Board in the Stacks: Raiders of the North Sea

Introduction

In Raiders of the North Sea from designer Shem Phillips and published by Garphill Games (Renegade Games in North America), players are independent warriors of a Viking Clan striving to garner prestige and influence with their Chieftain. To do that they need to bring in plunder. And where is the best plunder? Held snugly within the unsuspecting Christian settlements to the north of your village. First you will need to assemble a crew, gather provisions, armor up, and head north to raid. Things will not be without blood. Once you pick off the easier harbor settlements, you will go up against better fortified opponents. Grab your oar, don your armor because death and glory will surely follow in your wake!

Setup and Gameplay

Raiders of the North Sea is part of a the North Sea Saga. It starts with Shipwrights of the North Sea (800 AD) where players compete to gather resources and build their fleet. This is followed by Raiders of the North Sea (900 AD) where players are gathering provisions and crews to raid settlements nearby settlements. And lastly, Explorers of the North Sea (1000 AD) where players are seeking out new lands to settle and control. The basic progression follows the Viking Age (800-1066) starting with the development of a massive fleet, raiding local settlements and then exploring the vast world and developing new outposts. Plus, if you use the North Sea Runesaga expansion each game can be played in progression with an overall victor at the end.

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During set up, three of the village buildings (gatehouse, town hall, and treasury) will get a black worker placed on it. Three Offering Tiles are placed in the appropriate spots next to the long house with the remaining tokens stacked and placed next to the board. Each of the raiding spots north of the village will have 2-4 randomly placed plunder (livestock, ore, gold, or Valkyrie) plus one grey or white worker each. Each raiding place will have a number for the amount of plunder and an icon for which type of worker placed there. Each player receives 2 Silver, 1 Black Worker, 1 Ship Card, 3 tokens in their color, and five crew cards. Players will choose 3 of the cards and discard the rest to make up their starting hand.

In Raiders of the North Sea players will be balancing between working in the village and raiding settlements. Players work in the village by placing a worker onto one of 8 different buildings to take the associated action. Then they remove a worker from one of buildings and take that associated action. Workers are three colors (white, grey, and black) which can effect which buildings can be utilized and the resulting action. This is a worker placement mechanism unique to Raiders. Every player starts with one worker which they place for an action and then pull a worker off the board for a second action. Players will always start and end a turn with one worker in their possession.

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After a player has built up a large enough crew and provisions, they can take a raiding action. The board is set up with several “tiers” of raiding spots. The harbor is the easiest area but scores only one point, followed by outposts, monasteries and fortresses. At the beginning of the game plunder is randomly placed in each raiding spot. This will be a mix of livestock, ore, gold, and black skulls (Valkyries). Valkyries represent death and glory in battle and when gathered after a raid will result in the death of a crew-person (booo) and also an increase on the Valkyrie track for points at the end of the game (yay).

While you can choose to raid any settlement on the board you need to be sure you have a large enough crew, ample provisions and/or gold, plus a worker of the proper color. In order to raid fortresses, white colored workers need to be first released. When players raid a harbor, for example, they place a worker (grey or black) on an available raiding spot. Then after the raid is resolved and plunder acquired, they pick up a new worker from their raiding spot. In this case, a grey worker.

Review

Raiders of the North Sea is a delight! It has shifted Lords of Waterdeep out of my collection and if my partner didn’t love beating me at Stone Age so much, that one would be right out too! As it stands, Viticulture and Raiders are my worker-placement games of choice.

The artwork in Raiders is bright, vibrant, and consistent across the entire trilogy. Terrforming Mars can’t even keep it consistent within one hand of cards. From my perspective, there is a loss of narrative cohesion when a variety of artists, sources, and styles are used instead of one overarching aesthetic. There is also a recent tendency for games to go deeply grim-dark and bloody, and I appreciate the change of pace with Raider’s colorful, stylized, and distinctive art style. Granted, the content is dark (raiding, plundering, etc.) but the cartoony art-style softens the impact. This makes the game much more accessible. On top of that, when you include the Fields of Fame expansion, the representation of women is surprisingly adequate … but apparently not realistic so let’s get to that 50/50 mark with the next expansion! However, it is leaps and bounds better than any other Viking themed game out on the market. Good job, well done, and I appreciate the realistic armor and body diversity.

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The mechanisms are balanced, pleasantly coherent, and smooth. Although the end game can feel a bit clunky as you track three different end game conditions (no Valkyries left, one Fortress left, or the Offering Tiles stack depleted). While worker placement is the primary mechanism to procure resources and crew for raiding forays, hand management in hiring crew (with a dash of luck in the dice roll) determines the profitability of the raids. Raids are guaranteed to succeed as long as the requirements are met. This will provide you a reward of plunder but the sheer magnitude of your victory will garner you points (and Fame if using the Fields of Fame expansion). Players are challenged to be selective in their crew and align them with their overall strategy. Do you go for large points by building up a mighty crew with attacking prowess (this will take longer but have a higher payout from more fortified settlements), or do you get the basic requirements quickly and raid fast and often (less payout but more plunder and options to make more offerings to the village chieftain)? And how are you going to keep this up while meanwhile keeping an eye on the Armor and Valkyries track for end game bonuses?

Initially, I was concerned about this being too convoluted for players. However, they got the idea quickly. However, I still would not put this in the “gateway” category. For me, a gateway game will allow a new player a decent chance of victory or placing well against a seasoned player. Experience pays off in Raiders and a new player will do poorly against experienced one. Tracking the crew card benefits and the complexity of the different workers can also be fiddly for new players. Most worker placement games provide players with their own cadre of workers to use but in Raiders you are basically sharing three different types of workers. Everyone starts with a black worker, and with certain areas only accessible by white or grey workers, players have to be cognizant of what type of worker they are placing, picking up, or locking down in a raid. Once those white and grey workers start being introduced into the mix, there is more competition for the type of worker players pick up. For these reasons, I think it is best for new players to stick to Stone Age to learn and then introduce Raiders.

Player interaction is present but not overwhelming. You need to be aware of what plunder players are collecting, the strength of their crew, and where their potential raiding/working spots will be. For the most part, you are on your own and adapting to the changing board state. Each raiding spot has three bundles of plunder so even if someone gets there quicker, your turn isn’t going to be completely wasted. The only real elements of interaction are some townsfolk cards that can hamper play by stealing provisions or silver. Nothing particularly catastrophic but you can slow down opponents with a well played card.

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Speaking of player interaction and inducing my rage, another fantastic element in the design of Raiders is a lack of blocking. Once more for the people in the back: Along with hate-drafting, blocking is the worst! The ability to block, unless it is central to the theme, feels very meta and petty to me. In Stone Age, a player can squat on a tile or card because they know someone wants it and not because it helps them. Then they move off of it at the end of the round. Blocking removes me from the flow of the game and I am pleased with how Raiders handles blocking — you can’t do it. Raiding is only accessible when players have the required crew, provisions, and type of worker. And with the place one/pick up one mechanism in the village, it is impossible to block since placing your worker *actually* provides the opportunity for another player to take that action! Thank you, Shem! Vikings know blocking is a strategy for the weak.

Raiders of the North Sea is an original take on worker-placement games. The snappy turns, variable pacing, solid eurogame roots, and delightful artwork, provides a very satisfying experience for a wide array of players. While not the best gateway game, new and seasoned players alike will love it.

Board in the Stacks: Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft

In Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft (BGG, Amazon), the famously super-smart brothers Sherlock and Mycroft are investigating an explosion in Parliament. But like most siblings, they couldn’t possibly work together and are competing against each to be the first to crack the case. Time is limited and they have one week to search and find clues, talk to contacts and solve the mystery.

The board had eight spaces for cards plus the ever-present Doctor Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Eight character cards are placed face-down on the board and as the days of the weeks drift by on an opioid-induced haze new characters are drawn and placed onto the board. The clue cards are shuffled and placed next to the board with four clues face up to form a market. Clue cards consist of numbered clues, wild cards, and map fragments. The numbered clues are a pyramid deck (I adore a pyramid deck) where there are three cards ranked a three, four cards ranked a four on up to nine cards ranked a nine. Lastly, each player gets three meeples and five magnifying glass tokens. The tokens are used to purchase clues, and the meeples are placed onto the board to complete actions.

The game is played in seven rounds. At the beginning of the round a new character card (two are added on day one) is added to the board. If you are familiar with the round cards in Agricola, this will sound familiar. Take the top card from the deck and place it in the spot appointed for the current day. Any meeples placed on the board from the previous round are stood up. One day one, each player has all their meeples so this can be ignored.

During a player’s turn, they will select a character card, move and place their meeple *flat* on it, and then take the card’s action. They can move any upright meeple to any card which currently does not have one of their own on it. Once a meeple is moved it is laid down to show it have been moved this round and can’t be moved again until the next round. Play then moves to the opposing player and this continues until all meeples have been moved and placed and three actions taken.

At the end of the round, any character card with two meeples are flipped over and unavailable for the following round. Any cards flipped the previous round are flipped back over and available the next round. Think about how exhausted you would be if *both* Holmes siblings grilled you in one day. The only ones immune to this are Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade who due to their constant interactions with the brothers have, no doubt, built up some amount of resistance.

I’ll spare you a description of all the cards. Dr Watson lets you spend one magnifying glass token to take one clue card from the market and place it in front of you. Mrs Hudson allows you to draw three magnifying glass tokens from the supply. And Inspector Lestrade lets you spend three magnifying glass tokens to pick any two clue cards from the market. When a clue card from the market it pulled, it is placed face-up for everyone to see. However, cards pulled face down from the deck remain secret and are placed face-down.

At the end of the game players can assign any wild cards (one wild card per clue type) and each of the number ranked clues are scored. The player with the most cards of a rank will get points equal to the rank of the card minus the number of cards the opposing player has. So if Sherlock had two of the three ranked cards and Mycroft had one, Sherlock would score two points for that rank. Bonuses are scored for having all of one type of clue. Map fragments are scored -1/1/3/6/10 points for 1/2/3/4/5 fragments.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is a very simple worker placement, set collection game. It feels like a step up from Lost Cities or Shotentoten. While most games like this will limit the amount of choices as the game progresses, the decision space increases as the game moves towards the end. The variability of the character cards makes it more difficult to form a consistently winning strategy and requires more tactical actions. The order of your actions is just as important as the actions you are taking especially with the flipping of character cards as they get exhausted.  

There are some additional cards that can be included in the game if you wish to increase the difficulty. Sherlock/Mycroft cards allow clues to be reserved from the market and the villain cards cause players to lose clue cards or magnifying glass tokens or decrease the number of actions that can be taken. Personally, I preferred the game without these additions. In fact, the way the game randomizes which characters will be added to the tableau and in which order provides enough variability. This prevents a stable strategy from emerging early in the game and forces players to be more fluid.

Endgame: There is always room in my collection for simple worker placement games and Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft, for what it lacks in theme, makes it up in simple game-play and enjoyment. This is not the immersive experience that is present in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective but more a head to head abstracted game of push and pull as you attempt to deduct what clues your competitor are collecting. New gamers will have an easy time getting into this game and it is a perfect introduction to worker-placement style games. For experienced gamers, there are slight but pleasant notes of Ticket to Ride and Agricola that fit into a much briefer time frame.

Cthulhu in the Stacks: Kingsport Festival

The Game

Designers – Andrea Chiarvesio, Gianluca Santopietro
Publisher – Passport Games
Number of Players – 3-5
Ages – 12+
Playing Time – 90 minutes
Mechanics – Cultist Placement, Dice Allocation, Animal Sacrifice

I want everyone to repeat after me — Lovecraftian Eurogame. Let those words roll off your lips and drip onto the floor. Savor them. These words will embrace you. Hold you. Ensnare you. The Cthulhu Mythos is a staple of large, sprawling thematic cooperative games such as Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror. Cthulhu even dipped it’s appendage into the murky depths of word games with Unspeakable Words. It launched aerial combat in Hornet Leader: The Cthulhu Conflict. But Cthulhu rarely makes an appearance in the realm of the Eurogame….until now.  H.P. Lovecraft’s Kingsport Festival game comes from Italian designers Andrea Chiarvesio (designer of the light dice allocation game Kingsport) and Gianluca Santopietro (Santopietro designed “Letters from Whitechapel” which provides an amazingly immersive experience) and is published by Passport Games. The game is a mashup of a dice allocation, worker placement game along with a heavy dose of Lovecraftian fiction and prose. But does it work?

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