Big events in strategy games are exciting. After all, the entire genre is about giving players systems and expecting them to parse them into little understandable chunks. It’s about me, looking at all of the information in front of me, and then trying to make my way through it in the easiest way, snake-like, without losing too many resources or causing myself to somehow fail at the game.
Big events, by which I mean game-altering events, stop a player in their tracks. Sunspots in Alpha Centauri, for example, prevent you from speaking to other players for 20 turns. Good luck trying to stop that war-in-progress or negotiating for the release of a city that Yang captured recently. The spots happen randomly, with very little warning, and they force a player to swerve in their attitudes and play style.
I was delighted to discover that Northgard, a strategy game recently emerged from Steam Early Access, is built around those big moments that change how you play the game. It is a game that is, ostensibly, about vikings traveling to an island and taking it under command. To do so, it uses a fairly novel combination of real-time combat and time progression alongside a tile system out of a game like Civilization VI. What emerges is an experience that feels like balancing on a razor’s edge. Resources get burned, and you’re surrounded by competing factions, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time get everything done.
Then the blizzards and earthquakes happen.
The other day I streamed a single player game of Northgard against some AI opponents. It was meant to be a simple, straightforward introduction to the game for the people who are interested in that sort of thing. And, spoilers, I did not win the game. I made it all the way to the end before one of my esteemed AI enemies managed to eke out a Fame victory over me (roughly the equivalent of a Civilization game’s Culture victory condition).
The whole time, I was focused on the big events that would appear in the calendar at the bottom left of the screen. A big red exclamation mark in the middle of winter meant that a blizzard would come. And so I needed to prepare my stockpiles, neglect my military might, and go to ground. This caution ultimately cost me the game.
Northgard asks you to balance resources against physical reality: food and lumber up against time and space. I’ve written a little bit about this already, but the game exists on a real-time cycle. The game works through the seasons, and the resource management part of the game is making sure that you have enough food and wood to get through winter’s resource-sucking brutality. Up against this is the work of building structures (which costs wood and kroners, the game’s only currency) and taking new tiles to build on (which costs food).
This is the primary antagonism of the game. It’s not about other players. It’s about you and your desires. Expand and grow, but do so at the cost of potentially dying in the winter. Stay safe and warm, but lose out on the resources (and therefore potential victory conditions) that your expansion would allow for.
Expanding to new tiles is literally called “colonization,” and the factions that pre-exist you on the island have to be exterminated before you can expand into their tiles. There is no possible alliance with the neutral kobolds or standoffish giants. There is just you, your desire for expansion, and their existence as obstacles on that path.
The game exerts some systemic pressure on you to do that eliminating. It is not purely academic or conjectural, a kind of “well it would be bad if I did that.” There are material benefits for taking new tiles and eliminating these neutral factions from the map. There are tactical advantages.
You could, if you so desired, justify it to yourself as defense on the offense. Destroying the kobolds now and taking their tactically advantageous tiles might allow you to stockpile more food and wood later in the game against the enemies who would, almost certainly, destroy those kobolds anyway. You look at your calendar and you can see that a blizzard isn’t coming this year, but it might be next year. The other viking factions are going to kill these kobolds anyway. What to do?
Safety is seductive. We often talk about the “one more turn” effect in strategy games (something akin to Lays’s “you can’t eat just one” logic), and Northgard presses on that feeling with your attachment to survival. It’s less about finding out what happens next. It’s more about finding out what happens in-between right now and the symbol on your calendar that tells you that a blizzard is coming.
Northgard models a certain kind of real political fear that evaluates who is harmed and who is saved by how close they are to the person making the decisions. It is a game that demands you have some kind of empathy for this small, polygonal world, and you have to divide that empathy out. It enables us to make decisions in this little simulation and, importantly, to ask if those decisions were right. I don’t mean just logically correct, but morally and ethically right.
In some ways, I play Northgard with a different mindset than I do other strategy games. It’s not about winning. The big events, the blizzards and the earthquakes, force me to play not to lose. It’s about crossing the goalposts at the end knowing that I didn’t enter into a nightmarish death spiral of my own making. I think about the decisions I am making in the game as if I’m there. I’m the little viking guy. The people watching me on Twitch (rightly) booed me for slaughtering a cute lamb to survive a harsh winter, and I felt bad about it. I didn’t feel bad about the booing, but instead I felt bad about what kind of ruler I had to be. I felt bad systemically.
Northgard is built out of systems that ask you what kind of ruler you want to be, and it tests who you want to be against the big events. If you think about strategy games as spreadsheets presented in a different way, fine, but it seems clear to me that this game is asking you to consider more than that. It wants you to think about the weight of your decisions. Is it worth turning a villager into a warrior if your people will starve for a month at the end of winter? Is the safety of a standing army and a buffer of land between you and your enemies something that should be strived for at the cost of a kobold village?
Northgard poses the question and asks you to answer it, and, critically, there’s no benefit to the destructive way out. There’s no major bonus for flushing out the giants, no big boon for destroying the kobolds. There is just you and your vikings, grinding it out, fighting wars of attrition against other vikings and waiting for the blizzard that might end the game.
And then there’s you, sitting there, after the game is over.