Official Northgard logo and artwork

Northgard is a viking themed real-time strategy game from the makers of Evoland, and if I had to do a needlessly specific comparison I would also say that Northgard is a simpler, but more action orientated take on the Civilization formula. What I mean by this is that Northgard shares a similar focus on city-building, resource micromanagement, and open-ended playstyles that allow you to take your frontier settlement in whatever direction you might prefer.

While Northgard is still unfinished and completely lacking in terms of singleplayer campaign, I did recently have a chance to give the beta a spin and see what all fuss is about. So if guiding viking settlers to prosperity sounds like something you might be interested in, allow me to share my thoughts on the gameplay shown so far. 

Northgard screenshot showing a giant sword in the ground

Just hope the owner of that sword doesn't come back for it

Much like Civilization, your beginnings in Northgard are incredibly humble - all you start with is a couple of workers and a town hall. Everything else you will need to gather and build from scratch within the confines of your own territory. However, since each region allows for only a certain amount of buildings eventually you will have to expand your empire outwards, which brings with it a whole set of new challenges. In order to conquer territory you first need to clear it of any hostiles, and then spend a constantly increasing chunk of food to actually colonize it. Spreading too quickly can be crippling to your economy, but it is also the only way to get more building space and access to rare resources, so deciding when and where to expand is quite tricky.

But before you even think about extending your settlement you will first need to harvest resources in order to finance your expansion, or else you're just going to be the proud owner of a random patch of forest. In other words, you will first need to construct lumber mills, farms, mines, and so forth. While all of this sounds simple on paper, in-game its a bit of a different story. Not only are all of these buildings expensive to create early on, but they can only be built on certain types of terrain. You cannot create a mine with no minerals near by, and you cannot hunt in a region with no game, which instantly poses a couple of interesting questions for you, the player. For example, if you're low on food and there's no nearby fertile land or animals to hunt, what are you going to do? Will you try to live off your meager supplies as best you can, or will you perhaps militarize your entire settlement and try to politely borrow these resources from someone else?

Northgard screenshot showing a bunch of starving vikings attacking each other

They may be starving, but they are still viking warriors!

This is both the best, and most annoying aspect of Northgard. On one hand it forces you to think on the fly and develop new strategies once you encounter a shortage, but it also does mean that the lucky player gets a massive head start. If you have access to only one source of food near your main base (and remember how food is used to expand), you're going to find a lot more annoyance than enjoyment in trying to get your village off the ground. With your constantly growing worker force requiring a decent chunk of food to keep them going, it can be next to impossible to expand past your corner of the map, simply because you got dealt a bad hand.

Things become even more brutal once winter finally arrives, bringing with it the chilling cold that pretty much paralyzes your whole industry. So if you haven't prepared enough food for all of your settlers, and also enough wood to keep them warm, you're going to find yourself in a world of trouble! The winter, along with random events such as earthquakes or rat infestations, is oddly enough one of my favorite parts of Northgard simply because of how dynamic it makes the gameplay. While its nice and sunny outside you constantly have to balance between storing enough food for the colder months and expanding your economy, and then during the winter you get to either enjoy the fruits of your labor, or witness the first signs of revolution. Its a relatively simple concept, but it successfully manages to introduce a whole bunch of tough decisions into Northgard. The only issue I even have with winter is the previously mentioned lack of food sources on some maps, so hopefully the developers will quickly patch in some safeguards in order to prevent the 'unwinnable' spawn from happening.

Northgard screenshot showcasing a blizzard and dire wolves

My only source of food is a single patch of land surrounded by two wolf dens... sounds fair to me!

Expanding into a new region costs a rather large amount of food, but while it might be the biggest number present on the screen it is all of your tiny little villagers that consume the most of it. There is a bit of a catch to this, however. Villagers that aren't assigned a task will automatically gather berries for you, essentially helping ease the whole food problem by paying for themselves. Consequently, the moment you assign your workers a role such as "lumberjack" they will begin producing that resource for you, but they will no longer be able to produce food, which then puts further strain onto your economy. Its not often that a game gives you incentives to have idle workers, but Northgard also manages to do it in a fairly clever way. If you have enough food production you can easily specialize all of your villagers, but in any other occasion you're going to have to decide what is truly important for you, and that is the sort of gameplay style I can appreciate.

Besides food and lumber, your settlers can also dig up stone and iron from mines, increase happiness and spread culture through good ol' fashioned beer, operate trade routes with other players, analyze ancient monuments in order to speed up research, and naturally, pick up a sword and start swinging it at the enemy! Each and every single one of these tasks is important, but deciding how many villagers you want to dedicate to each one is going to be up to you and you alone. If you're going for an elimination victory you probably want as much gold and warriors as you can get, but if you're aiming for a lore-based victory you want as many loremasters as you can support without ruining your economy, and the list goes on. The choice really is up to you.

Northgard screenshot of a well-developed base

Building is so much more satisfying than destroying

I've managed to secure a win through each of the five main victory conditions, and I'm glad to say that they are all mostly in balance with each other. The only outlier is the elimination victory as its much easier and much quicker to achieve than the rest of them. Simply gear your economy towards war, research all of the weapon upgrades as soon as possible, and then just send all of your units into the enemy's main base. This might not be as easy against real players, but the hardest AI proved to be no match against any type of military rush. That said, the AI in general isn't the brightest of light bulbs. It will more often than not send its own troops to die one by one, and its way too eager to expand, even if it has absolutely no means of defending its newfound territory. All of my impressions come from an early beta build, so I can understand if the AI isn't done just yet, but I certainly hope it will be getting improvements throughout the coming months as I've never once felt threatened by it!

The weak AI aside, one of the reasons each of the victory conditions feel achievable is presence of multiple playable factions. Each of them play similarly enough to not cause any confusion, but they all have special passives and research choices that can really give them a unique edge. For example, the Stag clan is perfect for players that want to secure an economic advantage over their foes. They start with more resources than everyone else, so early expansions are simpler to maintain, and they also have a couple of research options entirely dedicated to trading, which makes getting rare materials easy even if you're stuck in the middle of nowhere. These clan bonuses aren't so massive that they entirely dictate your playstyle, but they do a rather good job of giving each faction their own identity and a reason to exist. So at the end of the day it doesn't matter which clan you pick, as long as you control your villagers well you will find that success is never out of reach!

Clan Eikthyrnir from Northgard

Their name might be unpronounceable, but their benefits are downright amazing

And speaking of control, this is by far my biggest problem with Northgard, right behind the meek AI. If you're used to standard RTS controls, the type you might find in Starcraft 2 for example, you're probably going to lose your mind with Northgard. There are no control groups so you have to constantly zoom around the map looking for villagers, there is no selection box so you can't choose multiple villagers within the same region, and most importantly, trying to click on a single villager is needlessly difficult because of the tiny selection box. While all of these issues are fairly minor, when combined they produce far more annoyance than the sum of their parts.

To illustrate what I mean, let's take the most basic element of any RTS - the combat. Even though Northgard only features three different unit types (two of which are unique), the basic combat is unchanged from other RTS games. It all boils down to grabbing your units, sending them into enemy territory, and then watching them as they smack each other around until one side finally prevails. In order to boost your chances of victory you can also micromanage your units so that the weakest ones pull out battle for healing, while the healthy ones move forward to take the brunt of the damage. This is all fairly basic stuff, and the only reason I'm even mentioning it is because its incredibly difficult to actually do in Northgard due to all of the restrictions on your controls.

You can't easily send 3/5 of your warriors into battle, you have to either send all of them, or send them one by one. You can't put these units into control groups, so whenever you get attacked you have to mouse all over your kingdom in order to find the closest ones to send. And due their tiny selection boxes you are often going to lose them in the middle of combat to easily avoidable damage, simply because you couldn't select the proper unit in time. If the warriors were expendable like Zerglings I wouldn't mind this too much, but maintaining an active army in Northgard is a pricey business. They devour tons of food, require a hefty pile of gold to field, and if you ever lose them you have to wait until your town hall eventually spits out new villagers that you can then specialize into warriors. On the positive side, all of these issues are theoretically easy to fix, so I really do hope the developers will take a page from Starcraft 2 and implement some of its best features. And once the players have full and easy control over their units, improving the AI should be the next logical step in order to increase Northgard's complexity and long term appeal.

Northgard screenshot showing the silly AI

Get three warriors early and the AI will simply roll over for you

Closing Thoughts

Even though it is by all means unfinished I've had a great deal of fun with Northgard so far. Most RTS games these days shower you with resources and extremely cheap units, so to see a game that actually punishes carelessness is a quite a refreshing thing indeed. Naturally, it is not without its flaws, but since this is only the beginning of its Early Access phase I have high hopes for Northgard's future.

With all of that said, I would still not recommend grabbing Northgard in its earliest state. Its not a bad game, but there is a definite lack of content once you realize how weak the AI truly is. So unless you're a massive fan of the RTS genre, or you wish to support the developers, I would recommend waiting a couple of months. At that point Northgard will probably have some semblance of a singleplayer campaign, more gameplay features and playable clans, and hopefully better controls as well. Once all of that gets added I will gladly come back and give it another spin, but for now I've had my fill of vikings.