Northgard is a good old real-time strategy game. The kind of real-time strategy that frankly doesn’t grab headlines nowadays. It’s the kind of real-time strategy where you guide a slowly growing population of citizens, directing them to gather food, gather wood, and gather stones. You compile those resources to build buildings, enlarge your territory, and wage war. You make allies and make money. You make mistakes and make enemies. Northgard, as a Steam Early Access game, makes you wonder why other Early Access games often aren’t nearly as polished or half as competent.
You may be playing Northgard on a computer, but the explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate strategies are writ small here. Almost like it could crossover as a board game next month. You’re not banging your head against the wall from day after day of grand strategizing. It’s more like you’re sitting on the edge of your seat for a couple hours of 4X speed dating. Since the average round of Northgard only asks for two or three hours of your time, you can squeeze in a second round before bedtime, or, on the opposite end of the scale, come back to a half-played round tomorrow and not have to sit there, bewildered, wondering how to even continue from a mid-game standpoint.
I like Northgard’s compact nature. It doesn’t overreach. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. You generally know when you’re winning, and you generally know when you’re losing. And the stakes are rarely so high that you can’t start over, but things are rarely so bad that you can’t see things through to the end.
You guide a Viking clan. One of six that you can choose from. Each clan is symbolized by a different animal—an animal representing different strengths, different advantages in the sunshine, and during the inevitable winter.
There is Fenrir, Clan of the Wolf. Eikthyrnir, Clan of the Stag. Heidrun, Clan of the Goat. Then there’s Huginn and Muninn, Clan of the Raven; Bjarki, Clan of the Bear; and, the newest addition, Slidrugtanni, Clan of the Boar. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You just pronounced those names better than I could.
Each clan’s animal symbol hints at the advantages that clan has. If you’re in the Clan of the Wolf, you can expect having an edge in combat that your rival clans won’t have. If you’re Clan of the Raven, then you have money-making schemes the others couldn’t hope to replicate. If you’re the new clan on the block, Clan of the Boar, then your people don’t need fancy things like upgraded homes, and your healers have a deeper connection to the lore of your Nordic history.
Lore is more important than it sounds. While cold, hard currency contributes to a lot of important architectural and military purchases, it’s lore that races you along the branches of the skill tree. There are ways to win a round of Northgard by accumulating fame and fortune, but I succeeded most when I focused on feeding my people and studying monoliths left by my ancestors. I’m all for a bloodless, cultural win when I can get one.
But Northgard is more than happy to accommodate your warmongering needs. Northgard is populated by a strong, warlike people. They defend themselves every year from wolf attacks, undead onslaughts, and mythical valkyries. They rebuild their homes after earthquakes, raider visits, and, you know, when portals open up from the plane of the dead. Rats infest your food stores, blizzards slow production to a crawl, and even your careless planning (especially your careless planning) can leave your people frozen or starved by any one of a dozen poor choices you made along the way.
Sounds rough. While Northgard isn’t the most forgiving, it’s also not merciless. This isn’t the Dark Souls of real-time strategy. Never mind that old, used up Dark Souls analogy: Northgard is not the XCOM of real-time strategy. And thank goodness for that.
Every game starts with a tile of land, a town hall, and four citizens immediately heading out to gather food. The sounds of the sea are near, a fog of war surrounds you, and the small thrill of a fresh, new round always sends a little jolt of excitement. Go get ‘em, tiger, I hear myself saying. You've got this round.
I set about some basic, early-game tasks. Build a Scout Camp, convert a worker to a scout. Let that scout head out and reveal some of the foggy landscape. Build a Woodcutter’s Lodge, convert a worker to a woodcutter. Let that woodcutter cut wood. People burn a lot more firewood during the winter—and, yes, winter is coming—but a Woodcutter’s Lodge is also required to build anything more complicated than a house. Then, build a house. You start off with your housing limit nearly maxed. People get angry when your housing can’t keep up with your growing population.
That’s just the start, of course. In adjacent tiles, space for buildings is limited by the randomly generated landscape. You might spend food to colonize the next tile over, and that tile could have four, three, or maybe only two slots for buildings, regardless of how much physical space you see. That tile could be plains (okay), or forest (good), or swamp (bad), or several other randomly generated types.
It’s nice that all of Northgard’s gears and cogs fit together so nicely. I have small but important choices to make every minute. I have small but important rewards to count up along the way. It’s a simple but well-crafted RTS machine. It’s got a charming art style, World of Warcraft-lite in nature, without a lot of bells and whistles to distract. There’s the stuff of myths and legends to contend with, adding a flight of fancy here, or a fantasy trope there, and it’s good. None of it blows my mind. But all of it grew on me. Comfortably.
I only have a few suggestions for improvement, since Northgard is in Early Access. It would be tedious to list them here, though here are a few. One, I could use a few more alarm bells when buildings are on fire; nobody seems to panic, and buildings will quietly burn to rubble as I’m off somewhere else, hitting a mental snooze button. Two, I could use a little more warning if I don’t have enough food to make it through the winter; time is kind of vague in Northgard, as is consumption, so having some kind of advisor tip me off that my entire village will starve and die this winter would be a nice heads-up. Three, I could use a little more warning if a rival is about to achieve a win condition; sure, there are numbers that go up and my rivals may have a number higher than mine, but I don’t know if that means they’re a month or a year away from a victory. Heck, forget my enemies—most of the time, I had no idea if I was winning either.
So, as you can see, my suggestions are to merely run up a red flag or two when I’m losing. Or if I’m winning. More often than not, the Victory or Defeat screen will pop up, and I’ll be too invested in whatever I was doing to realize who, what, where, why, when, or how somebody achieved victory. It just comes as a surprise when it shouldn’t.
At this point, I hope there’s not a lot to add to Northgard. Its beauty is in its simplicity. Its got a clean art style, a clean soundscape, and a clean interface. Nothing is cluttered. Nothing is complicated. Nothing, really, is missing. Northgard just quietly became one of my most enjoyable strategy game experiences this year.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile