30th Jun2021

‘Raiders of the North Sea’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Everyone has a collection of favourite films, CD’s or books that they return to time after time. Even so, the titles included in such lists tend to adapt over time – a remake might replace a classic (or not) or a new artist might replace something at a different time in our lives. With board games, there are similar lists. Classics like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne have largely been replaced by modern classics like Scythe or Dominion. The relevance of this for today’s review, about Raiders of the North Sea, is that Shem Phillips’ 2015 debut is a game that keeps creeping onto my “go to” games list, despite actually being fairly unremarkable.

That might sound cruel, but I really don’t mean it to be. Raiders of the North Sea is a super solid, largely straightforward worker placement and retrieval game that just does everything well, but nothing exceptional. The players compete for victory points which will be tracked on the board and across a few hidden sources at the end of the game, and each turn is a simple choice between working and raiding – either way, the action being to put down one meeple, take some stuff, then retrieve another. If you worked, when you retrieve this second meeple, you’ll take more stuff. If you raided, then you won’t get a benefit for taking that second meeple, but the raid action itself is always more powerful than a work action.

There are a few other things about Raiders of the North Sea that are remarkable in their simplicity. Firstly, when you setup the game, you’ll seed the whole board with plunder (for raiding) and everything else that will be needed over the course of the game. Somehow, because it’s mostly drawn from a bag, this takes no time at all – and yet because you never have to reset decks or refill tracks or any of the usual euro game trappings, Raiders of the North Sea just feels fast and slick from the outset.

In addition, because each turn literally is just placing one meeple, doing an action, then drawing another meeple (and doing a second action, if you worked rather than raided) every turn takes about a minute. Sure, analysis paralysis can creep in later in the game when there are only two players and both are trying to optimise for the perfect outcome, but it’s very rarely a problem. I think this is helped in part because of that initial setup – with all the information on the table, everyone knows what they need to work towards from the outset. It’s also hugely refreshing to see a system where all players share a worker pool, and the game is no less exciting as a result.

In addition to the worker aspect, players must also manage their raiding crew – an aspect of the game that affects several things on the board. Players can hold up to eight cards in their hand, and may deploy up to five at a time to their crew. Each card can be played either for its Town Hall action, or as a crew member, with the former providing an immediate bonus but causing the card to be discarded. For example, the Trader allows a player to discard the Trader card and immediately take a tribute action (worth a lot of points) for one less silver or plunder than usual. Powerful, but this also means the Trader is discarded and cannot be added to the players crew.

The Berserker and Mercenary cards, on the other hand, offer powerful benefits when added to a crew – such as returning to the players hand (instead of being discarded) when killed raiding, or in the case of the Mercenary, whilst he does still die, the player gains a victory point (presumably because thematically, he does not have to be paid.) In mentioning the death of crew members, I should explain that mixed up among the plunder on raid spaces will often be Valkyrie tokens, and each of these taken means that a crew member must die. Aside from card specific bonuses (like the ones I just mentioned) every dead crew member will move that player up the Valkyrie track – which is worth points at the end game.

As the game progresses and one of the three game end triggers looms into view, the need to optimise will intensify. Raiders of the North Sea combats this by injecting a healthy dose of luck that comes in the form of dice rolling. To raid some of the more valuable spaces in the game, a player will need to pay gold and provisions, in addition to amassing a crew of a certain size – three, four or even five cards. Even so, when the raid is resolved, they may need to roll one or two dice and add their total to the values shown on their crew – the resulting total then dictates how much that raid is worth in terms of victory points.

I really like this system because when undertaking such a raid, the player is rewarded for setting the raid up (because their crew is worth something anyway) and when the raid happens (because no matter how strong your crew is, you always take the plunder) but there are bonuses in the form of additional points (sometimes two tiers) for players who prepare carefully. Some crew members allow dice to be re-rolled or adjusted, and again such cards can be invaluable if used correctly, and if you can afford to add them to your crew at the right time.

Raiders of the North Sea comes in a small box, it looks good and you can set it up, play it and pack it away again in about 90 minutes at the most. Very little of the time you’ll spend playing Raiders of the North Sea will feel wasted or unnecessary, and so whilst, as I said earlier, there isn’t anything new or revolutionary here, what there is just very good, very solid and really good fun. The three tracks, the crew building and the slightly obfuscated scoring associated with the tribute tokens gives the perfect balance of open and hidden information, whilst the way the board is setup allows players to make a plan right from the outset, should they so wish. These factors make Raiders of the North Sea a perennial classic of the euro game genre, and it’s a game that I will always find time to return to as and when the mood takes me.

**** 4/5

Raiders of the North Sea is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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