We’ll never get seasick of playing this!
1-4 Players (1-5 Players with expansion)
45 minutes (+15 minutes with expansion)
Note: This game was gifted to us by Garphill Games for an unbiased review
Longships at the ready, it’s time to explore!
Explorers of the North Sea is set in the latter years of the Viking Age, where players take on the role of sea captains seeking new lands. You must transport your Viking crew to these newly discovered islands in order to raid settlements, capture livestock and build outposts.
We were lucky enough to receive review copies of both Explorers of the North Sea and its expansion, Rocks of Ruin so this review will cover both the base game and the expansion! I really feel like the expansion is a “must have” if you have Explorers as it adds so much to the game without adding too much complexity.
How the base game works
Each player is assigned a Captain at the start of the game which has a unique way to earn unique victory points at the end of the game (for example additional points for livestock), but in all other ways are the same. This should help you pick a strategy that will benefit you the most.
The game starts off with all players’ Vikings and their longships on the beach of the mainland, with no idea what islands lie before them. On your turn you select one tile from your hand to lay on the table and begin the exploring of the North Sea. Obviously you must place the land tile in such a way that edges link up and you don’t end up with random jagged edges. The longer the game goes on the more tactical you will get with placement as the map expands further and further. Some tiles contain settlements, ships or livestock on them, in which case you place the corresponding token/meeple on that space.
Then you take up to four actions, all of which are fairly basic. You can do the same action multiple times and in any order. You can load/unload your Vikings to/from your longship, you can move your Vikings across land, your longship across water, you can transport your livestock and you can construct an outpost. It’s that simple!
The game ends once all the tiles have been placed and you end up with a humungous map on your table!
You score points for:
– Unique sets of livestock you manage to bring back to the chieftain on the mainland (e.g. one of every type is better than multiple of the same type).
– Outposts constructed. These are a pain to build as they need to be a certain distance from other outposts, but the points you get are worth it.
– Ships destroyed. As you travel through the sea you may encounter enemy ships (not your opponents!), which grant you 1 VP each, but sometimes this will lead to one of your Vikings dying.
– Viking deaths. Any of your Vikings that die whilst sinking an enemy ship will score you points (1 VP for 1, 4 VP for 2, 9 VP for 3 and so on), it can be a major inconvenience to lose Vikings early on in the game, so proceed with caution before taking on too many ships!
– Settlements raided. On some map tiles there will be settlements. These markers get flipped face up when placed and have a number between 2 and 5. This represents how many Vikings you require to raid it, scoring that many points at the end of the game. If you have a decent sized crew you could just go around raiding settlements as there is no risk to Viking life!
– Controlled islands. Now this is where it gets messy. If you control a completed island (e.g. no missing tiles, completely closed off) at the end of the game by having more of your units on it than your opponents then you score 1 VP for each tile that makes up the island. So if you manage to control some big islands you can score some absolutely massive points. It may pay you to steal a smaller island off your opponent than to take an empty one for yourself as you’re hurting them as well as benefiting you!
– Your captain’s unique scoring bonus
How the expansion works
The expansion adds three key new elements; Shipwrecks which you can salvage to gather rewards, additional buildings to construct which improve your basic actions, and fortresses to raid which give huge points.
Shipwrecks are placed facedown when a tile containing one is laid onto the map. They can either provide timber (which allow you to construct a building on a future turn), +2 additional actions to be used later on, extra VP at the end of the game, or siege weapons which make it easier to attack a fortress. Finding shipwrecks is absolutely essential to doing well at Rocks of Ruin because all of the resources you can get from them are so useful, especially early on in the game.
Fortresses are similar to settlements but generally require more Vikings to conquer, provide more points when you take them over and often kill some of your Vikings along the way. They can be especially beneficial towards the end of the game where you don’t mind if more of your Vikings die. You can use a siege weapon retrieved from a shipwreck to make it easier.
The three new buildings you can construct cost one timber (found on shipwrecks). They are the Mill (allows you to deliver livestock here instead of back on the mainland), the Workshop (makes it easier to construct outposts) and the Barracks (allows you to move more Vikings with one action than you could previously). If you can build them early on they can provide great benefits to you, to give you that edge over the other players. The Mill is especially useful if you can build it near lots of livestock.
Explorers of the North Sea is a very light game – there aren’t many rules to get your head around and the actions are all very simple (although sometimes trying to remember how many Vikings can move in a single action with or without livestock can be tricky), meaning its very accessible to new gamers. That said there are plenty of different paths to victory – will you focus on building all your outposts and killing off all your Vikings, or try and gather as much livestock as possible whilst raiding settlements? The different captains also offer variety as they can nudge you into a particular strategy.
The game can swing on the points awarded for controlling islands. If you manage to control a massive island this could be worth 15/20 points at the end, but only if the island is complete. I fell foul of this a few times where I controlled one massive island but could never access the tile I required to finish it. Because you only have three tiles to choose from on your turn there is some reliance on luck, but not so much that it ruins the game. I love this element of area control, the mad rush to grab land as the game nears its end.
As with every game in this series, the artwork is brilliant. The box and the captain cards look great, and as you can see the longships, Vikings and livestock are all very high quality. The fact that the enemy ships, fortresses & shipwrecks are only tokens doesn’t really bother me because to have miniatures for these would raise the cost of an already expensive game even further.
As the game goes on and the archipelago expands, it looks fantastic on the table. Huge sprawling island chains littered with shipwrecks, settlements and livestock is very easy on the eye. You will need a big table especially with the 24 additional tiles in Rocks of Ruin because you use all the tiles! It makes it such an attractive game to play and is very replayable because you’ll always be creating a different map.
The more players you have the more player interaction you will have. We’ve found with 2 players and only one longship each that we could pretty much go about our business as we pleased on opposite sites of the map, with occasional tussles over island control. With 4 or 5 players though there’s a lot more going on. If you don’t use your actions wisely your livestock can easily be snatched from under your nose, or an outpost built on an island you had your eye on. Whilst there’s no direct “fighting” as you might expect with a game like this, there’s plenty of sneaky behaviour, but mainly at higher player counts.
As the game goes on and the map widens, it can be frustrating if you have a long trip to cover (e.g. you’ve picked up some chickens on the opposite side of the map to the mainland and need to transport them back to the chieftain), and with only four actions it can take you several turns to complete. This is fine as long as your opponents also take quick turns (which they ought to!), but if they’re taking ages to decide whether to risk raiding a fortress or explore a shipwreck, then it can drag a bit. All the more reason to build your mill somewhere central to make it easier to deliver those chickens!
In my opinion this is a game that definitely needs the expansion if we are to play it. I think the base game is good as there are so many ways of scoring points, but there isn’t quite enough in the gameplay to keep me coming back time after time. With the addition of shipwrecks, fortresses and the new buildings there’s a lot more going on. I enjoy the dilemma of taking on the bigger fortresses, potentially losing two of my precious Vikings, and the risk of exploring a shipwreck only for it to be yet another siege weapon.
I have a lot of love for Explorers of the North Sea with the Rocks of Ruin expansion, it’s fast (most of the time), looks fantastic, offers multiple paths to victory, has a nice amount of player interaction (at 3+ players), and contains just the right amount of jeopardy with the tile laying, shipwreck hunting and fortress raiding. You can do a lot worse than investing in these games!
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Get the Rocks of Ruin expansion:
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Check out Rocks of Ruin on Board Game Geek: