|Raiders of the North Sea (2015)
|Meeple Like Us
I’ve said this several times over the past few years – the hardest reviews to write are those of good games. Those games that aren’t amazing, and aren’t awful – those games that are just solidly good. With a great game you can enthuse about the elements of its design that contribute to its quality. With a terrible game you can unpack all the problems that lead to its failures. With a good game there aren’t many of either. No triumphs. No blunders. Just quiet competence.
Today, let’s talk about Raiders of the North Sea which is a game that could be a poster child for this uniquely first-world reviewer malady.
Here’s how it works. You take possession of a hand of cards consisting of townsfolk and potential crew members for your Viking adventures. The village in which you and all your fellow players inhabit is made up of a number of locations – placing a worker at those locations, in the usual fashion, will trigger the associated ability. In Raiders’ sole interesting twist on this mechanic, after placing a worker you get to take a worker from elsewhere and trigger that location’s effect again. The availability of actions in the village thus has a pleasingly punctuated and erratic rhythm with some enjoyable consequences as the game goes on.
The village gives you access to new townsfolk represented by cards in your hand, and the ability to recruit these townsfolk as crew members for your longboat. You’ll get opportunities to pick up food and provisions, and to spend the results of plunder on upgrades and scoring opportunities. All of this is to be permit you to better raid the target-rich environments that lie across the sea from your settlement – there you’ll find gold, livestock, iron, and worker meeples of increasingly effective capability. Each location on the board needs a meeple of a particular minimum level to activate it – black is the lowest level, grey the next level up, and white the colour of the greatest efficacy. I know, I noticed it too. Let’s just put that aside for the moment.
Raiding over the sea requires a certain number of crew members, which are (usually) retained. They come with a requirement of provisions (which are spent), and for the more lucrative and distant opportunities you’ll need to also spend gold to keep your crew happy during the long trip. And, to reach the richest plunder you’ll need a suitably powerful worker in your hand to claim its associated space. However, some of the options you have in the village scale upwards, and downwards, based on the specific worker you place there. As such, even the lowest level of the shared pool of workers will still be worth having as time goes by.
You can see here perhaps why the way the action selection works is so interesting – you only ever have one meeple in your hand and as such you’re often in the position of spending a high-level worker on a low level activity and thus making it available for others to claim. As the low-level workers get expended in simple harbour raids, the village will gradually go through a kind of ‘leveling up’ process where there are more grey and white meeples available than the baseline peasants with which you start.
This in turn creates an elasticity of opportunity – you’ll want the higher class meeples available for longer raids, but also you need to outfit and equip your crew before you’re in a position to go off and plunder. Every worker you seed into the board textures the availability of future options for everyone else. It’s a lovely mechanic, although it does feel like it’s under-utilised here. For all the whirling about of workers of varying ability, it never really changes what you can do all that much. In most circumstances it forces a pause rather than a reappraisal. I’ll be interested to see a game that does something more with this intriguing idea.
Anyway, you gather up a crew, recruit them to your boat and then send them off across the sea to conquer unclaimed areas. Each of your crew members has a strength associated, and the strength of your your crew members plus upgrades plus (sometimes) a dice roll determines how hard you hit your target. More effective attacks come with greater rewards but in every case you’ll scoop the loot of the location into your coffers. These are the aforementioned plunder tokens from earlier, but also occasionally sinister Valkyrie skulls. These indicate that one of your crew members died in the raid, and always come at the expense of something better. You draw and scatter these tokens out of a bag at the start of play, meaning that the richness of each plum will vary. You’ll want to hit the good targets before your opponents.
But here’s where Raiders introduces another fun element – each member of your crew has a strength but they also come with special powers and some of these will trigger on being the recipient of a noble death. As such, while you rarely want to lose crew members for no good reason sometimes you can leverage their death to greater ends. Those Valkyrie skulls may be the least appetising thing you have available but with the right crew on board you might just find they’re worth even more than their weight in gold. Ragnhildor the Hero for example becomes more powerful with every two skulls you have taken. The gravedigger earns you gold when he dies in battle, and mercenaries earn you points for the same. Managing the deaths of your crew becomes a puzzle all of its own and if you’ve set yourself up well you can find that it actually works in your favour. When avengers are killed for example they let you force an opponent to lose a crew member in sympathy. If you send a whole boat of avengers to a dangerous location you may find you sow so much pleasing chaos around the table that you don’t even feel their loss.
Coupled to this is that most of the townsfolk you recruit as crew have other active abilities that can trigger when you make use of the town hall. Recruitment is as much about leveraging these occasional powers as it is about filling a longboat with murderous hard bastards and sending them off to slaughter a few unsuspecting monks.
And yeah, this is all a lot of fun. Straightforward fun. Uncomplicated fun. But it’s also fun that is… a touch predictable. You read through the manual and think ‘Yeah, this sounds like it’ll be a good time’ and it is. There are satisfying decisions to make. Healthy tensions emerge between players. There are risk and reward elements set up by the race implied by ever diminishing opportunities on the board. Sure, you can wait and outfit your crew in your turn but will you be able to get the fortress you want if you delay? Or should you just hurl your crew at the battlements and hope for the dice to bless you? There’s no part of Raiders of the North Sea that is bad. No part of the design that is clunky. It’s a game that flows without any real friction.
The problem though is that isn’t necessarily as good for game design as you might think. The reason that Raiders is so satisfying a game is that it’s built from largely off-the-shelf parts. A worker placement mechanism here. An upgrade system there. A looting model smeared over it. No part is straight up lifted from any game I can think of but these are all profoundly safe design choices. It all works well together because there’s nothing risky in what’s been done. It plays like a game that works because it would have been more effort, with the decisions taken, to end up with a game that didn’t.
Let me try to explain my feelings about Raiders of the North Sea with reference to an analogous scenario.
I teach at a university, and as part of that I have an awful lot of projects that I supervise during the course of a year. I supervise projects for those in their last year of the undergraduate degree and projects for those doing their masters degrees. We do provide some suggested projects to students (something I’m not especially sold on as an approach) but we also allow students to come to us with their own thoughts for what they’d like to. I much prefer when students do the latter because a year long project is a lot more fun for everyone involved if you’re invested.
Given the consequences of a failed project, students are often very conservative in what they’d like to do. ‘I want to do a web-based application with a login system driven by a database’. ‘I want to write an app that draws from an API and presents the results to the user’. And those are all… fine. They’re pretty much guaranteed to pass because they require nothing beyond the competent application of a skillset we have already built in the students.
Other students though come in with a different energy. ‘I want to write a horror game that changes design based on how scared people are’. ‘I want to write an interactive graphical experience that captures the feel of homesickness and comforts those that have it’. ‘I want to take your Meeple Like Us data and write a piece of data mining software that will generate a set of teardown grades for games you haven’t covered’.
Each of those is a real project I have had pitched in the past couple of years.
Students in the first group of safe ideas get told a set story. ‘This will be difficult for you to fail but you shouldn’t expect to get anything more than a C grade. This is the kind of project that nobody, you included, will care about if you succeed.’. And that’s fine if people just want to pass the course. It’s a sensible, measured approach. I could tell you at the project’s initiation what its failure reasons would be, if it was going to fail. Even in a lack of accomplishment there are no surprises to come.
Students in the second group also get told a set story. ‘This will be difficult for you to succeed, but there’s nothing your examiners like more than a heroic failure. And if you can make it a heroic success, all the better’. A heroic failure is interesting. Succeeding wasn’t inevitable and the reasons why a project may have failed will almost always be unexpected. Studying a heroic failure and writing it up as a project report can still easily be an A grade. I have had many students that failed to do something amazing and still got very high marks for the work because they tried something risky and learned from it. Many students are unconvinced that failing can be worth more than succeeding, but it’s true. We want to see people being ambitious with these projects because it’s very rare in professional life you’re told ‘Do something cool – whatever you like’.
Raiders of the North Sea feels like a game that might have been designed by someone in the ‘safe ideas’ category. Sure, it’s a good game but I don’t really care that it ended up being so. It doesn’t feel measurably different from any number of games I might mention. I had a good time with it but I’m not inspired. I’m not surprised that I had a good time with it. I don’t really care that it succeeded. Safe. Conservative. Inevitably competent.
The games that get the highest ratings on Meeple Like Us rarely do so on the basis of whether they were fun games. They get it for being fun games that had a touch of magic about them. When they went down rabbit holes that could so easily have led to Alice in Wonderland style body-horror and disaster. Chinatown throws away almost every rule you could imagine and just says ‘Have at it’. That’s risky. Human interactions are unmanageable and if your game is built around being a catalyst for negotiation there’s an awful lot that can go wrong unless you shape the experience with a touch of genius. Five Tribes opens up a board state of staggering complexity and invites you to weaponise your intuition. Imhotep threads vindictiveness through its design like gemstones in a rocky bedrock. Imperial Settlers combines tableau building with an endless tapestry of richness like a magician drawing an unceasing chain of handkerchiefs from a jacket sleeve. All of those were systems that could have easily failed in horrendous ways but they are amazing because they didn’t. You only gasp at the trapeze artist when they’re 30 feet off the ground with no safety net in sight.
Yeah, play Raiders of the North Sea. It’s fun. It’s comfortable. It’s worth your time and your money. It doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s just a shame those feet weren’t going anywhere adventurous.