Blood of the Northmen Review
I reviewed the original Kickstarter version of Blood of the Northmen, which came with all-grey miniatures. In the current Kickstarter for the Test of Faith expansion, Czacha Games have stated “In the box of the “Test of Faith” expansion, you will also find a set of plastic stands for miniatures from the base game in 5 colors. These stands are dedicated to backers who backed the base game KS campaign. The second print of “Blood of the Northmen” base game will have all the miniatures in 5 colors inside the box.“
Please bear this in mind when reading my comments regarding the minis.
Innovation (2010) was one of my favourite games when I first started this hobby. It always surprised me that its designer – Carl Chudyk – didn’t have more hit games to his name. In fact, he didn’t have many more games at all credited to him. Imagine my surprise then, when in the first half of 2021 I answered the call to find reviewers for his latest game – Blood of the Northmen. Tile-laying, asymmetric powers, and a cool Norse theme, all wrapped up in Carl’s design? I jumped at the chance.
Set in the time of the Vikings, you need to gather your warbands, and move them around the ever-growing map. The aim of the game is to either grow your clan large enough to form the nation of Bjarmia (I googled it, it was a real thing), or kick enough ass to win through sheer dominance. As you might have guessed by now, there’s quite a bit of player interaction.
Laying down hexagonal tiles is nothing new. It’s been done in a thousand games from 1830 through to Terraforming Mars. Blood of the Northmen takes the principle, but adds a few little tweaks to the formula. Firstly, each player has a hand of tiles, much like you would with cards in other games. Choosing where and when you play each one is really important, as they not only define the map you’re fighting over, but also what you can do.
Each tile’s edge has a landscape feature, like mountains, lakes and forests. Edges have to touch matching edges (with a couple of exceptions), but after the tile is placed, you get to take actions corresponding to the matching landscape types around the edges. These actions see you recruiting more warriors from your player board, moving them around the map, and getting into Viking fisticuffs. It’s a really unique way of doing things, and I really like it. There’s so much to consider each time you place a tile. You’re not just shaping the map, but also determining what you can do.
The third and final thing tiles are used for is combat. When your dudes start a fight, you can play tiles for each of your units in the ruckus, and mountain edges equal one unit of strength. The strongest wins, the rest have to lick their wounds by sending their warriors back to their player boards.
A lot of games that have units moving around a board, trying to control areas and engaging in combat, can be pretty chunky when it comes to rules and gameplay. Blood of the Northmen has somehow made the experience really quick and easy. By turning it into a ‘Carcassonne-meets-Blood-Rage’ type of game, turns flow really quickly. When I say quickly, I mean quickly. I’ve played games that have only taken half an hour. It’s not often you can say that about anything other than a filler game. This pace might turn some people off the game, but it’s important to understand this isn’t a grand strategy game, it’s a different beast.
This isn’t to say that it’s a fast, random game, not at all. There is plenty of strategy on offer, it’s just done in a quick, streamlined way. I particularly like the movement mechanism that lets you move off of a road on the edge of the map, then bounce around the edges until you find another road to move onto, like some kind of cardboard Tempest. The stronghold buildings mix things up too, and let you place tiles with non-matching edges, just to really throw the cat among the pigeons. This, all combined with the different clan abilities, mean that each game has a very different feel, and plenty of things to consider.
The elephant in the room
Elephants are grey, and so is the biggest problem with this game: the minis. Normally I try not to focus on the components in a game, unless they’re especially good or bad, but I’ve got to call out whoever made the decision to make all of the minis grey in Blood of the Northmen. I can understand not wanting hot pink or bright yellow Vikings stomping around the land, and trying to keep the gritty aesthetic, but there aren’t even coloured stands for the minis. What makes this worse, is that the minis are just that – miniature. They’re really beautifully made, but because they’re only 2 cm tall, when there’s a crowd of them on the map, they’re really hard to distinguish.
This can lead to some problems when you’re playing the game. Combat is dependent on how many units you have on a contested hex. Even with 20/20 vision, it can be hard to tell how many of each players’ pieces are going to join the fray. The last thing you want to be doing is saying “Hey folks, sorry, just let me move this one, and that one, and count one..two..three.., okay, thanks”. It makes it pretty obvious which tile you’re thinking of kicking-off on. I’m just amazed that the game got all the way to production copies, and nobody either picked-up the issue, or did something about it.
It’s not to say the game is ruined by it, not at all, it’s just a really frustrating thing to sour what is in fact, a really good game. Especially when the rule book examples use colours for players the whole way through.
Let me start this part by saying Blood of the Northmen is a good game. I’ve seen some complaints online saying that it’s too hard to claw your way back if you lose units early, but in my experience, there’s almost always a way to get back into the game. I really like the short game time and quick turns, and I’m not sure I’d have nearly as much fun if the game dragged out to two or three hours. Because the map starts at three tiles, and you can be engaging in combat in your first turn, it keeps the game tight and focused, instead of sprawling. There’s no safe haven to retreat to and build your army.
The grey minis really bother me. At two players it’s not so bad, but a four player game isn’t something I want to experience again unless I either paint them, or replace them with coloured meeples. It’s a shame really, because without this problem, I’d be really excited about the game. It has this really nice feeling of Carcassonne with teeth, with the up-front conflict between players. None of this “Oh my goodness, you joined your road up to mine and we share the points”, it’s a good, old-fashioned dust-up. On the subject of player count, with two players it’s quite good fun, but with three or four it’s at its best. There is a solo mode, which is okay, but this kind of game thrives on the interactions between the players.
Despite the fact this looks and can play like a medium-weight game, it feels like playing a gateway game at times, again, like Carcassonne. It’s simple enough to pick up the basics and get playing within a couple of turns, but employing a strategy takes practice. If you can live with the grey minis, or don’t mind just giving them a really quick one-colour coat (or wait for the second printing), I have no hesitation in recommending the game for the tile-laying gamer in your life who’s looking for a bit more interaction.
Review copy kindly provided by Czacha Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Blood of the Northmen (2021)
Designer: Carl Chudyk
Publisher: Czacha Games
Art: Radosław Jaszczuk
Playing time: 20-60 mins