Friday, September 18, 2020

Dolly, Clive & Paul (Thoughts on Happiness)

I make a point to appreciate all the little things in my life. I go out and smell the air after a good, hard rain. I re-read passages from my favorite books. I hold the little treasures that somebody special gave me. These small actions help remind me that there are so many great, glorious pieces of good in the world.

Dolly Parton

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with out friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.

C.S. Lewis

It has been a great joy to me that after all this time you have shown such interest in my welfare. I don’t mean that you had forgotten me, but up till now you had no opportunity of expressing your concern. Nor do I mean that I have been in actual need, for I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know now how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous. In general and in particular I have learned the secret of facing either poverty or plenty. I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.

Philippians 4:10-14 (PHILLIPS)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Classic: Fred, Lionel & Erwin: The "Royal Wedding" Syndrome

This classic blog post seems especially applicable here in 2020... so I wanted to make it more visible (and do some slight editing).

I want to add a warning to the beginning of this post... more than usual for me, this is a William Faulkner-esque stream of consciousness kind of mash-up. You may not catch all the references (that's OK) but try and follow the thread of my idea(s). If you can't, it's not your fault but mine.

First, you need to watch this video.

The Secret of the Ceiling Dance by bluebird1111

For those of you who are children of the 80's - no, Lionel Ritchie was not the first performer to be "Dancin' on the Ceiling." 

No offense to Mr. "Running With the Night" (a good Lionel song, btw, as opposed to the utter inanity of "Say You, Say Me"), but Fred's a lot more graceful than you are.

This amazing effect was accomplished by building a set inside a huge wheel - then gluing or nailing down every piece of furniture & decoration on the set so that it wouldn't move when it was rotated. Pretty impressive stuff, eh?!

Second, you need to read this definition from

The Very Best of British:
Momentarily - As you come into land at an American airport and the announcement says that you will be landing momentarily, look around to see if anyone is sniggering. That will be the Brits! I never did figure out why they say this. Momentarily to us means that something will only happen for an instant - a very short space of time. So if the plane lands momentarily will there be enough time for anyone to get off? Weird!
In a similar vein, I once told 4 year old Collin (my now 15 year old son) that I needed to break him of a bad habit that he had. Tears welled up in his eyes as he said, "Dad, don't break me." Now you're properly prepared for the rest of this post.

I was studying & reading yesterday for my message/talk/sermon (pick your favorite - "long-winded diatribe" is NOT one of the choices) and began searching for an
Erwin McManus quote. Thanks to the joys of Googling, I not only managed to uncover some great quotes, I also found a group of individuals who are very angry with Erwin and have spend an amazing amount of time writing about it.

Now, I'm a part of the online community of boardgame players/collectors, so I've seen obsessive behavior before - the "Eurosnoot vs Ameritrash" argument (don't ask - it's just as stupid as it sounds) chewed up great swaths of bandwidth & emotional energy while generating more heat than light. The Erwin haters, my friends, are some pretty obsessed folks... they'd fit nicely into a discussion of whether Go or Chess is the "deeper" game.

I'm not going to get into a detailed analysis of their problems with Erwin (a pastor & writer who I admire deeply) - that's not really the point today. I will suggest, however, that there are two possible syndromes that explain this behavior:
  1. The "Royal Wedding" Syndrome - lots of folks want their Christianity and/or religion tied up in neat little packages with no rough edges and no sense of mystery. They want everything nailed or glued down so that no matter what happens, they know the rules. These are the folks who deeply love conferences with printed notebooks filled with outlines & sermons with subjects like "7 Easy Steps to a Great Marriage." These same people are flustered (and maybe even a bit angry) at God for not specifically speaking to every potential hot button issue in Scriptures... and since He didn't, they'll do it for Him and pull out proof texts to bolster their point. Erwin, with his artist/philosopher background, is never going to speak their language.
  2. The "British English/American English" Syndrome - speaking of language, the fact that Erwin & the folks at his church (Mosaic) are willing to use terminology not often heard in church to describe Biblical truths is like waving a red cape in front of a bull. Erwin says: "The greatest enemy to the movement of Jesus Christ is Christianity." What I hear is "Christianity as a religious institution has stifled & attempted to channel the power of Jesus Christ in order to reach worldly objectives. Erwin wants to send people back to power & grace & love of Jesus Christ." What they hear is "Erwin wants people to not be Christians but 'spiritual people' who believe anything & everything."
Combine those two impulses with Erwin's love of confounding expectations with his speaking/teaching & you've got the recipe for obsessive website building & the same lovely behavior that Stephen faced in Acts 7:57-58 (NLT):
Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
I'm not suggesting that anyone is headed to Erwin's house for a drive-by stoning... just that the same kind of "stick my fingers in my ears & attack" tendency seems to be present here.

Now, I'm not finished yet. It's one thing when folks have "Royal Wedding" Syndrome over an author. It's another thing when they do it with their lives.

I'm convinced that many of us (and I include myself here) want for everything in our lives to be nailed down solid... so that when life sends us spinning, we can dance on the ceiling without a care. Nothing will be broken, nothing will change... and when our life rights itself, when it returns to "normal", everything will be exactly where we put it.

But an unexpected death or being laid off or your daughter getting pregnant or the onset of depression or a hundred other things quickly end that illusion. When the room of your life begins to turn, nothing stays still. Things crash to the floor and you're reduced to hanging on for dear life. No magical dancing through a wonderland secured by roofing nails & wood glue for you.

As I've been mulling this over, I realized that I'm trusting the adhesives & the hardware to hold my life together - my plans, my nest egg, my house, my possessions, my job - rather than trusting Jesus with all of that stuff... and with me. I want those things to get locked in place because I think that I can hold onto them when trouble starts.

I'm not suggesting that you live in your car or pull a St. Francis & strip yourself naked. I am suggesting that trusting in any of this stuff is foolish - because it doesn't have the strength to support you when life gets rough.

The challenge is (to quote the Southern-fried rock band, 38 Special) to "hold on loosely." And we can do that because Jesus promises to "hold on tightly" to us.
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."
Take a look at that passage (Hebrews 13:5-6) in the Amplified Version... talk about making the point clear!
He [God] Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. [I will] not, [I will] not, [I will] not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let [you] down (relax My hold on you)! [Assuredly not!] So we take comfort and are encouraged and confidently and boldly say, The Lord is my Helper; I will not be seized with alarm [I will not fear or dread or be terrified].
One last question for thought: what if the stuff in our lives getting moved around and/or broken is a good thing? 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Three Mountains... and the Echo Chambers We Live In

Three things to get out of the way as I start: 
  1. The picture here is of the Three Sisters in Alberta, Canada... and has very little to do with the rest of this post. I just think it's pretty. And it has three mountains.
  2. Anything I'm about to say about Jean Piaget and educational psychology must be filtered through the fact that I took my last Ed Psych course in seminary back in 1988. 
  3. Okay... two things.
Over the years, I've often referred to the Three Mountain Problem (one of Piaget's more famous experiments) in my speaking and teaching as a pastor. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling over how it applies to the way so many folks interact with journalism, conspiracy theories, and the never-ending torrent of memes and hot takes that is social media.

The Three Mountain Problem is pretty simple... simple enough that Wikipedia does a rather nice job of explaining it:

Piaget's aim in the Three Mountain Problem was to investigate egocentrism in children's thinking. The original setup for the task was:

The child is seated at a table where a model of three mountains is presented in front. The mountains were of different sizes, and they had different identifiers (one mountain had snow; one had a red cross on top; one had a hut on top). The child was allowed to do a 360 surveillance of the model. Upon having a good look at the model, a doll is placed at different vantage points relative to the child, and the child is shown 10 photographs. The child is to select which of the 10 photographs best reflects the doll's view. Children of different ages were tested using this task to determine the age at which children begin to 'decenter,' or take the perspective of others.
For a long time, I've used this experiment as an example to talk about emotional maturity in counseling people (especially premarital counseling for couples). I believe that one of the keys to healthy relationships (romantic or not) is the ability to see life from other people's perspective - whether or not you agree with them. The ability to listen and understand a different viewpoint than your own increases your empathy, widens your knowledge of the world, and builds meaningful connections.

On the other hand, the inability to see the perspective of others is a major roadblock to growth and change in any kind of relationship... or group. Many of us have attended work meetings with a key leader who couldn't hear anyone else's constructive input due to the siren call of his own particular understanding of the situation. We've witnessed politicians talking past each other, entrenched in their narrow definition of terms and relevant data. 

Which brings me to my point - how much harder is it for us to 'decenter', to take in different perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions, when we have a crowd of people standing behind us, whispering (or shouting) in our ear that our take is the only correct one?

This is the curse of the media echo chambers that we live in unless we strive desperately to bridge the gaps. Our circle of friends on social media are likely to watch the same news outlets, read the same websites, forward the same memes... and that means our attempts to understand why someone believes/votes/supports/thinks something different is exponentially more difficult.

'Decentering' - listening to others with respect and an attempt to understand - does not mean you have to change your mind. But it does mean that you follow the Biblical prescription:
Let everyone be quick to hear [be a careful, thoughtful listener], slow to speak [a speaker of carefully chosen words and], slow to anger [patient, reflective, forgiving]... 

James 1:19 (AMP)

I'll write more later on how I think this directly impacts evangelism and discipleship for followers of Christ - but I took that out of this post in order to focus on the echo chamber application.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Unmatched: Battle of Legends - A Game System Review

  • Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One
    • Plays: 53
  • Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot
    • Plays: 20
  • Unmatched: Cobble & Fog  
    • Plays: 14
  • Unmatched: Jurassic Park – InGen vs Raptors
    • Plays: 13
  • Unmatched: Bruce Lee
    • Plays: 8
  • Playtesting
    • Plays: 13
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… well, not really. The galaxy was actually my local Toys’R’Us (which is now pushing up business daisies) where I purchased Hasbro’s movie tie-in board game: Star Wars: Epic Duels. The year was 2002 and George Lucas was busy failing us in a variety of different ways.

C-3PO: I suggest a new strategy, R2. Let the Wookiee win.

Epic Duels had a lot going for it in those days:
  • Painted miniatures of all the major Star Wars characters Episodes 1-2 and 4-6 (granted, they were pretty slapdash paint jobs, but they were better than anything I could do)
  • Individual combat decks for each character and his/her sidekicks that encouraged players to make similar choices to their characters… for example, Anakin’s deck gives the player lots of extra actions/attacks, while the Obi-Wan deck has a balance of movement, attack and defense
  • 4 different boards to fight on – including the Imperial Throne Room and the carbonite freezing chamber
  • The price point was $20 – and even with the cardboard game boards and cheaply painted minis, it was a good deal.
The game itself was pretty simple – teams of players went into mortal combat with each other. Each turn, the active player rolled the movement die (which might allow only one of their characters to move or possibly all of them) and then took two actions: they could play a card, draw a card, or discard two cards of a dead character to heal 1 point.

I played a lot of Epic Duels over the years – 45 times, according to my records on BGG. For a while back in 2002, it was our go-to game every Saturday night with a bunch of friends from the church I pastored. (I do not recommend 6 player free-for-alls… the decks are not balanced or designed for such nonsense.)

I’m the first to tell you that the game has not aged well – neither the quality of the minis or the problems with the design leave much to recommend it. We tried again last summer with a 2 vs 2 team match and actually called the game before it ended. (And if anyone is looking to trade/buy a lovingly used copy, mine is available.) Too many of the decks require a player to “turtle” for multiple turns to build up enough cards – which was exacerbated by drawing a card taking one of your two actions per turn. The sidekicks vary wildly in usefulness – which, while thematically correct (Chewie with a crossbow blaster is certainly more help than a couple of Episode 1 battle droids), is not very enjoyable from a play perspective. The simple square movement grid combined with the randomness of the movement die could frustrate even the best-laid plans.

At the same time, there were some wonderful ideas buried in the design – the individual decks tied to character and fighting style, the bluff/counter-bluff attack & defense system, and the fast-playing nature of each turn. Epic Duels felt “right”… until it didn’t, as other card-based fighting games innovated in new ways.

Padmé Amidala: Sometimes there are things no one can fix.

Fast forward 17 years and the good folks at Restoration Games enter the picture. Well, re-enter the picture, as designer Rob Daviau was part of the original design team on Epic Duels.

What Restoration dreamed up is a complete overhaul of the game… like you took your ’72 Ford Pinto into the shop and they sent back a Porsche 911. Both of them run on internal combustion engines, granted… but one has an annoying tendency to explode when it get rear-ended while the other is one of the finest pieces of automotive machinery ever designed.

Let’s start, as Padmé says, with the stuff that can’t be fixed. The Star Wars license is currently in the hands of other companies, so all hopes of having the Emperor & Jango Fett tag team against Anakin & Yoda are gone. (You can, of course, homebrew your own card decks and steal the minis from a copy of Epic Duels… and there are folks who’ve done just that over on BGG.)

The rest of the game, though, was ripe for improvement… and the team at Restoration Games made it happen.

Yoda: Always pass on what you have learned.

One of the blessings (and occasionally curses) of being in the hobby for a long time (my hobby gaming pre-dates the existence of AH’s Squad Leader and the hardcover D&D Players Handbook) is being able to see the lineage of game designs… for example, that the individual hex tiles of the isle of Catan appeared nearly a decade earlier in Kings & Things.

Seventeen years was enough time for a lot of really positive developments that show up in Unmatched…

The Board

The map system used in Unmatched is almost identical to the Pathfinder map system originally created for Tannhauser. (Tannhauser, for those of you who missed it, was an alt-history miniatures combat game in a world where WWI never ended and the various combatants are seeking arcane power – I once described it as “Hellboy, Harry Turtledove & Halo rolled into one.”) The Pathfinder system used color to denote which spaces had LOS (line of sight) to each other so you could quickly figure out whether or not ranged combat was possible. Spaces with multiple colors – usually “high ground” or “strategic positions” – enabled figures to have LOS to lots of spaces.

So, in Unmatched, tracing LOS simply means “am I standing on the same color space as the player I want to attack?” Which, in turn, allows the focus of the game to be on the actual card vs card combat rather than figuring out if you can even “see” the other character.

The Miniatures

I love me some pre-painted miniatures… because I absolutely stink as a painter. But the minis in Epic Duels were not… epic.

Let me rephrase that – when they look like I could do a better job of painting your minis, you need to find a new method of getting them painted. (Yes, I know that the MSRP for Epic Duels was $20 – and that many of you picked it up on clearance for $5 – but they’re still sloppy paint jobs.)

Unmatched uses much more detailed miniatures and gives them a nice wash that makes them pop – which is great for those of us who are never going to deface high-quality minis with our lack of artistic skills.

The “sidekicks” are plastic discs – whether we’re talking about Bigfoot’s buddy the Jackalope or Medusa’s harpies. This has caused some consternation amongst old-school Epic Duels players who think every character should have a miniature. (Aside for non-English speakers: “consternation” is the nice way to say “griping”.) While I would love to have more minis (remember, I’m the guy with a full Heroscape collection in multiple rolling bins in his garage), there’s actually a solid gameplay reason for making the key hero stand out – it is the elimination of the key hero that signals the end of the game. This makes teaching non-gamers that much easier when the components reinforce the importance of a piece.

The Hit Trackers

In Epic Duels, the hit trackers were thin cardboard chits on an even thinner cardstock character sheet. Restoration Games added dials for each character with more than a single hit point – which includes some of the sidekick characters. Attractive and functional – a winning combination. (You make your own “sounds like someone I’d like to date” joke here… but I’ve been happily married for 30 years and I’m not going there.)

The Inserts

Box inserts can sometimes be a pain – but the design of the Unmatched inserts is really sweet. (I can quibble with a couple of the inserts with how they left out a notch to make getting cards out easier, but that’s small potatoes compared to the high quality of the rest of the trays.)

Shmi Skywalker: You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.

The really important changes, though, are in the design of the game…

Improved Movement

Epic Duels used a custom movement die which gave either an amount of movement points for a single character or allowed all the characters to move. While this was simple and easy to understand, it combined with certain deck designs to lead to turtling – if you could stay far enough away from melee-oriented characters, you could simply sit & rack up cards.

In Unmatched, drawing a card is a part of taking a Movement action (see Improved Turn Order below)… and a Movement action means all the members of your team can move. Movement points are set by team – so the Raptors are faster (3 movement points) than, say, King Arthur (2 movement points).

In addition, each card has a Boost value on it. Discard a card when taking a movement action and you can add its Boost value to your team’s movement points.

Improved Turn Order

A player in Epic Duels had two actions to do the following three things:
  • Draw a card
  • Discard a dead character card to heal another character 1 point
  • Play a card (attack or use a special card)
In Unmatched, players still have two actions… but a different menu of choices:
  • Movement (which consists of drawing a card and then moving any or all of your team members)
  • Playing a Special Card
  • Attacking another player
Healing is built into many of the decks… and dead character cards can be used to boost movement (as well as attacks for some characters).

Hand Management

Hand size is limited to 7 cards at the end of your turn, down from 10 cards in Epic Duels.

More importantly, running out your deck of 30 cards is a bad idea – every time you need to draw a card and cannot do so, your main character takes 2 damage. With over 50 plays, I’ve only seen this happen once… but it definitely impacts strategy and tactics. Some decks run through cards quickly (I’m looking at you, King Arthur & Bruce Lee), making folks playing those decks watch their card consumption carefully.

This also helps immensely with the turtling problem and creates a built-in game “timer”.

Tighter Boards

In addition to using the LOS system from Tannhauser, the Restoration team shrunk the board size to tighten up matches and movement. It isn’t down to “knife fight in a phone booth” level… but there are few good places to hide for an extended length of time.

In the later Unmatched maps, they are starting to play with new innovations, including secret passages (Baskerville Manor) and one-way movement arrows (the Raptor Paddock).

Innate Powers

Each character/team starts with an innate power that is both a thematic element and a part of shaping their deck and playing style. Paying attention to these powers (which are on a player aid card along with the movement allowance for your team) is key.

Fine-Tuned Decks

I won’t go into detail about deck construction – but suffice it to say that the Restoration team honed these deck designs down tightly. Each deck feels and plays differently – tactics that work well with Bigfoot are ill-advised if you’re playing Sindbad or Robin Hood.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive, the folks at Geektopia Games have some great writing and resources on deck structure… including an Unmatched Maker. And, let me warn you, this is a Marianas Trench-level deeper dive – but worth your time if that’s something that interests you.

Greef Carga: Let’s make the baby do the magic hand thing. Come on, baby. Do the magic hand thing.

I’m not sure what the above quote has to do with a section on the various Unmatched boxes you can purchase… but it makes me laugh every time, so I used it anyway. Sue me.

Unmatched: Battle of Legends Volume One

The first box released includes four heroes and a double-sided map large enough for 2 vs 2 battles. Along with Robin Hood vs Bigfoot, this is probably the version I’d suggest to players who are new to Unmatched and/or Epic Duels. King Arthur is the most difficult to play well… but all four heroes have unique decks and fighting styles.

Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot

This box has two heroes and a double-sided map aimed at 1 vs 1 matches. These two characters are probably the easiest heroes for newbies to learn with… but there are plenty of tricks in their decks as well. If you are curious but don’t want to spend too much, this is an excellent introduction to the game system.

Unmatched: Bruce Lee

No map in the box… but you do get to play Bruce Lee, which is either an invitation to run roughshod over your opponent or get pummeled into next week. (We had a Bruce vs the Raptors battle that lasted 5 minutes with the clever girls tearing him apart.) Bruce is a lot of fun but he’s better for experienced players.

Unmatched: Ingen vs Raptors

This is the first of three promised Jurassic Park boxes – it has Muldoon and the Ingen hunters against three Raptors. Muldoon’s trap ability combines with his ranged attack to make him a potent opponent and one that is relatively easy to learn how to play. The Raptors are tougher to learn, but on maps with lots of connections can use their pack attack to wreak havoc. The two player map in this box is single-sided.

Unmatched: Cobble & Fog

The second box of four heroes (with a double-sided map large enough for 2 vs 2 play) has a wide array of characters associated with London. Sherlock Holmes (and his sidekick, Dr. Watson) require the most experience with the game system to play well – there are specific cards in his deck which work substantially better if you have knowledge of your opponent’s deck composition. Dracula is the easiest to play, with the other three heroes requiring more finesse.

Yoda: Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.

There is a whole lot of Unmatched stuff in the publication/development pipeline. Later this year (2020) will see the release of Unmatched: Buffy and as-yet-unrevealed 2 character box. 2021 will see the remainder of the Jurassic Park releases and a new Battle of Legends box.

Restoration Games is playtesting characters beyond that point as well – including their Unmatched Design Contest which will be the basis for an upcoming four character box.

Kuiil: I have spoken.

By this point, you’re probably not surprised that I’m a huge fan of the Unmatched game system and recommend it highly to anyone… nor will you be taken aback that my oldest son acquired his own full set of Unmatched to take to college with him.

Here’s the big picture… a 1 vs 1 game takes 15-25 minutes; 2 vs 2 usually runs 30-45 minutes. There are currently 13 different characters to choose from, each with their own well-balanced deck design. There are 7 different maps currently available that offer a variety of challenges. The art design is very cool and the game is well-playtested. And… it is one of the best fighting games I’ve played. 

And I’m looking forward to taking on my younger son tonight!

Note: While I did not receive review copies of any of the Unmatched boxes, my boys & I are playtesters for Unmatched (which involves printing your own cards & maps). This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Northgard: First Impressions

I’m not sure if I’m showing my age and/or my relative immaturity here… but any time I play a game about Vikings, this is what pops into my head.

So, let’s just start with a simple statement of truth. The Muppets, led by Jim Henson, are one of the cultural touchstones of the 20th Century.

Oh, yeah… I’m supposed to be giving you, dear reader, my first impressions of Northgard, the new board game based on the popular video game. (Actually, I have no idea if it’s popular or not – I don’t play that many video games any more. I do know that I can order it in a variety of different formats… and since I have teenage sons, at my house I could play it on Steam, the Nintendo Switch, or our Xbox One.)

Once again, I have managed to chase a rabbit (this one made of pixels) and get away from the point of this article: a preview of the Northgard: Uncharted Lands board game which is currently on Kickstarter. Seeing as how I am unsure of your level of patience, I’ll proceed with that forthwith.

First, thanks to the good folks at Open Sesame Games, who know how to do prototypes right. The quality of the components were top-notch and made for a good solid first impressions experience. In addition, they provided me with the means to create a proxy version of the Creatures expansion – more on that later.

Second… well, there is no second. It’s just time for me to play the music and light the lights!

The Story

Welcome to the wonderful world of Vikings! In Northgard: Uncharted Lands, you lead your Viking clan to explore the wilderness, harvest resources, build a variety of structures, and occasionally engage in combat in order to emerge as the victor in this race for glory and fame. Long past your death, warriors will tell stories in the mead halls of your feats of daring, my friend. (Alternately, you may have to hoist your own can of Coke Zero and brag about it on Facebook – that’s kind of the way we’re leaning these days.)

At the end of 7 rounds, the player with most fame wins… fame which is amassed by
  • Exploring and closing in territories (similar to finishing a city in Carcassonne)
  • Keeping control of those territories at the end of a round
  • Controlling an Altar of Kings (a building which sheds fame like a long-haired poodle)
  • Playing certain special action cards
  • Having leftover resources (3 resources = 1 fame) at the end of the game
Alternately, a clan that controls 3 closed (complete) areas with a large building at the end of any round automatically wins the game.

The Way the Game Rolls Along

Each round, players draw four cards from their action deck to make up their hand… and as many cards as the number of players from the common deck are laid face-up for drafting.

Then, in turn, players take one action by playing action cards or taking an alternate action until they decide to pass and draft a new card. The first player to pass becomes the start player for the next round.

Alternate actions include:
  • Wait: Playing an action card without using the action
  • Replace: Paying a Lore resource to discard an action card and draw a new card from your deck
  • Remove: Paying two Lore resources to cull an action card from your hand and draw a new card from your deck
  • Upgrade: Paying three Lore resources to add one of your Level 2 Clan cards to your hand
  • After all players have passed, each clan collects fame from their closed territories as well as resources (Food, Wood, Lore) based on the symbols in those territories and/or buildings. Players can trade any 3 resource tokens for the resource token of their choice at this time.
As George R.R. Martin told us, “Winter is coming” – and so players must spend food to feed their clan… based on the number of clan members currently hard at work in the uncharted lands (instead of those freeloaders who sit in front of you, laying about as if they hadn’t a care in the world.) If you are unable to pay, you must take an Unrest card, which not only gums up your deck but also penalizes you with negative Fame at the end of the game.

With that, the round comes to an end and players check for a winner (remember: 3 large buildings in closed territories). Repeat up to six more times and you’ve got yourself a game of Northgard.

The Clever Deck-building Bit at the Heart of the Game

Each player begins the game with seven action cards:
  • Build (which allows them, you’ll be surprised to know, to build a building)
  • Explore (which enables them to draw a new map tile and place it adjacent to an open territory with one of their clan members)
  • Move (which lets them move 1 clan member to an adjacent territory… and potentially start a brawl with a neighbor)
  • Recruit (which allows them – and again your surprise will be palpable – to place a new clan member on a territory they control)
  • Feast (which is a wild card allowing a player to do any of the above actions)
  • Their Level 1 Clan card – each clan has a different set of powers and action cards they can use

On a turn, a player can take a variety of actions… but most of the time, they’ll be playing one of the four cards in their hand in order to take that particular action.

When a player decides not to take any more actions, they pass… and part of passing is drafting one of the face-up action cards to the top of their deck. Pass early and get the card you want; wait till later and trade a less favorable draft for time to act uninterrupted by pesky neighboring clans.

The drafted action cards have a variety of twists on the basic actions:
  • Build cards that allow building more than one building or offer a discount in resources
  • Explore cards that allow more tiles to be drawn or explored
  • Move cards that allow more units to move… and sometimes with extra combat symbols
  • Recruiting cards that allow more units to be recruited
  • Draw cards that allow you to cycle your deck
  • Special action cards that reward you with extra fame for fulfilling certain criteria

Over the course of the game, the cards you choose to draft will change the way your clan is likely to participate in the game… and, due to the random way the cards become available, the tone of each game may be markedly different based on the draft row. For example, if a lot of move and recruit cards show up early in the draft, it’s likely to be a game filled with the sounds of combat… or if the focus is on explore and special actions, it will be a more peaceful race to close territories and build buildings.

There are also some cards which have a lightning bolt symbol (called “Flash cards” in the game rules) – these cards can be played before or after playing an action card – and can help a clan leap into action or solidify their defense, as well taking less time to get to the point where they want to pass and draft a new card.

The Map

The map is generated by players exploring… if and only if they have clan members in an open (aka “unfinished”) territory. Take an Explore action, draw a tile, orient it as you wish (as long as no stray boundary lines appear, and the uncharted lands become slightly less uncharted.

There are four main features on map tiles:
  • building sites (more on that in a minute)
  • border lines (dashed lines are “normal”; solid lines indicated mountains which are more difficult to cross)
  • resource symbols (Food, Wood, or Lore which are there just for the taking)
  • lairs (where creatures reside if you’re using the expansion)
When a player finishes a territory (completely closes it in) that they controls, they receive one fame for each tile that is a part of that territory.


There are eight different buildings that can be built.. five smaller buildings at the bargain cost of a single Wood resource and three large buildings which will set your clan back a hefty three Wood resources. Buildings must be built on the appropriate sized building locations (unless you draft a card that allows you to bend the rules).

The small buildings include
  • the Food Silo (which adds a Food resource symbol)
  • the Woodcutter Lodge (which adds a Wood resource symbol)
  • the Carved Stone (which adds a Lore resource symbol… but can only be built on “standing stone” building sites)
  • the Training Camp (which gives you an extra clan member when you recruit to that territory)
  • the Outhouse of Death (OK, that’s not the official name… it’s the Defense Tower, which adds a skull for combats when defending the region. But it looks a little like a privy/water closet/etc., so that’s what we named it.)
The large buildings include
  • the Altar of Kings (the aforementioned site harvests 3 Fame for whoever controls it at the end of each turn)
  • the Fortress (which adds two axes to combat when defending the region)
  • the Forge (which increases your hand size by 1… so, if you have multiple Forges, even more cards to play each turn)
The building system is simple and clear – and the artwork on them (even the Outhouse of Death) is easy to read across the table. (Those of you wanting cool miniature buildings should heed the problems of such foolishness as illustrated by the Kickstarter buildings from Dice Settlers, a game I like very much but who made building minis that actively make the game more difficult to play.)


When two different clans occupy the same territory, a battle begins. A clan’s combat strength (axes) is determined by:
  • The number of clan members present (+1 per figure)
  • The number of clan members fed (+1 per Food token spent… but no more than the number of figures present)
  • Any combat symbols (axes or skulls) on buildings or the move card played
  • The roll of the combat die
Skulls mean your opponent must choose to remove one of their clan members – and if one side is decimated before comparing axe scores, then the combat is over. If both sides have clan members remaining, then the scores are compared and the higher score wins and forces the other to retreat.

As befits Viking warfare, combat can be absolutely brutal in Northgard. I strongly suggest that part of teaching the game be a couple of sample combats so players can see how “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” (Yes, I know… Robert Burns was not a Viking. But he’s not wrong.)


Northgard includes an “in-the-box” expansion with the warchief figures for each clan. For folks with a little bit of gaming experience, it’s not a big deal to add this to your first game – it just adds some mild twists to combat. (The warchief powers are on each clan player board, so it’s clear that the design team feels like they are an important part of the game design.)

Creatures of Northgard

Part of the Kickstarter is an expansion that adds non-player creatures to the game – hence the descriptive “Creatures of Northgard” name. These various beasties can co-exist peacefully… but also can decide to attack neighboring territories based on their card AI.

Players may also decide to hunt them down for fame – it can be your own personal stab at recreating Beowulf. (Note: as an English major, I’d encourage you to read Beowulf in the original Old English. This, for many of you, will make me even less popular than my usual suggestion to read The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. But that’s the way I roll.)

The creatures offer a slight bit of complication to the rules – but the subsequent tightening of the board space will increase the number of balls which players have to juggle.

My Thoughts

We’ve played four games of Northgard prior to me writing this first impression – and I’ve enjoyed each one. Both of our three-player games ended in round six with a player holding 3 closed territories with large buildings. Our two player games (one with the Creatures of Northgard expansion, one without) went the full seven rounds and were won on fame points.

The game clocks in at 45 minutes for two players and just over an hour for three players… which leads me to believe that four & five player games should end up in the 75-90 minute mark. The playing time feels right for the weight of the game… enough time to accomplish some of your goals without the game overstaying its welcome.

As I noted in my explanation above, the tiles drawn and cards available for drafting can determine the tone of a game. While the common deck is weighted towards move & recruit cards – nearly half involve recruiting clan members or moving them into position – there is the possibility in lower player count games of having a much more “Viking festival of friends” vibe instead of a “Vikings plunder and pillage mercilessly” vibe. (Note: I am playing with the prototype version of the game that does not include any stretch goal cards.) The map tiles have a similar effect – if a number of large building sites become available early, the game is likely to focus on the race to three large buildings.

Northgard: Uncharted Lands is on the lighter end of the 4x game spectrum – but it does contain a good bit of the rough & tumble that goes with the genre. I think that the shorter playing time helps ease some of the pain of getting sandwiched and/or run over, but players should go in knowing this isn’t Carcassonne with cute Viking miniatures.

One more note about the playing time: for those out there who want their 4x games to be an event (I’m looking at those folks who were excited to see the Twilight Imperium expansion announcement), Northgard is going to be painfully short. As I am not one of those gluttons for day-long punishment, I take that as a real positive.


Remember, I really like the game… but I do have some questions/quibbles/concerns:
  • The rules reverse standard usage of “rounds” and “turns” – which is confusing when you’re teaching/learning the game but inconsequential once you actually know how it works. This may be an artifact of the game being designed outside the U.S. market.
  • One of our players was really frustrated with his lack of resources based on his initial placement draw of a tile with no resources on it. We house-ruled for the rest of our games that an initial placement tile with no resources on it could be discarded to the bottom of the stack and a replacement tile drawn.
That’s pretty much it for my quibbles… so take that as you will.

Legal Stuff

As a reminder, I received no compensation from Open Sesame Games except the prototype copy of Northgard in order to play it. I am not an actual Viking, or even a very good pretend Viking. I don’t like mead – and wearing a horned hat is guaranteed to make my ever-so-patient wife more likely to make fun of me.

Pictures here were either (a) from the publisher, or (b) taken by me with an iPhone using the wonderful Hipstamatic app. In my mind, I’m a hip photographer with an artistic flair; in reality, I’m a middle-aged guy with a smartphone in his basement.

If you’re interested, the Kickstarter for Northgard: Uncharted Lands runs through September 1, 2020 (that's today!)

This review originally was published on the Opinionated Gamers website.