Shem Phillips is on fire right now! His West Kingdom trilogy met with critical acclaim and, before that, Raiders of the North Sea took worker placement fans by storm. Raiders’ younger sibling, Explorers of the North Sea, is perhaps a little less well-known. Explorers is a pick up and deliver game with modular board that came out in 2016 completing the North Sea Trilogy. If you’re a fan of Garphill Games’ other titles then you’ll want to check out this 1-5 player offering that’s full to the gunnels of pillaging, exploring and eye-wateringly gorgeous island building!
How to Explore the North Sea
As mentioned, the map in Explorers is modular and made up of 48 hex tiles. Each turn, you will lay a landscape tile into the map, ensuring all coastlines line up, and then take up to 4 actions. You can move, load cargo or crew, deliver said cargo, raid settlements or build outposts. Every tile contains sea, land, and one resource or point scoring opportunity, which will be placed out on the tile as it’s laid. Each Viking warlord (that’s me and you!) will have to decide how best to take advantage of these opportunities, taking into account each warrior’s unique player power. The 3 spaces in your longboat will never seem enough as you gather livestock, manoeuvre your warriors to pillage settlements, plunder ships and establish control over the beautiful and unique island archipelagos created each game.
All players start from the mainland board, of which there are two (and they’re double sided for even more variable board set up). You’ll sail your ship back and forth to and from the mainland delivering livestock there and picking up more crew, so there’s plenty of opportunity to explore the whole board. Explorers of the North Sea provides something of a point salad, as sets of unique animals, raided settlements, lost crew, plundered ships and controlled islands all provide endscoring VP.
The aesthetics of Explorers of the North Sea are out of this world. The art by The Mico will be instantly recognisable to fans of either Raiders of the North Sea or the West Kingdom trilogy. The style and characters flow seamlessly from Raiders into Explorers, as you would expect from a publisher that offers a campaign mode (Runesaga) in which you play all 3 games together. The tiles are beautiful and illustrated so that the modular board lines up perfectly and is an absolute masterpiece every game. The horn-helmeted Viking Meeples are the same as those used in raiders; the longboats and animeeples though are new and fantastically cute and well crafted. Even the settlement and ship tokens are excellent quality. Garphill Games do not scrimp on quality and Explorers is no exception.
Sail and deliver!
This game has aspects of many mechanisms. Tile laying and area control are integral facets for sure. The chief mechanic has to be pick up and deliver though. Collecting the various animals dotted around the map and dumping them back to the mainland is a mainstay. Along with getting all your landlocked Viking buddies out onto the map to do what they do best, you’ll feel like a veritable barbarian Uber driver!
Explorers of the North Sea requires you to be very flexible with your strategy, as the map is constantly evolving and being affected by your fellow plunderers. This dynamic nature of the game keeps everyone engaged even on their off turns, as they keep an eye on available opportunities and opponent incursions. I really like this opportunistic feel and it gives a sense of sharing the experience in a game that otherwise has very little direct interaction. In fact, in a two player game, there are enough tiles that you never compete for anything. To score well and really enjoy the game, however, you’ve got to cross paths at least once or twice. Wrangle a horse here, drop an outpost there, make them commit more forces on this island so you can capitalise on that island! That’s where the game comes alive and the excitement builds even though the interaction is indirect.
Jarl of all trades
So, there’s no direct conflict. There are however plenty of point scoring opportunities on the board to compete over. While favouring one particular path can pay dividends, to score competitively you really need to have a finger in all these different pies, or at least most of them. Your personal player bonus will no doubt encourage you to lean in a certain direction. All the games I’ve played have been super tight-scoring, so these little character bonuses can make all the difference to end scores. But it’s not the sort of game where you can try radically different strategies each game. Every play is enjoyable but similar; in other words, you’ll lay tiles to give you the most effective route for collecting and delivering all these point-scoring resources as they appear. It’s a game of efficiency and logistics rather than combos and synergies.
Final Thor…ts – Explorers of the North Sea
Explorers of the North Sea is a visually stunning game. Unlike many games with modular boards, the setup is quick and easy due to laying the board as you play. It doesn’t do anything particularly novel with its mechanisms, unlike Raiders’ unique take on worker placement. Explorers is however executed very smoothly and enjoyably. Creating the map as you play is so pleasant and the end result is always really satisfying to see. The modular nature and ridiculous number of hexes gives insane physical replayability, even if the strategic replayability is rather limited. The game is lighter in complexity than Raiders of the North Sea, but by no means unpleasantly so. It’s a fine mix of pick up and deliver and area control mechanics that chugs along at a good pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome at the table. The inclusion of a solo variant is always appreciated and this mode is very smooth and enjoyable. If you enjoy the puzzley side of board games rather than the aggressively competitive, knock-each-other’s-teeth-out end of the spectrum, then you’ll enjoy the efficiency puzzle provided by the game’s twisting sea lanes and myriad scoring options.