What Is Explorers of the North Sea?
It is an age of expansion for the Vikings … and for the North Sea Saga! In Explorers of the North Sea, the third and final game in the trilogy, you and final players will take to sea, searching for new lands to conquer, enemies to vanquish, and livestock to return home. This a game of exploration and exploitation (let’s be honest), for 2-4 players, aged 12 and up, and plays in about 45 minutes.
Explorers of the North Sea Components
The cardboard and pieces of plastic and wood are all very nice, as we have come to expect from a Renegade Game, and the insert has a nice little punch out that was designed to hold all the tiles. Reliability certainly is nice! In the box, you’ll find:
- 2 Double-sided starting boards
- 48 tiles
- 26 Livestock meeples in six types
- 14 Settlement tokens
- 12 Enemy ships
- 1 Winter token
- 4 Longships (1 each in 4 colors)
- 28 Vikings (7 each in 4 colors)
- 20 Outposts (5 each in 4 colors)
- 11 Captain cards
- 1 Score pad
- 1 Rulebook
The starting boards are two-sided and present different challenges for later in the game, mainly how to build out the archipelago and ease of navigating out as you explore. There are 48 tiles, each with an expanse of water and a spit of land. The land portion can be matched with existing land in the game area to create islands. Every tile has one illustration indicating what token should be placed on the tile. Some tiles have settlements, which get a hefty wooden settlement token, the look of which will be familiar to Raiders of the North Sea (read our review) players — a red banner with a point value. A longship gets an Enemy Ship cardboard chit and, most commonly, illustrations of animals get livestock tokens. There are six tiles with pigs, five with chickens, 5 with goats, 4 with sheep, 3 with cattle, and 3 with horses.
The livestock tokens are all wood and shaped and colored like the animals they are to represent. A minor complaint in that the goat, as seen in the rulebook is meant to be grey but in reality is very dark, making it difficult to differentiate from the cow and the horse in low light situations or when playing with someone who is color blind. This can be remedied by sorting the animals into species specific piles prior to playing.
The Vikings and outposts are both done in wood and the Vikings, at least, will be familiar to those who played other games in the series. The outposts are chunky houses, not quite longhouses, but with a bit of design to give them a Viking feel. The longships are molded from plastic and very nice. Each has an inset where players will be able to place Vikings and livestock.
The captain cards are done on a heavy cover stock paper and provide reminders about actions players can take on their turns, how to score at the end of games, and also have a unique scoring ability for each of the eleven different captains. Finally, there is a score pad for tallying at the end of the game.
How to Play Explorers of the North Sea
Setup is straightforward and simple. Choose a starting board and place it on the playing area, preferably to a side because it is the base from where all exploring will laterally occur. For your first game, a particular board is suggested; after that, it’s your choice. Shuffle all the tiles and give each player three, face down. Each player also gets Vikings, outposts, and a longship in a chosen color. Players should place two Vikings in their ships and place them, along with their other five Vikings, at the village on the starting board.
Enemy ship tokens and settlement tokens should be placed face down behind the starting board, along with the sorted livestock tokens. Each player is given two captain cards and then they select one, returning the other to the box. Give a player the winter token and then play is ready to begin.
On each turn, a player must place a tile and then take up to four actions before drawing another tile. When placing a tile, it must match up to existing tile(s) on the board and can never be added to the mainland on the starting board.
Each time a tile is placed, it must be examined for illustrations, which dictate the proper token to be placed on the tile. Settlements get a red-bannered settlement token and, when drawn, the token is flipped to show a number, which is then placed on the tiles. Enemy ships on a tile get an enemy ship token. However, this one remains face down, so you can only see a ship on the token. Livestock illustrations receive the appropriate livestock tokens.
On each player’s turn they may take up to four of the following actions. They can take each more than once.
- Load Longship — A player’s longship may carry up to three Vikings and/or livestock, but there has to be at least one Viking on board. Cows make lousy captains and a Viking is needed to sail. The ship has to be on the same piece of land as the Viking/livestock and in order for livestock to be loaded. a Viking has to move from land to ship with them. In addition to making lousy captains, livestock is reticent to board a floating craft on their own. The load action applies to as many Vikings/livestock the player wishes to fit that turn. (They needn’t use the load action for each token.)
- Unload Longship — Like the previous action, but reversed! Any number of Vikings or livestock will leave the ship but livestock need a Viking escort to disembark. When unloading livestock on the mainland, the livestock is moved immediately to that player’s captain card for end of game scoring.
- Move Longship — A big part of exploring is moving and, as it turns out, movement is one of your actions. On a turn, a player may move their longship from tile to tile and island to island. Yours is no ghost ship, so you’ll need at least one Viking on board to sail and there’s no limit to the number of ships that can be on a single tile. It should go without saying that longships can’t cross land, but who can forget Björn Stuckinmud? The lessons we learned from him! As you sail on, you may spy an enemy ship on a tile. These tiles require a player to have two Vikings on board before sailing into these dangerous waters. When entering a tile with an enemy ship, flip the enemy ship tile and learn your fate. There are two outcomes — a yellow banner means you have won the battle with no loss, a yellow banner and an “X” on a Viking icon means one of your crew has moved on to feast in Valhalla. Move him to your captain card for end of game scoring. In both cases, the enemy ship token is also moved to your captain card.
- Move Vikings — More exploring! But this time, it’s on land. As an action, you may move 1 or 2 Vikings one tile, over land. This is how Vikings raid settlements. The red settlement banner will have a number on it (from 2-5), representing the force required to raid the settlement. Once a player has the requisite number of Vikings on the tile, the settlement is immediately raided and the player receives the token, which is placed on their captain card. (No further action needs to be taken.)
- Transport Livestock — As our four-legged friends have trouble getting on and off ships, they also are apt to roam freely on lands. Should a Viking want to befriend an animal across tiles, back to their ship, this is possible. On a turn, a player may move a single livestock from one land tile to another (animals cannot cross water except on ships), as long as the animal has a Viking escort.There is no limit to how many animals can be on a single tile, but until the livestock are onboard a ship, they are fair game. Any player can move them while on land.
- Construct an Outpost — Every good explorer knows that part of exploring is colonization and these Vikings are no different. Outposts help dictate control of islands, which is important in end of game scoring. In order for a Viking to place an outpost, certain conditions must be met. First, outposts are placed at the junction of three tiles. Two of a player’s Vikings must be present on any of the tiles of the island where the outpost will be placed and they must be immediately adjacent to the point of placement. You cannot place another outpost on any tile that already has an outpost on any of its edges. Once an outpost is built, it cannot be moved. Constructing an outpost is such a chore that it costs two action points for that turn.
Once a player has taken four of these actions, they must draw a tile (if available) and their turn passes to the next player. If there are no more tiles to draw, the players play out the tiles in their hands until their hands are empty of tiles. There will be exactly 48 turns, corresponding to the number of tiles.
There is a lot to keep track of, but thankfully there is a handy-dandy score pad to keep all the numbers in order. From top to bottom on the pad, the first item to consider is livestock. Players get a graduated number of livestock, depending on variety. That is, if you brought home a horse, cow, sheep, and pig, you get 1+2+3+4=10 points. If, in addition, you brought home a second horse, it is only worth a single point in a second series of livestock. Only livestock that has been delivered to the mainland (and your captain card) by the end of game count. The same graduated scoring counts toward outposts. The first outpost built will earn you 2 VP and each additional is worth one more point. So if you place all your outposts, you can earn 20 points (2+3+4+5+6).
Tokens from defeated enemy ships are worth one each and raided settlements are worth the number of points on the banners. The Vikings who have died in battle are equal to their number, squared. So, three dead Vikings are worth nine points. Completed islands, those completely surrounded by water are judged to see who has control of them. Vikings left on an island are worth one influence each and outposts are worth two each. Whoever controls the island gets a point for each tile that makes up the island. Finally, there are captain cards. Each captain has a unique way of scoring. Read each and tabulate the score according to each player’s card. Total all the values, the highest points wins.
Why You Should Play Explorers of the North Sea
The obvious answer here is that you’re a completist and you can’t stop until you have all of the North Sea games and expansions! But there are other reasons too.
Like the other North Sea games, Explorers of the North Sea is gorgeous. The tiles have quite a few nice little flourishes that are fun to look at while playing and certainly add overall value to the game. There are hints of hills and then bushes, trees and beaches. The livestock all seem to be having fun frolicking on the islands, waiting to be taken away by the Vikings, and there is an occasional gull taking flight over the waves. It’s nice, but not nearly as detailed as Raiders of the North Sea. (But not much is.)
Gameplay is enjoyable, as there are many avenues to pursue in scoring. Our first game, as luck would have it, my son kept drawing settlements and he scored a boatload of points just from raids. Unfortunately, he didn’t score enough and, like many other games, Explorers of the North Sea demands a diverse approach to scoring. You can’t just focus on one method for scoring, you have to spread your exploring around. Plus, it’s just more fun to try out different strategies.
With two players, it ends up being a bit of a solitaire game. Players can sail off their own ways do their own things, making it a bit of a race and a puzzle to score the most points. It makes sense in the theme because all players are from same village, but it misses some of the interaction that makes other games in the series great. Even with four players, the map never feels as crowded as you think it should be. (Speaking of player count, there’s also a solo variant that wasn’t evaluated in our plays.)
I love the way the North Sea Saga sticks to a story and it follows the history or evolution of Vikings in a general way. It feels like a complete trilogy. We liked how Explorers of the North Sea had less fighting among bands and that the map expanded the further we explored. We especially enjoyed that there was always something to do and had some good laughs when others tried desperately to get their tiles to work with certain islands they were occupying.
Explorers of the North Sea is an enjoyable game that rounds out the saga nicely. It utilizes a number of popular mechanics, meaning that most everyone will find something to like in it and, while it has to sit in the shadow of one of the best worker placements in a long time, in Raiders of the North Sea, it is one worth picking up to complete the trilogy and it is enjoyable to play too.
Explorers of the North Sea retails for $50.00 and is available now.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.