Like more than 5 million people who bought the game since it launched in February, I’ve been playing the surprise hit game Valheim. Its potent mix of Breath of the Wild and Minecraft with a viking aesthetic is shockingly polished and doesn't feel like it's missing much despite still being in early access. But it’s a struggle to survive Odin’s trials alone and much more fun to play Valheim with friends. You can do this by simply joining a friend's session, but if you don't mind spending a monthly fee on top of Valheim's $20 price, the best way to enjoy Valheim’s multiplayer is to pay for a service to host a dedicated server for you.
That simple change opened up the game I wasn’t expecting. By creating a home base for everyone of my friends playing Valheim, I started a commune where everyone works together for the good of the whole. On our little commune in the digital forest, communism is working beautifully.
This is what a typical day is like on our Valheim dedicated server.
I logged into Valheim on late Sunday morning. Fellow Motherboarders Jordan Pearson and Emanuel Maiberg had been hard at work. Emanuel had constructed most of a massive stone wall, complete with parapets, along the edge of our base. Jordan had been running into the fields and gathering the massive amounts of stone Emanuel needed for the project. I marveled at the wall then tended to our carrot and turnip garden, made some soups for everyone, and fed our pigs
Emanuel and Jordan logged off but my friend Jim logged on. He and I traveled to the swamps and spent a few hours pulling out a hoard of iron. We dropped off the iron scrap in boxes next to the smelters and logged off. I came back on later that evening and found that the iron had all been smelted, turned into bars, and stored in its proper place. Two other friends on the server were gathering supplies to explore the mountains. There’s talk on the server of finally finding and killing Bonemass, the game’s third boss, now that we’ve got the iron to make the equipment we’d need to keep everyone alive.
Valheim is fun to play alone, but a dedicated server with a large group of people encourages this kind of asynchronous communal play, and shows Valheim at its best. When you play Valheim alone, you are rewarded with skills and equipment that make your character stronger, as you do in most video games. When you play on a dedicated server where friends are free to come and go, it is equally if not more rewarding to see what you can do for your virtual viking community.
Players could steal treasure from each other's chests or destroy what others have built, and it's fair to predict that kind of thing would happen in an online video game, but the exact opposite is true. People log in and the first thing they ask is "what do we need?" They help each other construct projects that will help the entire group. Rather than hoard treasure greedily, everyone pitches into the same pile all are free to take from as they need. Our Valheim server is a collectivist utopia.
If you want to play with others, there’s a few options. Whenever you’re playing, you can invite a friend into your game and play together. But when you log off, your friend can’t access the world anymore. If you want an always-on, persistent world that people can jump in and out of at will, then a dedicated server is your only option. You can run one on your machine, but it can be finicky. Playing Valheim on the same machine you’re running a server on can cause performance issues and if you need to reboot your machine, it’ll pull the server down. That’s not great if a friend happens to be logged on.
The easiest option for playing Valheim on a dedicated server is to rent a computer from a speciality service that hosts gaming servers. There’s a ton of these services out there running games like Ark, Conan Exiles, and Minecraft. I use one called g-portla and pay $14 a month to run the server. It’s worth it. The only negative is that we have to input the IP address every time we want to play.
When I stood up the server, everyone I knew was playing Valheim but we were all playing solo games. I’d jump between friends' servers and hang out for a bit, but eventually someone would need to log off and we’d retreat to our own worlds. I bought the server and resolved to stop server hopping. “This would be home,” I told myself, “I’ll convince the others to come.” I spent a solid weekend building a giant mead hall that would serve as a large base of operations for multiple people.
As I worked on the mead hall, friends would log in and look. Groups gathered to help me kill the first two bosses. Sometimes people would gather wood for me out of pity, but few put down roots. Then they started dying on their own servers, dying in ways that required hours to fix.
Valheim can be punishing. When you die, you lose some experience and everything you had on your corpse is dropped where you did. Getting that corpse can be a trial, especially if you’d died near higher level enemies. As I worked the mead hall, my friends playing solo would die in some far flung region of the map. Jordan had to sail to a new continent just to take down an early boss, a trial which came with several forehead-slapping complications. These disasters pushed people to the dedicated server and the security of a group. It’s much easier to make a corpse run when you’ve got a friend to help and the resources left over from a large group of players just sitting around the mead hall.
On the dedicated server, everyone is working towards the same goal and everyone can do the thing they like in Valheim without feeling as if they need to worry about the busy work. Emanuel has been working the wall while the rest of us adventure. Jim doesn’t like the home-body life so he’s helping gather resources in dangerous lands. Two other friends are wearing cheap armor and charting the map, leaving a trail of bodies they may never recover.
Most of this is happening when I’m not around. I don’t have to be there to run the server or worry over it crashing on my desktop PC. That’s all handled for by a server farm. It’s well worth the money and has made Valheim, an already great game, into a contender for game of the year.
Sunday evening, I showed a real life friend around the digital world I’d help build in Valheim.
“Who’s in charge?” He asked.
“No one,” I said.