Northgard: On Space

Here’s a fun little one. I’ve been playing a bunch of Northgard recently – in line with my established practice of buying one game thinking it’s another, I bought Northgard after reading about Wartile and Bad North and thinking Northgard was somehow both of them. Honestly not sure how this keeps happening. Anyway, it’s not a total write-off – it did have some interesting stuff around how it divides up space. 

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So Northgard is built around regions – you can see three of them in the picture above. You have to scout each region before it’s visible and move-through-able. As a style, it’s basically set up in opposition to something like Age of Empires, which has no regions at all. That space is organised differently: in theory, you can wander a dude over to the enemy base right from the start of the game. The space is treated as continuous, just one smooth unbroken fabric. In Northgard, on the other hand, space is broken up into regions. It’s more like how we experience the geography of countries. Space is segmented into a bunch of smaller spaces – sometimes along natural geographic dividers, and sometimes for weird artificial reasons. For instance, in that image above you can see the region line across that lake in the middle. It makes sense to split two regions across a lake. That’s a natural border line. Others seem a bit more random. They’re essentially only laid down to maintain roughly consistent sizes for each region, so that you’re covering roughly the same amount of map with each one.

On a game level, this division of space into regions has its roots in chess, or other grid-based games. It’s actually sort of a halfway point between chess and Age of Empires, in that although your broader movement is region-locked, you can freely move within each region and between regions under your control. Different types of units also have different access to neutral or enemy regions: civilians are only allowed to move within controlled regions, while soldiers can run out and attack enemy territory and all the rest of it. Curiously, scouts can move through any type of territory entirely unmolested – they can’t be attacked by enemy players, or by wild bears, or anything. I assume that’s more a practical game balance issue than anything else – it doesn’t really make a heck of a lot of sense within the fiction of the world. They counter-balance it by dealing damage to your scouts sometimes while they’re exploring a new region – I assume it’s a random probability of damage based on how dangerous an area is, but that’s not totally clear either.

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So at this point I’d like to say something intelligent about how the spatial design of Northgard offers some reflection on national borders or states or something along those lines, but it’s not really a very intelligent game. It’s not a bad game, but it’s not looking to do anything clever either. What it does manage to do, possibly more by accident than intent, is provide a nice little illustration of how geography can influence relationships between countries.

In this image above, you can see a bunch of rock formations pushing us in a particular direction. We’re based up the top, and the rocks bring us down and to the left. You can kinda see at the very top of the image that the rocks continue along either side, funneling us into this dog’s leg turn by blocking off most other points of access. If you want to attack another player, the combination of geographical regions and physical geography compels you to take a particular route. It determines the best spots for your defensive lines, and in some regards also determines the smartest types of expansion. If you’re living in a valley, with high mountainous slopes protecting you on all sides, you can go straight to the valley entrance, plug it up immediately, and then expand into the rest of your valley at leisure. There are plenty of historical examples of geography informing political relationships in precisely the same way. For example, one of the reasons the British first got into Afghanistan was because they wanted a buffer state, in case Russia tried to move south and take India. It didn’t work out well for the British (or the Russians (or the Americans)), but the initial decision was informed by brute geographical fact.

Of course, our actual history ends up being a bit more complex than the simple stuff we’ve got on display in Northgard. Hannibal’s crossing the Alps is famous specifically because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Everyone sort of assumed the mountains would serve as a natural barrier, in much the same way as the rocks in Northgard – but Hannibal managed to get his men across anyway. It’s that ability to subvert the so-called ‘rules’ of warfare that makes our history so rich and interesting. In Northgard, the rules are laid down in that dull mechanical fashion that characterises many games. Hannibal can’t exist in Northgard, and it’s all the poorer for it.

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