Sea. So you could just stick with these guys for a while and explore a bunch of great worker placement games and great middle ages themes.

Is this a good game for COVID-19-related stays at home?
Sure, why not? You can play it online.

Do you need to add this game to your collection?
If you love worker placement or you love the Viking theme, then yes, go ahead and add it. You will get into this company’s line of really good worker placement games. If you don’t love one of those things or already have enough games that check those boxes, well then no, there’s nothing can’t-miss about it, it’s just really good, really fun game.

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