Recruit a crew of Vikings and raid settlements.
Android, iOS, Steam, & Switch
# of Players
Raiders of the North Sea is a worker placement game from Renegade Game Studios brought to a variety of digital platforms by Dire Wolf Digital. Players recruit Viking crew members and resources in order to raid various settlements across the map. Players collect victory points throughout and once there are a limited amount of settlements left unraided, the game ends. This typically takes about 30 minutes.
Raiders offers a very simple twist on traditional worker placement mechanics. On your turn, you place the worker in your hand, taking the action you placed it on and then you retrieve a worker that was on the map at the start of your turn, also taking that action. There are three different types of workers, represented by colors, and certain actions can only be done by workers of a certain level, while others give you differing returns based on the type of worker used. These mechanics are pretty fantastic, as the need to acquire certain types of workers at the end of your turn in order to do what you want to on your next turn will often change your strategy of what actions you want to take. The game also starts with only the lowest level workers available and it’s not until players start raiding that the more advanced workers become mixed into the game.
That was a roundabout way of explaining a sample turn on Raiders. You place a worker, taking that action, then retrieve a worker, also taking that action. The exception to this is if you choose to raid a settlement. If you choose to raid, it will be the only action you take on that turn and will provide loot and potentially points, as well as a replacement worker for you to start your next turn with. Raiding occurs on four different types of settlements, from weakest to strongest: Harbour, Outpost, Monastery, Fortress. Each settlement has a requirement in order to raid, this includes the worker type, number of crew members you must have, number of provisions you must spend, and, for the more advanced settlements, an amount of gold you must spend. Once there is only one Fortress settlement remaining, each player gets one last turn before the game ends.
The basic buildup of Raiders revolves around needing to recruit crew members and provisions, as these are the two essential requirements for all raids. Output settlements require at least two crew members and somewhere between one and three provisions, for example. You recruit crew members by acquiring cards and then visiting the Barracks where you can use silver to recruit people from your hand into your crew, silver being available via a separate action space. Most crew member provides some strength to your raiding attack, although some will provide a zero here.
As you progress further north on the map, the settlements start requiring a certain amount of attack strength in order to get VP from them. They have multiple thresholds of strength values, if you can accumulate the highest amount of strength, larger VP rewards await.
There are a few other odds and ends in the available actions, but there are only eight total which keeps the game fairly straightforward. You can trade various resources for strength points or for VP at different action spots, or trade cards for silver or gold. The last major mechanic in the game is Valhalla and the Valkyrie track. Certain raids, when completed, will force you to sacrifice one or more of your crew members to Valhalla along with the various resources you receive as loot. This isn’t all bad, however, as your sacrifices will earn you points, all the way up to 15 if you send seven crew members to the Valkyrie track. There is a crew member who will provide bonus strength for every two pieces you have on the Valkyrie track. Combine that with the points and it becomes a potentially high powered strategy to send as many crew to Valhalla as possible.
The draw of Raiders comes from the very clever basic design. The worker placement twists are a lot of fun on their own and would make for a very good game if there wasn’t a whole lot else going on. Where Raiders really shines, however, is in the strategy provided by the crew member cards. Each crew costs a certain amount to recruit and also has a tempting secondary action, but that only activates if you are willing to discard the card before they enter your crew. All crew members have abilities once they enter your crew, and some of these are quite powerful. They can provide extra attack bonuses on certain settlement types, make recruiting new crew members cheaper, or even get sent back to your hand instead of being discarded when they are sacrificed in battle. The crux of Raiders is what cards you get and how you choose to use them. I’ve found myself with a full crew (you can only have five at once) and a very weak strength total because I was focusing too much on abilities and not overall strength. Likewise, you can recruit a bunch of strong crew but miss out on some very useful abilities.
I really like this game, if you couldn’t tell. The twist on worker placement it provides is so simple it makes you wonder why you hadn’t seen it before. The three different types of worker adds to the basic mechanics in a big way, making individual decisions a bit tougher, especially later in the game where you are balancing the desire to do things in the action area and the need to raid Fortresses. Any worker placement fans who haven’t tried Raiders (or one of the other releases in the series) should definitely check this one out.
Barrier to Entry
Raiders is taught through two tutorials which the games prompts you to begin when you launch the app for the first time. The first tutorial is fairly quick and basic, explaining some of the fundamentals of worker placement games and holding your hand through a few turns. The second tutorial is much more in depth, requiring you to raid three different levels before finishing. The tutorial will pop up explaining new locations/abilities/whatever as they become available, but it is fairly open-ended as to how you go about achieving the goals. This lack of hand holding will be good for some people and a bit tough to follow for others, I suspect. While playing non-tutorial games, as you encounter certain things for the first time, some helpful hints will show explaining a new rule.
The game also features text rules which are good for use as a reference guide. One nitpick is that some aspects simply aren’t covered by either. I can’t, for example, find anywhere in the app that shows me the scoring scale for the Valkyrie track. It is mentioned a few times, from the tutorial to the text rules, that you score points based on your position in the Valkyrie track, and it is even pointed out that 15 is the maximum points you can score there, but the actual score is nowhere that I can find. This is a small detail, but it is a situation where you will be forced to look outside of the app to find basic information about the game, which is always unfortunate.
Beginning of a new game
Look and Feel
Raiders of the North Sea provides some of the best visuals we’ve seen in the digital tabletop world. The game begins with some cutscene action, the graphics aren’t groundbreaking, but it looks great and sets the tone well for the rest of the game. The in-game graphics, again, aren’t revolutionary, but every piece is given life by adding small bits of polish. When you raid, a boat sails in and fires upon the target settlement, with the defeated location falling to rubble as you collect your plunder. As you play, ships sail around the harbor. It's the small touches that really stand out. The physical game’s bright colors and unique art style really land well in digital format.
Functionally, the layout is well thought out. You can scroll around the map from the action area up to the various settlements. There is also a button to see the entire map on one screen which is an easier way to see the overall board state. The only thing I was initially confused about was the Valkyrie track which I couldn’t find. It can be found by clicking on your ship icon in your resource tray.
One nitpick that shows up over time is the length of the animations on opposing player's turns. The great animations of ships attacking or workers being placed get a bit tiring after a bunch of games. It would be nice to have the option to speed these up a bit. It is particularly bothersome when playing online games, as you sit through all opposing players' turns each time you load a game.
Control wise, you perform actions via drag and drop by moving your worker token onto an action space, then doing the same for returning a separate worker to your hand. There are some secondary options which are made via click-and-confirm, such as recruiting a crew member or using a special action from a crew card. There are a couple of complaints in the controls. First, there is no undo button which is unfortunate because THERE SHOULD ALWAYS BE AN UNDO BUTTON. I will note that certain actions which require a choice do allow you to back out of taking that action, however. this is not the same as allowing you to undo an action. Elsewhere, the target areas for dropping your worker token can be a bit small and, if you’re like me, this will result in quite a few misfires in trying to take an action. This is especially prevalent in trying to target specific settlements to raid as they are closely bunched together.
In the audio department, the game has some light background music, but the emphasis is on the sound effects as each action has its own sounds which play much louder than the music. These effects are nice enough, but tend to get somewhat repetitive after enough plays.
The game can be played online cross-platform and games can be real-time or asynchronous. “Casual” games are async while “Live” games are real-time. Games are created and joined via a lobby system. When creating a game you can select the number of players, casual or live, optionally add AI opponents, and password protect a game. You can directly invite friends into a game, up to three in a game, using the friends list. You cannot choose Casual or Live, nor can you add AI players when starting games this way.
Online play works really well. When you load up the game, you are prompted to play your casual games when it is your turn. The game sets up well for asynchronous play and the implementation delivers a great experience playing that way. I can see Raiders becoming an online staple for a long time.
The game does not feature a local pass-and-play mode, which is unfortunate. There is an online leaderboard system where you can compare your progress in the game as scored by an overall number which includes online and offline game results. You can compare your scores to the entire online world or just to friends. This score ties into Renegade Games' other online leaderboard systems.
Offline games can be played against one to three AI opponents or in a series of ten campaign challenges. The app has one of our biggest red flags: no AI difficulty levels. When you start an offline AI game, the only setting is the number of players, all of the AI plays on the same level. In probably the biggest letdown of this app, the AI is, being kind, not very good. I lost my first game of Raiders and I have only lost once since (more on that later). I’ve even tried some more outlandish strategies, but they all seem to work against this AI. It's not that the AI is terrible, I'm not winning every game by 20 points, but they inevitably seem to fall a few points short regardless of how well I do and when I do put together a strong game, I do win quite easily.
I was very excited to see a campaign mode, and was hopeful it would provide different challenges to make things more fun in offline play. I've finished all ten scenarios in the campaign, only losing once when I misread some of the special rules and accidentally trigger the game end before I was ready. I immediately replayed the scenario and won by over 20 points, so it's safe to say the difficulty was not ramped up for the campaign scenarios. The campaign matches are small twists on the rules. The first challenge, for example, has you in a two player game where there are only Harbours to raid. Others add VP to certain settlements, or remove actions from the main area, and so on.
It is, quite honestly, very deflating to see such poor AI. I’m never great at these games, but I’ve been able to easily defeat the AI since my second play. I simply don’t see much replay value in this game if your primary mode of play is against the AI. Thankfully, AI improvements are a popular thing to get patched, let's hope that is the case here. The game really needs separate AI difficulty levels, but that's a bigger issue than simply beefing up the existing AI.
The game offers a challenge system which allows you to level up be completing tasks at your current level. You are given three at a time and they are things like “raid five Harbours” or “collect 10 provisions.” This is a nice touch, having some external goals to go after is fun for completionists.
Special campaign rules
There are two well regarded expansions for Raiders, Hall of Heroes and Fields of Fame, they are not currently available in the digital version. There is no word on whether these will hit the app at any point in the future.
The Wrap Up
This app has a ridiculously packed feature list, it looks fantastic, and the underlying game is a great medium weight worker placement game in a digital world where there is room for competition in this space. I was incredibly excited for this game when it was announced and even more excited when I got my hands on the app and played the tutorial and my first game. The massive wet blanket to this excitement is that the AI is so bad that offline play doesn’t serve any purpose other than learning how to play the game. I usually play more games online than off, but it still becomes much more difficult to wholeheartedly throw my recommendation behind a game when offline play is, essentially, unplayable.
Other nitpicks in the app include lack of pass-and-play, some unexplained rule odds and ends, and lack of an undo button. The undo button and/or pass-and-play might be a big deal depending on your viewpoint, but overall these are fairly small nitpicks. Otherwise, the app is incredibly well made. It has almost every feature you could want, looks amazing, and plays incredibly smoothly.
Raiders of the North Sea is frustratingly close to being one of the best digital board games out there. Add AI levels which allow you to scale the difficulty (and make sure they are actually difficult) and this instantly becomes one of the best all around apps out there. As it stands today, however, it's a fantastic looking app with a load of features that is only really worth playing online. If online play is your primary mode, this might be close to a five star app. If you don't touch online play and only want a good AI challenge, this is probably closer to a three star app, especially considering the lack of pass-and-play. So, as it stands, we will settle this one right in the middle. An exceptionally well made game that is packed to the brim with features and polish, we wholeheartedly recommend Raiders of the North Sea for its online play while holding out hope that significant AI improvements arrive to make the offline experience just as fun.
Update: Dire Wolf has stated that an AI fix will be coming, but it hasn't landed a week+ after release. This review will get updated after getting the chance to play with the improved AI.