A good Viking theme tends to be popular nowadays; God of War is heading there soon and even the ten-year-old Titan Quest got a Norse-themed expansion. Northgard takes a combination of RTS and city building and does a great job integrating it into the Viking age.
Northgard has pretty cartoon graphics that show effects very well, particularly the winter season, which plays a huge role in the game. Vikings had to deal with exceptionally harsh weather forcing them to stockpile food and firewood and hoping that they wouldn’t freeze or starve to death. The bottom left screen goes through the seasons with a constant stark reminder that winter is coming (pun intended).
The Viking factions are separated into various clans with an animal theme that really makes them unique. We have clans of the wolf, stag, raven, bear, the newly added boar, and others, with even more planned. I will say that the base units are disappointingly the same across all factions, just recolors, but hey, they are all Vikings after all. A neat mechanic of units in the game is that every new Viking starts as a villager and you assign their role as gatherer, healer, warrior or whatever, and everyone is affected by the struggles of survival.
What the clans do is give each tribe personality. The clan of the wolf is a militaristic faction that thrives on striking out militarily, getting bonus food for killing wild wolves and bears, a berserker unit, and bonus attack when fighting in foreign territory. The clan of the goat is a sturdy faction centered around food and feasting bonuses and extra sheep to start. My favorite, the clan of the bear, get an armored bear solely to defend their territory and get great “hibernation” bonuses to survive the winter, a hunker down style that can also burst out with a fury after everyone else had a crappy winter.
There are multiple ways to win as well, pure conquest, advancing the tech tree, amassing the most money, mostly through trade, fighting dragur and other enemies to amass the most points of fame, or controlling a certain point on the map, such as the mythical Yggdrasil tree. AI enemies do a decent job in working towards multiple objectives, and I lost a decent amount of my first few games with all victory options on.
A few complaints mostly stem from the unfinished aspects of the game and balance issues. Villagers spawn from the central town hall if you have enough food. And while it is great that they get right to work gathering, you can’t build another town hall or quickly divide or assign roles for new villagers without going to the home region to manage things. Sending new villagers to colonize and build up a far away conquered region was just a pain.
Hotkeys in general are an issue, you have options to select your whole warband and you can hotkey groups, but I found that sometimes the unit was selected offscreen and other times I zoomed to the unit and I had to scramble to find the battlefield I needed to send him too. I have no hotkey to cycle through idle villagers.
It would be nice to have features such as auto-filling farms with newly spawned villagers after a raiding party wipes out my farmers. These and other lacking elements of the UI or ease of use features took me out of the zone too much, but luckily, they are easy to fix or add and hotkeys have been mentioned as an upcoming feature.
There is not much to say about the theme and setting except to say that the developers nailed this blend of lighter and brighter themes and settings with the harsh life of Vikings who must fight the elements and enemy clans. The lore is presented quite well, through the faction intros, map enemies like the Dragur and cursed Valkyries and the tech trees. It’s not discussed too much in the main menus, but each clan’s tech options vary a bit with unique techs matching the flavor of the clan quite well.
Though the clans do all look a bit too similar at times, there is just barely enough uniqueness to make it stand out; I do recall an epic multi-year war against a bear clan over just one region because he kept getting his armored bear in to save the day at the last minute. The plan is to grow wider with more factions planned, but I would also like to see more depth in each faction as well.
A single player campaign isn’t in yet, but is planned. The team seems to be working hard on the story and making sure all the game’s clans play a role as well. I can’t knock the game for not having it yet, because early access, but we do lack a little grounding in the world without it.
As hinted already, the bright palette works well with the game and winter looks great, especially when a blizzard rolls in. light snowfall in the fall serves as a reminder to stock up and spring rains bring a sigh of relief for surviving another winter. The only issue is some pause and stuttering as the graphics transition into and out of the winter scene, otherwise, it looks great.
The map itself is divided into regions that work to sequester your military units and villagers. Most regions have zero to one resource and a few have an abundance of one or even two. Cliffs and the coast can form chokepoints and natural boundaries. It cost food for most clans to acquire new regions, food you might need for winter. Soldiers also eat food but don’t gather any of their own. This all makes for some great conflicts and choices in planning your growth.
The regions might also have dangers such as wolves, bears, or Dragur, but they could have scarce sources of iron. A race of mostly gentle giants can be found on most maps and while the mechanic didn’t work as it should my first go around, my second game meeting them I was able to get one to join my army after building a positive relationship.
In addition to the complexity, the regions also simplify combat and assigning roles to villagers, though that doesn’t eliminate the strategy of the combat. Routes of attack and positioning of troops and watchtowers along the borders of regions has a huge impact on combat that keeps it engaging even if you don’t have much micromanaging to do after the fighting starts.
The music and sound effects are good, not great. I will eventually get bored or annoyed by the soundtrack, as most people do with strategy games, but so far it is quite pleasant. I didn’t notice too much about the sound effects that stood out, standard quality for such a game with swords clanging and snow whirling. I did notice several neat unit animations, such as victory animations for all troops and those were cool, especially the armored bear’s.
Even though it’s early access, Northgard is a steal at $20 for what it offers. Early access can be suspicious at times, I’ve been burned by developers that give up or run out of money and leave an unfinished game hanging, but Northgard keeps getting updates. They just put out the boar clan and even have a roadmap for future updates and when they plan on leaving early access.
Multiplayer is still a bit lacking as I haven’t been able to find many games, but skirmish mode should be fun, and the game should grow more as it gets a campaign and a full launch.
A sign of a great, or at least engaging, strategy game is that one more turn mentality and Northgard certainly achieved this with me. I kept saying I would save and quit as soon as the snow melts, but three winters later I was still playing.
The replay ability is as high as your interest is in playing all the clans and how entertained you are with the random maps and all their unique offerings. I played with three of the six clans and there is one more I still want to try out and new ones to come. Multiplayer is getting a big update to stability soon in addition to replacing disconnected players with AI.
Northgard is far from perfect, but many of its problems are occasional annoyances and lacking features but nothing that kept me from that desire to fit one more year in. I could even replay the same map and starting positions and still enjoy the strategy as I always think back on how I could have expanded better or differently when I reach the mid game. A really solid and charming game still in early access, Northgard is a relaxing and addicting delve into a Viking RTS/city building hybrid game.
- A great looking game
- Unique RTS mechanics with villagers
- Additional challenge of surviving the winter
- Lack of menu options and needed hotkeys
- Needs some more visual diversity to separate the clans
- Mostly empty and laggy multiplayer, for now