The North Sea trilogy are the games that shot Shem Phillips to board game fame. Especially with the hit release of Raiders of the North Sea, Garphill Games, his publishing house, became a household name. With the Viking theme, gorgeous components and stylish artwork by The Mico, the series captured the imagination of modern board gamers. With their innovative twists to classic euro mechanics, the games cemented Phillips firmly in the ‘one to watch’ bracket also.
But are the games for you? Would one appeal more than the others? Where does Raiders of Scythia fit in? If you do want to do the series, where do you start? Fear not, our intrepid Zatu blog team have braved the shield wall to give you the full rundown on the North Sea Trilogy!
Shipwrights is the first game in the series chronologically. Released in 2014, it’s a fairly light game with a 2.29/5 weight rating on BGG. It’s a card drafting, hand management game for 2-5 players with a limited worker placement element. As the name suggests the main activity is building Viking longships. To do this players must manage their resources of oak, wool and iron as well as utilise tools, buildings and various workers to maximise their victory points. The game is predominantly card based and does involve a degree of luck, which is perhaps exacerbated by a take that element and opportunity for hate drafting. When a player has constructed their fourth Ship the endgame is triggered. At the end of that year all players will tot up their victory points and the hairy barbarian with the most will be declared Odins BFF… or winner (titles are interchangeable).
There’s a single expansion for Shipwrights, the Townsfolk expansion. This expansion adds a new central board which expands the worker placement aspect of the base game. It also adds shields which give an element of protection from being attacked by other players. Finally, the expansion alters a single original rule which effectively doubles the amount of workers players will now receive each turn. To summarise, Shipwrights is a card-based game of card and resource management with a fairly strong element of negative player interaction. Thematically players aim to build mighty ships but winning is all about collecting victory points.
Raiders of the North Sea is undoubtedly the game that propelled Garphill Games into the spotlight and designer Shem Phillips into the wider board gaming consciousness. It’s true that Shipwrights of the North Sea came first, but this mid-weight 2-4 player game introduced what, to my knowledge, was a new spin on worker placement at the time. The key mechanism being you will place a Viking meeple onto a location and do the corresponding action, then take a different Viking meeple from a different location and do the action on that location too.
This nice and effective place worker, pick-up worker mechanism blends seamlessly with hand management, set collection and a little bit of push your luck that integrates perfectly with the theme of Vikings gathering resources, building an effective crew and using townsfolk to help them on their way, then raiding locations across the sea for bounty, plunder and most importantly, points! To be successful you will then need to re-invest to unlock grey and white Viking meeples who can allow you gain for even bigger prizes (which can be achieved by raiding bigger and more fortified locations) and the chance to impress the chieftain with offerings that will build your prestige in the form of more victory points.
The gritty yet comic artwork from the Mico elevates this game further, with a saturated board and charismatic personalities such as a Berserker, Huntsman, Champion and Shieldmaiden, who you can recruit into your crew (provided you have enough silver to hire them) or ask them to do you a one-off favour. There are two expansions available: Hall of Heroes adds mead and quests to the equation (and some much-appreciated player boards), while Fields of Fame adds fearsome Jarls who you may want to fight, recruit, or simply run away from! It also adds the concepts of damage and fame. Both expansions integrate smoothly into the base game and build upon what is already a fantastic and rewarding experience.
Explorers is so accessible and one of the best examples of pick-up-and-deliver in any game for me, and this is a mechanic I don’t usually warm to. This lightweight modular tile-laying game even includes a solo mode, making a player range from1-4. The game plays so smoothly and is very satisfying when you score well despite being quite light and simple. Ideal for a quick fun game. But if you want a bit more, Rocks of Ruin will bring it! This is a brilliant expansion to what is already a very good game. I would say it turns it from a seven out of ten game into a solid eight.
Rocks of Ruin brings in three new buildings, 24 new tiles with shipwrecks and fortresses, three new Captain cards, a dashboard to house all your own player pieces and new parts for a fifth player. The extra buildings felt like the biggest change for me as they introduced some very exciting and useful new powers and rules.
The Barracks when built allow you to transport one additional Viking when moving your troops. The Workshop allows you to construct future Outposts with only one Viking present. And most excitingly, The Mill brings a second location for your Vikings to drop off their livestock rather than having to return to the starting position. In a game, which for me, was mainly let down by its limited moves, this is huge. Originally, as you expanded and created your exciting land to explore, the lack of moves often restricted you from being able to get to any of it. Now, you can. There are many new ways to maximise your efficiencies and cover more ground.
I would happily play Explorers without this expansion, but it is undoubtedly a better game for it. It doesn’t make the game significantly longer or harder, but it is more enjoyable. That’s the main goal for an expansion and I think this delivers.
Raiders of Scythia is a reimplementation of Raiders of the North Sea. Gone are the Vikings – they’re replaced by male and female Scythian warriors. Gone is familiar artwork by Mihajlo ‘The Mico’ Dimitrievski. That’s replaced by Sam Phillips’ penmanship. I eulogised about this in Zatu’s recent Annual Awards. (Click here to read about Scythia’s nomination for Best Artwork of the Year!) In fact, gone too are the individual tracks around the board’s edge. The raiding heartbeat remains in Scythia, but there are changes afoot. This isn’t the case of a mere reskin…
This is a worker placement game, parallel to Raiders of the North Sea. You only ever have one worker, whom you send to a vacant spot in the Scythian village. Then you return a different worker already present in the village, so you get to take two actions. You’ll do this in preparation for option two: raiding. There are four different neighbouring countries: Cimmeria, Assyria, Persia or Greece. Settlements get harder to raid the further south you visit. But so too do the sweet victory points on offer! Scythia differs in that it takes on facets from North Sea’s Hall of Heroes and Fields of Fame expansions. Shem’s taken the best bits from these and included them in Scythia’s base game. You complete Quests by paying in Plunder you earn from raiding. But there’s no set collection; they’re worth simple, straight-up points. Kumis (a kind of Scythian milk) is akin to mead. It boosts Strength and can heal Wounds. You earn Wounds via dice rolls when you go raiding, which you have to place on your Crew cards. Your Crew die if their Wound total exceeds their Strength.
But the coolest addition are Animal cards. You can buy horses and eagles and attach them to your Crew! Animals provide Strength, end-game points, and eagles can trigger some awesome combos. It’s this latter point that makes Scythia sing for me. Along with everyone starting with an asymmetrical Hero card, the joy comes in building a Crew into a unique, formidable engine each time.
Want to learn how to play Raiders of Scythia? Click here to read my tutorial!
The Runesaga offers a competitive campaign mode for 2-4 players, which plays out across 3 chapters, 1 for each of the 3 games in the North Sea trilogy. Each chapter offers the chance to gain 3 unique runestones for completing 3 different objectives. These objective-based Runestones offer their winners advantages in later chapters. The winner of each game will be awarded 2 Runestones and if you gave a really good game and came a close second you can bag a sympathy Runestone! At the end of the campaign, after playing the entire trilogy, players will tot up their collected Runestones and award the winner the title Chieftain! That’s an even grander achievement than being Odins BFF! If you have the whole trilogy, the Runesaga campaign has to be the ultimate way to experience The North Sea Trilogy.