Northgard, a new RTS from Shiro Games, is not about building vast armies of Viking berserkers or fleets of longships or a thriving northern metropolis. Instead, it is a deliberately paced strategy game about the inexorable march of spring to winter and the thousand little ways in which poor planning and hastily made decisions can mean the demise of of struggling little band of villagers.
Combining historical realism and Viking mythology, Northgard puts you in charge of a town hall and a handful of workers on a procedurally generated map and, unsurprisingly, tasks you with growing your little outpost. If this was Age of Empires or its infinite variety of progeny, you would gather resources as quickly as possible in order to build, expand, move up a lengthy tech tree and eventually create an impenetrable walled fortress or a massive conquering force.
Northgard takes a very different approach. The map is divided into small territories, each with an abundance -- or paucity -- of resources, human, animal, or mythological enemies, and strategic values, and the task is to expand outward from the home base. Each satellite region can only house three buildings, whether they be storage units, gathering hubs, workshops, farms, houses, or military training centers. Unlike most RTS games, the town center does not produce workers. Rather, they are attracted to the town due to its economic health, and then they must be assigned jobs.
Although there is no overwhelming tech tree and a catalog of units and upgrades to explore, there is a constant sense of scarcity and the occasional, short-lived sense of relief that another winter has been survived. Northgard shifts the focus from the factory model of mass producing units to the moment-to-moment decisions that are almost entirely about resource management and allocation. Expanding into a new region means training a limited number of scouts, but that means pulling villagers from other assignments. Do you focus on food production, trying to store enough provisions for the coming winter, or train enough warriors to rid the region of encroaching wolves and bears, thus allowing for building in the new area? Survival becomes a puzzle, the solution of which changes from season to season.
The heart of Northgard is the skirmish mode, where playing as one of six clans provides some useful starting, stat-boosting, and special unit advantages. Played against the game's excellent AI or another human opponent, there are a number of victory conditions that align with economic or military success, or even the drive for greater Fame. None of them are anything less than a challenge to achieve, in part because the game's procedurally generated maps can be resource scarce and unforgiving of even a modest miscalculation.
Northgard's 11-chapter campaign is underwhelming as a narrative, but does an excellent job of introducing the clans and the game's basic mechanics while providing a constantly varied sequence of short-term goals. The game's story of revenge and retribution might be forgettable, but Northgard's production values are very high, with a fundamental art design that splits the difference between caricature and realism, evocative maps, and a rich musical score. Northgard's weather and lighting effects add even greater weight to the importance of the changing seasons.
Real time strategy games have always been frantically paced and often complex to the point of frustration, so Northgard's deliberate speed and relative lack of fussy over-complication make it a refreshing standout in a genre that has seen too few innovations. Make no mistake, while Northgard might not have pages of tech trees and armies of clashing units, it has a fundamental gameplay loop that is never less than engaging and consistently challenging. Northgard is an RTS where neither the usual binary strategies of turtling or aggression are effective and where every victory feels especially sweet.