Since its release in 2018, Northgard has been expanded with many updates and DLCs. We upgrade and clarify in the test whether it is the best Settlers alternative.
It”s been another five years since I first got my hands on Northgard at its Early Access release. Strictly speaking, I had my mouse in my fingers, but either way I liked the likeable building game back then, even if the scope was still quite small. However, it has grown considerably over the years, because developer Shiro Games has constantly developed its Viking gem.
And so even more than four years after the official release (GlobalESportNews rating: 84), it”s not over yet. Just last December, Northgard got a big, paid story expansion. A reason for us, and by “us” I mean myself, to pay the strategy title from Bordeaux another visit.
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Simple gameplay with a lot of depth
But wait, what was Northgard again? Northgard is a real-time building strategy game in which you build small settlements, capture new sectors and defend yourself against the harsh environment, such as monsters and hostile clans, in single or multiplayer.
The game principle is quite simple. You start with a kind of village centre and four inhabitants. In each sector you can erect two to six buildings, depending on the circumstances and the clan, and assign workers to them. They produce food, (fire)wood, money, stones, iron and knowledge.
New villagers are created depending on the satisfaction of the settlement. Satisfaction is influenced by many factors, it increases, for example, through an inn or research and decreases through the number of inhabitants as well as through sick and wounded people.
Scarce building space requires wise decisions
Because the inhabitants also constantly consume food and wood for heating in winter, the core gameplay revolves around the clever use of your labour and making the most of the limited space.
You can”t just build anything anywhere. The sectors restrict the building sites so much that you have to constantly expand your village with new, adjacent territories. Sectors can contain special resources, such as stone or iron. Some also offer huntable animals or fertile soil, where you can and must build specialised food farms if you want to win. In some sectors you will also find treasures or special objects that you can examine or activate to gain bonuses and abilities.
Neutral factions are also on the map. You can trade with them or fight with them, just as you like. And of course there are plenty of monsters. Wolves, fallen Valkyries, undead… time and again you have to convert your valuable manpower into soldiers to conquer a new area before you can settle it. In addition, the lousy monsters are always launching little counterattacks.
Various game modes ensure replay value
So you slowly work your way forward, unlock new abilities, bonuses and technologies via collected knowledge and glory points and win in the end – hopefully. As victory conditions, Northgard offers dominance as well as knowledge, fame, trade and map victory in standard mode, whereby a certain location on the map is of great importance in the latter.
“Standard mode” already reveals that there are other forms of play. At release, besides the normal mode, there was only the eleven-part campaign around King Rig and Rangnarök, the end of the world and its Norse gods. But over the years, free updates brought a map editor and mod support, as well as a conquest mode.
This offers you special and clan-specific challenges that liven up the normal gameplay with a mix of random elements and selectable bonuses. You can also compete against the AI in co-op. As with all modes in Northgard, there are four difficulty levels to choose from, the lower two of which are particularly suitable for genre beginners.
A New World Map and Cosmetics
Another update also brought the Ragnarok map into play, which compared to the usual Northgard map comes across as more inhospitable, more rutted and with more dangers. Not my favourite, but a nice change. By the way, the maps are always randomly generated, the selection “Ragnarok” or “Northgard” only determines which set pieces and visuals are used in the generation.
Cosmetics, i.e. different skins for your buildings and units as well as decorative elements, also offer visual variety. But don”t worry, all this is free. You just have to unlock them bit by bit by collecting achievements and completing quests. In return, you will receive silver bars, which you can use to unlock the desired objects or skins. There is no real money option.
Relics add the final gameplay touches
Relics found their way to the far north with the Relics patch. You can make them in the forge. Some of them are clan-specific, others are available to everyone. Some have sector effects, others affect the war chiefs, for example. War chiefs are particularly strong hero units, of which almost all clans can send one each into battle.
A few examples: The Nidhogg faction has access to the “Skull of Hrungnir”, which they use to summon an undead giant. The double relic Dainsleif & Tyrfng, on the other hand, buffs the two dwarven master smiths Brok and Eitria, who serve the horse clan. And the shield “Svalinn” (available to all) grants all soldiers in its own sector +50 percent defence. So, since the relics have it in them, each player may only forge one of them.
16 different clans
This all together provides some replay value and additional depth (but not for a good translation, many tooltips are still in English). More important, however, are the many new clans that you can unlock by buying mini-DLCs – each costing five euros.
Already in the release version there were six clans with different bonuses, technologies and game mechanics. In the meantime, ten more have been added, one in the new, large add-on Cross of Vidar (price: 15 euros), which continues the story from the original campaign and introduces a faction with the Christian Lion Clan, which is clearly different from the others.
However, I don”t feel that the balance is right yet. I had a lot of problems making progress with the clan. There are also players on Steam who had a similar experience. At least the worst bugs have been fixed in the meantime, because when the game was released in December, there was still a lot of criticism about the state of the add-on. In addition to the Lion Clan, there are eight new missions, two of which will be added as an epilogue on 19 January.
Whether the DLC is worth it for you depends largely on whether you like the standard campaign. For although Kreuz von Vidar incorporates more special gameplay mechanics, the pace is moderate, as it was in Rigs Saga from the release version. For some this means leisurely progress, for others slightly annoying grind. Personally, I miss, as in the single player in general, a possibility to speed up the gameplay at times.
New content, old weaknesses
The core gameplay of Northgard has two weaknesses: On the one hand, there are always idle phases in which I wait for raw materials or new inhabitants. Double speed would be super useful there.
The other problem is the AI. Even on the highest difficulty level, it hardly ever offers an interesting challenge. A more difficult game mode makes especially the construction phase at the beginning tougher and more unforgiving. Enemy clans are also harder to wipe out and sometimes really annoying. But they have no game agenda and generally behave too passively. That”s how I was able to win a science victory on “Extreme” last time without any of my seven competitors trying to stop me.
And it is this weakness that the numerous new clans and additional gameplay features have not changed. Northgard lacks a goal in the single player in the long run. Once I have understood how a clan works, I can normally always win every game in the same way. Only the random factor of map generation can then throw a spanner in my works.
In the long run, the multiplayer is interesting
The variety of factions is therefore particularly interesting for multiplayer, where it allows many approaches and enables very different gameplay. In fact, Northgard is still played so much that there are always around ten open lobbies to choose from. That”s not great, but it”s enough to get a nice game going every now and then.
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Not the greatest is also the graphics, which haven”t changed since the Early Access launch five years ago. And even then, the 3D comic look didn”t look quite fresh. But the indie budget has to make itself felt somewhere. It still doesn”t bother me much, but others may feel differently.
The same goes for the story and the general staging. In both campaigns, the plot doesn”t win any prizes, but it doesn”t take itself too seriously either. It”s a good accessory, but it can”t carry the game by itself.
A game I can always bring out
The crux of the matter with Northgard was and is the pretty clever build foundation around restrictions, sectors and clan abilities. It can be learned extremely quickly and is still good for interesting decisions after two dozen hours. And so Northgard is one of those games that I might get tired of after just two or three games. But it is also a game that I can bring out again every year because it simply plays well and is a joy to play. Without any stress or complexity madness.
And because others obviously feel the same way, the indie gem has not yet reached the end of its life cycle, even in the sixth year of its existence. Ragnarök will therefore remain absent for the time being. And even if it does befall the game at some point … did you know that, according to Norse belief, the world is recreated by the resurrected Odin after the apocalyptic disaster? Perhaps one day this will also happen to Northgard with its successor.
For a long time I didn”t even know that Northgard was still being provided with updates and DLCs. All the more I was now looking forward to some games in the Nordic world, also because I knew that I would quickly find my way back. Because Northgard is so wonderfully easy to understand and use. And I immediately had fun with it again.
Due to the greater variety of content, the French indie game has therefore earned an upgrade. However, only a small one, because two fundamental problems remain: Idle phases and the not particularly bright AI.
Nevertheless, I can recommend Northgard to you. If you like building strategy, you will certainly be able to spend some pleasant Viking hours here. But you might want to buy it in a sale, because nine clan DLCs plus a story add-on together with the main game add up to a hefty price tag.