Northgard is an early access real-time strategy title from Shiro Games. Aimed at letting you live out your strategy dreams with Viking clans, Northgard sets you up in the land of Northgard. A seemingly lush island world, it is filled with treasures, dangers, and more as you do your best to carve out a living amongst its inhabitants. Other clans, giants, and even draugr all stand in your way to total domination with your clan; it all comes down to how you want to rule.
The game offers an atypical approach the RTS genre; it’s not just about building up your army and rushing headfirst into battle. Instead, it blends the real-time elements with a more Civilization-styled approach; there are multiple victory paths and opportunities throughout. A Fame victory comes with your accomplishments as a clean leader, Wisdom is from using your lore to uncover new technologies and blessings of the gods, a Trade victory is from amassing wealth, and a Warlord victory comes from stamping out your enemies in battle. Each of these can be turned off and on at will at the setup screen, but left on means anyone can win by any means. Adding another layer of strategy are different clan types with some focused on war and others on trade, picking the one that best matches your victory aim is key.
Since each game map generates randomly at the beginning, you never end up with the same landscape twice. Across four maps now, I’ve seen wildly different land organization, resource territories, and more. The map, while being randomly generated, is broken into regions across its span. Capturing an area requires clearing it of any present dangers such as wolves or draugr, but once cleared it takes a count of food to move in. Early food requirements are low, something like 20 or 40, but later requirements ramp up to the 1000s without missing a beat making resource management a central tenet of the game. Making this more difficult, however, are the changing seasons of the Game. Spring, Summer, and Fall are great periods to stock up before the harsh winters, which quickly drain your stores. Mismanagement of resources at any point can quickly end your clan, preventing your growth or letting buildings collapse.
Northgard reminds me of some older strategy titles, in particular, the older Settlers series. You as the clan leader must divvy up the work and assign the population to specific jobs within your ability. Are you generating enough wood? A new woodcutter and one or two more villagers on that job will help solve that problem. Thankfully, villagers not actively assigned to any job will at least help generate food, but it’s nowhere near the same level of a fisherman’s hut or fields used in farming. This population/worker management system of the game requires some micromanagement attention, but it adds a new layer of challenge. This is especially true at later points in the game – as your clan survives more and more years, the requirements you need for new villagers to join your or resources for survival seem to ramp up over time. Since maintaining both available resources AND happiness is vital to continue bringing in villagers, understanding how to utilize both your clan’s unique traits alongside using the necessary buildings and land becomes key.
While it doesn’t make the game impossible, it does add a nice level of balancing on your part. Do you push hard and fast to take out enemy clans so you claim control over Northgard? Or do you wait it out, use your territories to seek out a fame or wisdom victory over a warlord victory? The fact you’re able to work towards any desired victory is what makes the game so fun. Opening up trade routes with your neighbors can fill your coffers quickly, but they may not respond fairly in kind. One thing I noticed is that once you take any sort of aggressive action towards your neighbors, they all quickly respond much the same against you. In larger games with more computer enemies, this can make it hard to manage both your territory AND your armies as you struggle to move about quickly.
As a note, one thing that seemed interesting is how the game may run on less than stellar machines. On my PC, I had no difficulties at all in running the game. It didn’t seem overly intensive or hard on the GPU. I had to end up moving to a laptop to play through another map and found it chugging along more than I expected. For a system capable of running games of Dawn of War II on low settings, I was surprised to see how hard of a time my laptop had with Northgard at first. I did tone down some settings, which helped some, but it still seemed to lag going from the warmer seasons into winter and vice versa.
While still an early access game, Northgard has the promises of something great. Surely Valhalla would even enjoy the ability to control the clans, make friends with jötunn, and survive the random challenges that pop up in life amongst the Vikings. I’m excited to see what the campaign may hold and jump online to challenge others as well. Since there are still multiple pieces listed as “coming soon,” this will be one I keep an eye on closely.
Note: The Northgard review is based on a digital PC copy of the game, provided by the publisher.