Designed by: Shem Phillips
Art by: Mohajlo Dimitrievski
Published by: Graphill Games
Playtime: 45-60 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK.
Having successfully pillaged everything surrounding their village in Raiders of the North Sea our happy band of blood-thirsty Vikings reckons it’s time to explore the larger world so that they can pillage it, too. At least they’re consistent, I suppose. Yes, this is the third game in the North Sea trilogy and going into it I was very curious as to whether designer would opt for a heavier, deeper experience for the last game in the series before all three get bound together by Runesaga, or would stick with the lighter feel.
So, your goal is to sail the seas, raid settlements, steal livestock, build outposts and wreck pirate ships in order to capture the victory points needed to be the most awesome Viking since Hiccup in How to Train your Dragon. To do that you first need to pick one of the two captains you’ll be dealt at random. Captains don’t have any special powers that directly affect or anything, but their cards offer breakdowns of how to score points as well as an extra way to score, like how the Archer nets you an extra point per tile lying between the starting board and your furthest outpost.
Your turn kicks off by taking one of the three chunky tiles in your hand and placing it on the table, joining up with either the starting board or a previously placed tile. The rules here are simple to understand; land must connect to land and water must connect to water. As the game progresses the layout will grow and expand, creating entire islands and a network of water to travel along, and once the final tile has been placed the game comes to an end.
Each tile you place will depict either one of the seven types of livestock, an enemy ship sailing the sea or an outpost that can be raided. Whatever is shown you take the appropriate wooden animal, chunky red token or little card ship and pop it down on the tile, waiting for players to claim them.
It’s here that we get the majority of the game’s strategy. Much of the strategy comes from either deliberately trying to keep certain things away from other players or from placing it close to you, perhaps building a sizable island you want to control or ensuring a sheep that’s needed for a set is next to your longship.
Once you’ve expanded the world it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of being a Viking by picking a total of four actions from a list of six possible ones, repeating them as you see fit. The most basic thing you can do is to move your absurdly adorable plastic longship around the board, bearing in mind that like a real boat you have to have at least one Viking in it in order to sail. Of course, longships can’t move on to land, but they can move on to a tile containing land and sea, which is how you’ll transport your warriors on and off land.
Yup, the next basic action is loading and unloading your ship. On your turn you move any number of Vikings on or off the longship, the only rule of note being that the ship can only hold three Vikings and/or livestock at any given time, otherwise things will just become awkward.
Ah, the livestock. Vikings do love to steal whatever local wildlife they stumble across in order to please their Chief and to score those lovely, lovely victory points at the end of the game. Now, loading livestock onto the ship is a bit different than Vikings, because livestock aren’t smart enough to just jump aboard on their on, rather you have to have a Viking on shore that can either throw the daft beast onto the boat or come aboard with it. Likewise when unloading a Viking will either need to hop into shore with it, or there will need to be a Viking already patiently waiting to catch the daft beast when you chuck it out of the ship.
Sometimes you’ll need to move Vikings across land or even have them take livestock with them. With this action, you can move up to two Vikings one hex, or one Viking along with a livestock token. It’s important to know that until you actually bring livestock to the starting board it doesn’t belong to anyone, so while you’re busy herding a chicken across an island another player can come along with a Viking and start pushing it the other way. Since you’re all playing as Vikings from the same clan you can’t actually attack each other, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get into a furious livestock war.
Having a pile of Vikings on land is how you conquer any settlements that show up, the number on the randomly chosen settlement token indicating how many of your Vikings need to be on that hex to raid it. This can be tricky with some of the stronger settlements where five out of your six Vikings will be needed for the raid, but at the end of the game each settlement you raided scores equal to its strength so all the effort can be worth it.
Another thing you can opt to do is place outposts around the map where three tiles intersect. Provided you have two Vikings on any of those three tiles you can spend two of your actions to construct a new outpost, done by just popping down one of your five little wooden outposts. Importantly another outpost cannot be built if any of its tiles would have to use a tile that has already been used for a different outpost, so on small islands a single outpost can stop other players from building there.
On their own outposts are valuable as the more you construct the more points they are worth at the end of the game, but they also serve a dual purpose by allowing you to exert extra control. Allow me to explain; at the end of the game you look at all of the complete islands and then determine which players control them by calculating their influence. A Viking is worth one point of influence while an outpost is worth two, and whoever controls the island gains victory points equal to the number of tiles the island is made up of. Because of this, some strategic outpost placement can really help swing the game in your favor.
Finally, you can move onto the same hex as a ship token to attack and destroy it, but you can only do this provided you have at least two Vikings currently in your ship. The reason for this is because when flipped over some tokens will kill one of your crew, permanently removing them from the game in return for some victory points.
Speaking of scoring that’s what we really need to chat about next. Practically everything you do in Explorers will earn you points, but opting to focus yourself tends to yield the best results because for many things each item, in turn, becomes more valuable than the last. For example, the first outpost you build is worth two points, but the second is worth five and so and so on. As for livestock their points get calculated in terms of sets of seven, again with each one being more valuable than the least. If you have a set of four different livestock, for example, then they would be worth 10 points, while your second set of three livestock would net you 6 points. Likewise, dead Vikings will go to Valhalla and thus, just like in Viking lore, they will be magically transformed into victory points.
As for everything else you also score a single point for every ship you blew out of the water, along with even more points for raided settled and controlled islands.
I love this scoring system because everything has its own pros and cons. Grabbing all the livestock means considerable travel as well as having to leave Vikings all over the place, while going on a raiding marathon forces you to do a lot of trips back and forth to get your angry troops into place. And as for chasing pirate ships in the hopes of sending your Vikings to Valhalla that can obviously leave you struggling for raw man-power if you aren’t careful.
All of it is very simple stuff, mind you. At its core Explorers of the North Sea is a pickup and deliver game that doesn’t do very much new nor bog down the pace with complex rules. No, Explorers of the North Sea is a light, fun gateway game and I think that was the best decision designer Shem Phillips could have made. As standalone games, he could have gone for a more complex set of mechanics, but with the Runesaga in mind it makes perfect sense to keep things relatively simple across the trilogy so when you go to play them all in succession it doesn’t become a soul-destroying slog.
Like Raiders of the North Sea before it this is one pretty game, bathed in vibrant colors and the beautiful art of Mohajlo Dimitrievski who has a wholly unique style that just clicks with me. In terms of components, we’ve got some stellar plastic longships into which the wooden Viking and livestock meeples fit, which is just a fantastic touch. I also have to mention that the rules are also clear and concise.
If I was to criticise the game for anything it would probably be that with two players it’s too easy for each person to drift apart and do their own thing, almost playing solo with only the occasional interruption. When you’ve got three or four players the board becomes more crowded, and in my view more interesting as everyone vies for control of islands or races to grab some livestock.
So, in the end, I have to be truthful and say that I still love Raiders of the North Sea far more, but in in its own right Explorers is a very fun, simple game that would serve as a great choice for families or for a group of people who have never really ventured into the magical world of cardboard, tokens, dice and cards. Best of all there’s still enough depth to keep veterans entertained and to keep them getting it to the table frequently for some fun. You should be proud, Shem Phillips, you’ve created one hell of a trilogy here, and each game in its own right is hugely enjoyable. Explorers of the North Sea will be staying in my collection, for sure.