Nidavellir

Designer: Serge Laget

Artist: Jean-Marie Minguez

Publisher: Hatchet Games, GRRRE Games

I never knew that the dwarves were so progressive. A lot of the neutral heroes are female! (Photo credits: Flo GRRRE@BGG)

Nidavellir didn’t really register on my radar much until recently. It didn’t go through a massive PR effort nor a KS hype machine. In fact, it followed trend among games published by French designers: very little pre-publication marketing or hype even though these games are designed by famed designers (Laget, Cathala, Faidutti, etc). However, unlike other games that are buried in a pile of new releases, Nidavellir earned enough word-of-mouth praise that it slowly floated to the top of my list. I don’t think I was necessarily crazy for another set collection game, though I admit I was relatively intrigued by the positive vibes given by many others.

The rules are clean and clear, but it doesn’t really reveal much about the design other than a card drafting set collection game which wasn’t exactly inspiring. So I was curious that the game generated so much noise and thought there must be more than just the rules. I couldn’t figure out from the rules, how much emergent interactions would surface during play or how fluid the game dynamics would be. I do want to point out that the rule book included a nice explanation of all the dwarves featured in the game. I did not know they were based on mythological characters, but it makes for good reading. Great job by Hatchet Games.

The entire game lasts for 6 rounds but overall, the game feels short, particularly at the beginning of the game when the selections aren’t as deliberate. Each round is quick: reveal blind bid, pick a card from the tavern, rinse and repeat this selection process for 3 taverns and the round is over. Take this over 6 rounds with a brief pause mid game and the whole thing is over after you recruit approximately 18 dwarves (give or take some when you discard). Since this is a blind bid game, all players start off with a similar set of coins and trying to outbid players for a higher turn order. Each player has five coins, 3 of which are assigned face-down on individual taverns and 2 more in the money pouch. As each tavern comes into play, players will flip over their coins they assigned to the tavern to see who gets first pick. In fact the coins themselves don’t really have any monetary value beyond determining who goes first. It’s probably more accurate to rename them as turn order tokens, because the higher the coin value, the earlier you get to recruit from a tavern. But the coin doesn’t get exhausted or spent. You get to reuse it each round. One way to go up on the turn order is to swap for more valuable coins from the treasury. This is perhaps the brilliance of Nidavellir. Instead of fighting to recruit dwarves at the tavern, you can place a “zero” value coin in a tavern and choose to go last in turn order. You’d still get to recruit a dwarf, but will have no choice in the matter and have to pick up the last remaining dwarf. In return for going last, you get to look at the two coins placed in your money pouch and pick up a new, higher value coin that is combined total of the two coins. However, there is a cost to this exchange: you must discard or return the higher of the two coins in the pouch. For example, if your two coins is a 10 and a 5 coin, you get to swap the new “15” coin from the treasury with your “10” coin. The new higher value coin can then be used in the next bidding phase. It’s here, that I noted an emergent rule not evident from reading the rule book: one can get trapped by a low value coin if the exchange is not balanced. That’s because if you constantly pair the low value coin with a higher value coin in the pouch, you will never get rid of the older coin. One must be careful with the balancing act. Luckily, there are a few other ways to turn that low value coin into something more valuable because one can perform coin transformation. It doesn’t happen often, but some cards in the draw deck or select heroes will allow you transform a coin in the collection by adding a fixed numerical value to older coins in exchange for the new one. Trading up in coin value helps in turn order bidding but are also worth points at the end of the game.

At its core, the game is all about set collection. Dwarves are scored for bravery points at the end of the game based on how the sets are accumulated. In general, the more of each type, the better. There are five types of dwarves: warriors, explorers, hunters, miners and blacksmiths. Each type of dwarf scores differently based on the number of banners printed on each card. Typically, most dwarves will have one banner per card, but some may have more. Explorers score points on their cards directly and warriors do the same, except they also get to add the highest value coin to the sum total. Both hunters and blacksmiths are powerful scoring engines if you can build a huge army of the same type because their values are increased non-linearly depending on the number of banners collected. For example, hunters scoring is squared based on number of banners collected (e.g. 6 banners = 36 points) while blacksmith scores are increased by adding a linear bonus for each banner accumulated (e.g. 4 (+3), 7 (+4), 11 (+5), 16 (+6), etc.). Finally, the miners score based on the sum value of the banners multiplied by the number of banners they own. The total value for all the coins are also added to the final tally plus any other neutral hero points earned.

Most of Nidavellir is focused on vertical set collection. Basically collecting the same type of dwarves to get a good score. This is particular true for the set collection of hunters, blacksmith and miners where the scoring takes off with the addition of each banner. However, there is also a horizontal set collection going on. For each rank of dwarves collected (one banner of each type), players get to recruit a unique hero. These heroes are powerful and provide multiple benefits. The heroes can be from a specific dwarven clan or neutral. Regardless, of which hero you choose, almost all of them will be useful in one way or another, depending on the timing of your selection. This horizontal set collection is a push back of sorts for the vertical set collection and provides a counterbalance for players pursuing only vertical scoring by allowing players to compete for bonuses. In a way, it promotes diversity instead of specificity. It is likely that players will end up with some form of blended scoring that is a mix of vertical and horizontal sets. At first blush, the vertical collection is dominant, but some heroes are really powerful and can earn loads of points. For example, the Dwerg Brothers are a group of 5 neutral heroes that can be recruited one at a time. Having all 5 is nigh impossible, but with each brother recruited, the scores go up exponentially and is a potential game winner if left unchecked. The closest feeling I have for this sort of set collection is Hadara by Benjamin Schwer. In Hadara, there is a similar horizontal and vertical set collection bonuses that pull you in different directions.

Overall, Nidavellir looks like a main course but plays like a filler. The game is quick, and maybe even too quick, given the plethora of decisions, but I applaud the designer for keeping things short. You always want to do more, but isn’t that true for most Euros. One quibble is that the set up time is also quite lengthy in Nidavellir. There are lots of bits and cards to assemble and for a game of this length, it is a bit on the fiddly side. The treasury rack is nice, but also somewhat annoying to set up and display. I guess for a game this short, the setup is too long for it’s own good. Still, the game gets going smoothly once everyone has had one round to play. No one is going to mistake Nidavellir for Gloomhaven, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Again, I wanted to give credit to the designers and publishers for keeping the box size relatively small and compact. Good for them. Also the dwarves heroes seem to be really well represented and balanced gender-wise. I am sure the theme is dependent on the mythology but credit to the team for making an effort.

I can see why Nidavellir is popular and how you can get a casual crowd excited. I’m not as convinced the game has legs with lifestyle gamers. It’s true that the game rewards patience, attention to other bidders and able to making optimization decisions on the fly, but more often, it feels like I am constantly making decisions where I have very little control of. It helps if you have a high value coin, but it is unlikely you will get first pick all the time and again, if your chosen card is gone, you just end up having to go with the “next best option’. It also feels like the game only sees a handful of scoring routes for set collection. It is very tactical and dependent on turn order. I am sure the game is well-balanced enough that all categories are highly competitive….. if you manage to snag the cards. I am sure a good Nidavellir player can point out the most optimized route from first to last pick, but that’s not appealing to me and many players. That said, I do love the coin exchange mechanism and how that is integrated into the blind bid. It is fresh, adds a new twist to planning your moves, and is one I have not seen before anywhere else. Perhaps it is telling that even though I say the game is delightful, I don’t particularly feel the tug to replay after the first few sessions.

Initial impression: Average

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