Raiders of the North Sea

Shem Phillips

Artist: Mihajlo Dimitrievski

Publisher: Garphill Games

These crazy vikings mean business. Were female vikings present on raids? (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Color me impressed, Shem Philips. I am pleasantly surprised that the worker placement genre can still excite and thrill. Lately, most of the innovative designs have come from variations of the worker placement genre. Small tweaks and incremental changes have been made to how workers are placed, when they are picked up and subtypes of workers that specialize in actions. I guess these innovations are similarly found in dice drafting.

In Raiders, you really only get one worker per player at any time and each round, players get to select 2 actions in the village. The first action comes from placing a worker on an empty action slot and the second action comes from retrieving a meeple previously played by another player. Workers must be placed first before retrieval and they are not cleared in between rounds. So if you want to perform an action, you either have to place a worker or, if the slot is taken, put a worker elsewhere before picking up the resident and worker to perform the action.

To make things a little more challenging, there are three types of workers: black, grey and white. The game starts with black workers and as new locations are unlocked, grey and white workers are introduced into the pool. Some advanced locations or actions require white or grey workers and really won’t be available early on. This is a fantastic and kinda novel way to control narrative as it ensure that every game follows a certain arc for progression. The most common way designers control this is via deck assembly (shuffle deck A and B separately and draw from deck A first).

Worker actions are pretty straightforward and split into two types: you either perform village actions or plunder the countryside. In fact, you perform village actions in preparation for launching raids. Village actions include collecting and converting resources, getting food, money, improve armor or recruiting Vikings for the raids. Once enough provisions are secured and your landing party is big enough, you raid a location. These locations are varied with fortresses being the most challenging. Raiding a location is automatically successful if you meet all the requirements. Each location will have randomly drawn resources like gold, livestock, metals for plunder. Some locations will also have Valkyrie “death” tokens which forces you to sacrifice a party member at the conclusion of the raid.

While you automatically get the plundered resources, VPs, are less formulaic. To find out how much VPs is awarded, party strength must exceed specific thresholds and that value is dependent on the strength of your recruited Viking horde. Each viking in your party is represented by a strength score. The cumulative strength of your entire party is then used to gauge the VPs’ earned during the raid. There are bonus points for strength that also come from upgrading armor in the village or some vikings also have unique powers that will enhance strength. Finally, there is a random element involved. Each location can potentially have up to two dice which you can roll to add to your strength score. Collectively, the final strength score will determine which threshold for scoring you surpassed, thus earning you the corresponding VPs.

Back at the village, the plundered resources can be converted into VPs’ when you visit the village chieftain and present him with the booty. Players will mix and match resources and based on the tile (chieftain) desires, you can exchange them for VPs. Alternatively, you can use some of the resources like metal to improve armor to increase strength scores for future raids or to convert livestock into provisions.

There are a few interesting features of Raiders that might not be immediately apparent. First, workers used to raid a location is forever locked in that location. However, a new worker on that plundered spot is immediately unlocked and retrieved by the player who sacked that location. This action shifts the available pool of workers over time and that is pretty neat because as the game evolves, some actions that are easily available early on become more restricted or even lost late in the game, depending on the type of worker that activates it. This timing mechanism for choice restriction and evolving state of action selection feels collectively dictated by players and less imposed by the game system even though each game probably drives toward a similar conclusion.There is this natural sense of progression across the board as the meeples slowly opens up harder locations for plunder. Now, the implementation of this in Raiders is quite mild. But I wonder in a more brutal design, whether one can drive the loss of action selection by depriving the board of specific workers.

For a compact worker placement game, I think Raiders also does a good job of introducing variability via viking recruitment deck. Each Viking has two powers and how they are triggered is tied to the way they are used. Vikings can be recruited for raiding parties, which are longer-term and this power usually modulates attributes such as strength, end game scores or enhance village actions. If a Viking is played for their one-off powers, then these effects are mainly immediate benefits or conflict-oriented. Yes, there is a fair amount of conflict if one chooses to use these cards and they can inflict damage if timed properly. Games can be high or low conflict depending on whether players choose to use these Viking cards. I think the level of conflict is acceptable. You don’t have to play often but , some of the hits can be quite crippling and really hinder your opponents plans. When used wisely, the take-that cards can be a game changer.

There are two main modes of scoring in Raiders: Raiding locations and converting resources for VP tiles. In reality, because resources are gained through raiding, one cannot ignore raiding. There are progression tracks to score points as well including the armor track and Valkyrie track. However, I don’t think those are major scoring strategies because you can’t win with just those VPs’ alone. Hence, conducting raids is probably the only viable way to score VPs. If you are a fan of point salad scoring, this game is not it. There aren’t a whole lot of points to be gained in the first 3/4 of play, but points do snowball toward the end. There is also a tendency to hoard resources in order to launch large assaults at the fortresses for maximum points but the game imposes a cap on number of resources one can hold which voids any hoarding strategies. In a game with a lot of diversity, I oddly find the scoring options a little too limiting perhaps…. which is really odd since I tend to be on the other side of the fence 99% of the time.

I also found it odd that the designers choose not to apply the VPs’ directly on the board for folks who went for the Chieftain scoring strategy. The constant tension between those two scoring option is that one is a riskier longer-term investment for large chunk of points while the other is a more constant flow of points throughout the game. If so, the VP track movement would give a visual indication of how much catching up is required. No reason to hide that information since the tiles are already in front of the player. I also found it interesting from a design perspective that VPs’ were not tacked onto the recruitment deck. It would have been so easy to add VPs’ to each person you recruited.

Last but certainly not least, credit goes to Garphill for choosing to package Raiders in a small box. Great decision there and I think it should be lauded from all reviewers and podcasters as a standard to measure up against.

Overall, I found Raiders of the North Sea to be a delightful surprise. For me, it is fun, relatively short and packed with decisions. There are interesting ideas in the game as far as mechanisms go, and I was impressed at the novelty even though they are mostly incremental changes. I do wonder about replay value given the limited scoring paths, but I don’t think that should detract folks from trying out this gem.

Initial impressions: Good

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