Recruit warriors and scouts, and send them to explore. Protect your territories from rival clans, and be sure you have enough food for the winter!
In “Reaping the Rewards,” I take a look at a finished product from a crowdfunding campaign. Northgard: Uncharted Lands was originally funded on Kickstarter in the fall of 2020, and was delivered to backers in the summer of 2022. This review is adapted from my Kickstarter Tabletop Alert, updated to reflect final components.
What Is Northgard: Uncharted Lands?
Northgard: Uncharted Lands is a 4X deck-building game for 2 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, and takes about 45 to 90 minutes to play. The base game retails for $89.99 and is available in stores and online. The deluxe Warchief Collector Edition was exclusive to the Kickstarter campaign, and included two expansions, which will be available later to purchase separately for those who have the retail edition. The game’s theme includes warfare but the illustrations on the cards generally don’t show any graphic violence; I think the gameplay would be appropriate for experienced kids perhaps 10 and up, though perhaps without some of the added complexity of the other modules.
Northgard: Uncharted Lands was designed by Adrian Dinu, published by Open Sesame Games and Studio H Games, and illustrated by Grosnez. (It is published in the US by Hachette Games.) It’s based on the Northgard videogame from Shiro Games, though you don’t need any experience with the videogame to play the tabletop game.
Northgard: Uncharted Lands Components
I was sent a copy of the deluxe Warchief Collector Edition, which includes two expansions (Warchiefs and Wilderness), as well as some upgrade components. This review will focus on the gameplay from the base game, but I’ll note here where components differ between the regular edition and the deluxe edition.
Here’s what comes in the core game:
- 35 Map tiles (including 1 starting tile)
- 56 Building tokens (7 each in 8 types)
- Turn track
- Year marker
- First Player marker*
- 9 Creature miniatures
- 30 Starting cards (6 per player)
- 5 Player Aid cards
- 21 Clan cards (3 per clan)
- 52 Development cards (16 Early cards and 36 Advanced cards)
- 7 Achievement cards
- 10 Unrest cards
- 9 Creature cards
- 70 Viking miniatures (14 per player)
- 2 Combat dice*
- Kaija Bear token
- Scorched Earth token
- 90 Resource tokens*:
- 1-value: 30 food, 25 wood, 20 lore
- 5-value: 5 food, 5 wood, 5 lore
- 65 Fame tokens:
- 30 1-point
- 15 5-point
- 15 10-point
- 5 50-point
*Some differences between the deluxe edition pictured and the retail edition: the wooden components in the deluxe edition—the first player marker, the resources, and the fame tokens—are cardboard tokens in the retail edition. One thing to note is that the fame tokens are all the same size even though they have different values—it makes them a little more of a hassle to sort, but it’s intentional so that you can flip them face-down to hide the exact number of points you have.
Also, the retail edition has two black combat dice, while the deluxe edition has one die per player color. (You only use two dice at any given time.) In both instances, though, the dice are engraved and painted, with various combinations of skulls and axes on the different faces.
I really love the illustrations on the cards in Northgard. The cards primarily use icons, so there’s a bar across the top with the icons, and sometimes a box at the bottom with some additional explanatory text, but the bulk of most cards is an illustration. The style is a little cartoony and exaggerated, and shows Viking characters engaged in various activities. I particularly like that it includes both men and women at work and in combat. The cards are colorful and eye-catching.
The map tiles are pretty large, about 4″ square. That means they’ll take up a good amount of space on the table as you start building out the map, but considering the number of Vikings you might need to squeeze into a territory, the size is appropriate. Just be sure to leave plenty of room around the center tile for the map to grow. The tiles have a nice jagged edge that gives it a little more personality and also helps to keep them from sliding along a fault line, a common issue with tile-laying games.
The Viking miniatures are pretty small but have some nice details—there are two models, a man and a woman, and each player has 7 of each. The creature miniatures are larger (a little bigger than what I think of as a “standard” miniature size) and loom over the Vikings.
The deluxe edition comes with some fancier plastic trays that make setup a bit faster. The tray pictured above can just be pulled out of the box and it has all of the buildings and resources already organized, along with space for the cards. However, it’s not perfect: the slots for the building tiles are pretty tight, so it can be very difficult to get your fingers in to remove the first building in the stack. There’s a section that holds two decks, one above the other, but the rulebook does not actually instruct you how to use it. There’s also a shallow channel along one edge of the tray, which we assume is used to display the current set of development cards or achievement cards—but, again, this wasn’t explained in the rulebook.
One last thing that’s in the deluxe edition: player tuckboxes! While these aren’t necessary for gameplay, they’re a convenient way to store each player’s starting cards, Vikings, and combat die in the deluxe edition. In the retail edition, you’ll have to make do with plastic baggies.
How to Play Northgard: Uncharted Lands
You can download a copy of the rulebook here.
The goal of the game is to be the first to control 3 closed territories with large buildings or score the most points in 7 rounds.
Place the starting tile (which has a different back) in the center of the play area, with the rest of the tiles shuffled in a face-down stack to the side. (In a 5-player game, you’ll need to find the tile with the “5” icon on the edge and place it as pictured above.) Place all of the building tiles, the resource and fame tokens, and the Unrest cards in a supply. Place the round tracker nearby with the year marker on “1” and set the combat dice nearby.
Build the development deck by including 2 early cards and 4 advanced cards per player: shuffle each type separately, and stack the early cards on top of the advanced cards. Shuffle the achievement cards and place 1 card per player face-up, returning the rest to the box.
Give each player a set of 14 Vikings, 6 starting cards, a reference card, and three Clan cards from their chosen clan. The starting clan card is shuffled with their starting cards, and the two clan upgrade cards are set aside. Choose a starting player and give them the first player marker. Players then receive some food and wood, depending on their player order. Each player draws 3 map tiles.
Each player will add a tile to the map, and place 3 of their warriors in one territory of that tile. This process is then repeated, so that each player has 2 different territories (and nobody is sharing a territory with any other players). The remaining map tiles are shuffled back into the tile deck.
Northgard is a deck-building game, so each player has their own personal deck and discard pile. If you need to draw cards and have none left in your deck, shuffle your discard pile to form a new deck and continue drawing.
The game will take up to 7 rounds (but can end earlier), and each round has the following steps:
Start: Each player draws 4 cards from their own deck. Reveal as many cards as there are players from the development deck. (Note: during the 7th year, there will not be development cards to reveal.)
Actions: This is where the bulk of the game happens. Unlike many deck-building games, you won’t usually play out your whole hand on your turn. Instead, players will take one action at a time, going around the table in turn order, until everyone has passed. There are several possible actions.
- Play a card: Put a card from your hand into your active area to use its effect. You may additionally play any number of flash cards, marked with a lightning bolt, before or after your main card.
- Wait: Put a card into your active area, but do not use its effect.
- Replace a card: Put a card into your active area without using it, pay 1 lore, and draw a card from your deck.
- Remove a card: Pay 2 lore, and remove a card from your hand and return it to the box.
- Upgrade: Put a card into your active area without using it, pay 2 lore, and put one of your clan upgrade cards into your hand.
- Pass: Discard your hand and all cards in your active area, and then choose one of the face-up development cards and place it on top of your deck. (In the 7th year, choose one of the face-up achievement cards instead.) You will no longer take actions for the rest of this round. If you are the first to pass, you also take the first player marker for the next round.
Harvest: Each player collects resources (food, wood, and lore) from the territories they occupy; some territories have resources printed on the tiles, and some buildings also produce resources. Each player also collects fame (points) for closed territories they occupy: 1 point if the territory only spans 2 tiles, and 2 points if it is larger. The Altar of Kings building also produces 3 fame if you control it, whether the territory is closed or not. You may trade resources with the supply at a 3:1 ratio.
Winter: Each player must pay resources for the winter: the more warriors you have, the more food and wood you must pay. If you cannot pay all of the required resources, you pay as much as you can, and then take an Unrest card from the supply and place it on top of your draw pile. Unrest cards will cost you 5 points at the end of the game, and cannot be removed from your deck.
End: Check if anyone controls 3 territories with large buildings, or if year 7 has ended. If so, the game ends. Otherwise, move the year marker and start back at the beginning of the next round.
Most of the cards have some combination of the four actions seen on the starting cards: Recruit, Move, Explore, and Build.
- Recruit: Add a warrior from your supply to a territory you control.
- Move: Move any number of warriors from one territory to an adjacent territory. Moving over rough borders (the yellow lines) requires 2 movement points.
- Explore: Draw a tile from the stack and add it to an open territory that you occupy.
- Build: Spend wood and add a building from the supply to an empty building space in a territory you control.
If you move into a territory occupied by another player, then you stop movement and fight. Each player counts up their combat points: each warrior is worth 1 point, plus an additional point if you feed it 1 food. Some buildings provide defensive combat points, and sometimes the movement card may give you extra combat points (shown as axes). Each player also rolls the combat die once. Axes provide additional combat points, and skulls (which can be found on some cards, buildings, and the dice) are casualties that will remove one opposing warrior from the territory. If one player runs out of warriors, the other player automatically wins the fight. Otherwise, the player with more combat points wins, with defenders winning ties. The loser must retreat to adjacent territories that either belong to them or are unoccupied.
There are several types of buildings available: small buildings cost 1 wood, and large buildings cost 3 wood. Buildings can only be built on the spaces of the matching size; the carved stones may only be built in spaces that also show a carved stone. Some buildings provide resources or points during the Harvest phase. Others help in combat, either by adding combat points or casualties. The training camp allows you to recruit an extra worker when you recruit in that territory. The Forge lets you draw an extra card at the beginning of the round, and the Altar of Kings gives you 3 fame points during the Harvest phase. You can’t build more than one of each building within a single territory.
There are various restrictions on placing tiles when exploring: you can’t combine territories controlled by different players, and you can’t place a tile that would make a border line dead-end in the middle of empty space. If you close a territory that you control, you immediately gain fame—1 point per tile that forms the territory. (If you close somebody else’s territory, nobody earns fame.
Buildings, once placed, are typically permanent. If you take over a territory through combat, you also gain the benefits of any buildings in that territory.
At the end of a round, if any players control at least 3 closed territories with large buildings, then the game ends. The player with the most such territories wins, with ties going to the player with more points.
Otherwise, the game ends at the end of the 7th round.
Players add up their scores:
- Fame points already accumulated during the game.
- Fame on development cards and achievement cards.
- 1 fame for every 3 resources left.
- Lose 5 fame for each Unrest card.
The player with the most points wins. Ties are broken by number of territories, then number of units on the board, then number of buildings on the board.
Each clan has three unique cards that nobody else has access to: one starts in your deck, and the clan upgrade cards can be added using the upgrade action. Each clan also has a unique ongoing ability, listed on the reference card. The cards—combined with your clan power—will give you an edge in a particular area. For instance, the Wolf clan is aggressive and has the ability to move over mountains more easily and build up troops on contested borders. They also gain food by winning fights as the attacker, so expect them to be on the move. The Raven clan has some powerful movement abilities, including one that lets them move to any open spot on the map. The Goat clan is great at building and finding food for winter, so you can hunker down and let the other clans battle it out.
The Creatures expansion was added as a stretch goal during the Kickstarter campaign and is included in the base game. It adds four types of creatures that roam the map, wreaking havoc. Any time a map tile is placed that includes an animal den, you draw a creature card and place it on that terrain. (The creature deck is set up so that the stronger creatures are lower in the deck.)
When you move into a region with a creature, you may choose to fight it, but in some cases you’re not required to. Wolves prevent a territory from producing resources; bears restrict your movement. The Draugr and fallen Valkyries are a bit scarier, because they will actually hunt you down and start eliminating your Vikings.
Between the player actions and the harvest phase, there’s a creature phase: each creature will move (according to the list of priorities on its card), and then trigger its effects. Since their movements are directed by the cards, you may be able to use them to your advantage if you know where they’re going.
You can also play a longer game—10 rounds—by flipping the turn tracker over, and setting up the development deck with more cards. In this instance, the game is required to last 10 rounds, without the instant-win condition in effect.
There is also an option for team play if you have four players; teammates sit opposite each other and their scores will be added together. You can move through a teammate’s territory but cannot end your movement in it, and during harvest you can trade resources with your teammate on a 1:1 basis.
Northgard: Uncharted Lands is a 2022 GeekDad Game of the Year Finalist!
Why You Should Play Northgard: Uncharted Lands
I first saw a prototype of Northgard: Uncharted Lands at Gen Con 2019, when I met with Jim Gaudin from the Crowdfunding Agency, a European company that works with publishers to run their crowdfunding campaigns. He showed me several upcoming projects (including Reigns: The Council), and I was immediately intrigued when he described Northgard as a deck-building game with tile-laying and area control. At the time, I don’t think he described it as a 4X game, but it does indeed include exploration (laying down new tiles), expansion (recruiting more people), extermination (combat), and exploitation (collecting resources and constructing buildings). I’d been waiting eagerly for a chance to play it ever since, and was very excited to try the prototype in the fall of 2020 prior to the Kickstarter campaign.
Alas, when the prototype arrived well in advance of the Kickstarter launch, we were a month into lockdown and I wasn’t hosting game nights. I did manage to use my video chat setup to play once with two very patient friends, using extra wooden bars to highlight territory borders and holding cards up to the camera. It was enough to get a sense of how the game flowed, but definitely not the ideal way to play, especially considering the flow of the game where each player takes one action. Part of the strategy involves deciding when to act and when to wait, and if you know what cards your opponents are holding, then it removes that bit of the unknown from the equation. I also tried it on Tabletopia, which was fun but also not quite the full experience. (The beta module had some glitches with the tile placement that could lead to some frustration when you were just trying to set a component down.)
The actual finished copy arrived on my doorstep this summer, and I was really excited that I’d finally get a chance to experience this game the way it was meant to be played—and I haven’t been disappointed! The game is gorgeous to look at and a lot of fun to play, with opportunities for dramatic battles and last-minute surprises.
I described Northgard as both a deck-building game and a 4X game, but both of those descriptions may bring to mind impressions that don’t quite fit here. Here’s how it stands out from those genres.
It’s definitely deck-building in that each player has a personal deck, starting with basic cards and gradually adding other cards to it. However, the deck-building is a little slower paced, because there are only two ways to add cards to your deck: using the upgrade action to add one of your advanced clan cards, or taking a development card when you’ve passed for the rest of the round. Since the game ends after 7 rounds, you’ll only add at most 8 cards (or 9, with the Warchiefs expansion) to your deck. Lore can be hard to come by, which also limits how quickly you can upgrade to get those clan cards, and how many cards you’ll want to trash from your deck. It gives the deck-building a different feel, knowing that you will only add so many cards, but also that you’ll only get so many actions in the entire game.
The flow of the game is also different: at the time I played the prototype, I hadn’t seen a deck-building game in which players go around taking actions one at a time from their hand of cards. Since then, both Dune: Imperium and Lost Ruins of Arnak have been released, using a similar style of play. It takes a little getting used to, but it results in shorter downtimes between turns. Sure, the total time that you’re waiting for other players to take actions may be the same over the course of the game, but you don’t have to wait as long for your turn. In addition, it also gives players the ability to react more quickly. Somebody just recruited in a neighboring territory? Maybe you can build a fort before they invade. The “wait” and “replace” actions haven’t been used as extensively in my plays, but they can be effective—you sit and burn some cards (or lore), and find out what your opponents are up to before you make your moves. On the flip side, using flash cards to play through all of your actions early gets you first choice of the development cards. Sometimes it’s even worth skipping a few potential actions if there’s a card you really want—but, again, you have to weigh that against the fact that you’ll only get about 28 card plays over the course of the game (depending on whether you have “draw card” bonuses). How many of those actions is it worth giving up?
With 52 development cards, you’ll only use a fraction of them each time you play. Unlike a game like Dominion, where you know all the different cards that will be available and can start building up a strategy from the beginning, Northgard is more tactical: you’ll only see a couple of cards to choose from each round, and you won’t know exactly what’s in the rest of the deck. That will make the game feel different each time you play, and makes it harder for a player to develop a “go-to” card combination that always works. I do wish there were more achievement cards, though—with only 7 total, you’ll see those repeat a lot more often, especially if you have more players.
There are a lot of different types of 4X games now, and they’re no longer all huge, hours-long games. There are games like Heroes of Land, Air & Sea and pocket-sized games that include the 4 Xs. Northgard: Uncharted Lands is somewhere in between; it’s pretty streamlined and play can go pretty quickly. Actions are typically short except when movement results in combat, so as soon as somebody has declared that they’re not playing any additional flash cards, the next player can take their turn. I would say that the game is heavy on exploration because you’ll need to add more tiles in order to find resources to harvest and places to build. Expansion comes naturally as you add more warriors when you get spread out (or gear up for a fight), but it’s not a goal in itself—you just add more people to the board. Extermination will depend a lot on the gaming group’s play style: despite the fact that we were playing a game about Viking warriors, many of the people I played with tended to be a little hesitant to go on the offensive, preferring to explore and tend to their own territories. But I’ll get into that a little more later. Exploitation is a bit lighter here: you collect resources and use them for buildings, which then provide some sort of bonus. But there’s no tech tree or engine-building, and anything you create can be taken by an invading player.
Okay, back to combat: the amount of combat will certainly depend on play style, but I have found that there’s at least one condition that will start driving even the more peaceful players to combat: a threat of immediate victory. You get points for controlling closed territories, but if you can close off three territories and build large buildings in them, you can win regardless of points—as long as you can hold them until the end of the round. Typically when a player has reached two such territories, that’s where things can start getting aggressive. That player may invade, if they feel they it’ll be easier or quicker to take a third territory by force rather than exploring and building. Or other players may attack, hoping to take away a territory to prolong the game.
Combat does have some luck involved in the dice rolls, but the dice can only help you so much—they can add up to 3 combat points or two casualties. If the invader can invest in enough troops (and feed them all), then you can overwhelm the defender no matter what they roll. As a defender, you can use buildings to help protect a territory, but that also means the territory isn’t producing as much. Larger territories will let you build more things—defense and resources!—but that also means a lot more borders for potential invasions, and because they’re worth more points, they’re also more likely to be targeted. Even though combat is the most involved single action, it’s pretty simple and resolves quickly, so the game doesn’t get bogged down.
I really like the variation in the clan powers, and the way that they let you try out different approaches to victory. However, I will warn that the Wolf clan’s power is dependent on attacking—you get 1 food each time you attack (whether you win or lose)—which means that players who don’t like to be aggressive may feel like they’re not getting the benefit of a special power. It’s definitely a game where you want to play to your clan’s strengths if you want to be competitive.
Winter will cost you, but it doesn’t feel terrible—not like feeding your family in Agricola. Your first three warriors don’t cost anything, for instance, and if all of your troops are on the map, it’ll cost 4 food and 2 wood. Hopefully, if you’ve recruited that many people, you’ve managed to use them to secure some territory that produces resources (or taken advantage of your clan abilities). You do have to account for it because Unrest cards are doubly bad: not only do you lose 5 points, but since you’re only drawing 4 cards per round, losing 25% of your actions for a round is particularly costly. But the winter costs don’t seem crippling, and so far in my games, very few people have ended up with Unrest. (Typically when it has happened, it’s because of taking a risk in combat that didn’t pay off.)
Like many games, the theme in Northgard involves colonizing a “new world,” though (as is often the case) it avoids much of the messiness of actual colonization. There are no natives as you explore, just forests to harvest wood and fields to gather food. As with the island of Catan, it’s a pristine land, conveniently unoccupied and ripe for the taking–not even a lone robber to interfere with your plans. I’ve seen a couple cards that imply a human presence: mercenaries that can be recruited to neutral territories, implying alliances from … somewhere? I’m not sure if the implication is that when you “explore” you’re automatically clearing out any people who live there, but the game mostly omits this aspect, and the only fights that take place are with other rival clans. If you play with the included Creatures module, there will be some animals and beasts who show up—those fallen Valkyries certainly came from somewhere.
So far I’ve also played with the Warchiefs expansion in the deluxe set, and I’ve really enjoyed that one as well. Each clan has its own unique warchief, worth an extra combat point in battle and with a special ability. Each warchief also comes with an additional clan upgrade card that affects the warchief in some way. But I’ll have more on the expansions in a future review!
Overall, I’m impressed with Northgard: Uncharted Lands. I think it looks great and uses deck-building in a new way. The gameplay is fast-paced and has a nice flow to it, keeping players engaged and thinking throughout. If you like area-control games and Vikings, it’s definitely worth checking out.
For more about Northgard: Uncharted Lands, visit the Hachette Boardgames site.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.