City-builder games, sometimes known as “Colony Sims”, are a subsection of strategy games that are based around taking charge of a city or settlement, and helping it to grow and expand. They are as old as gaming itself – one of the first and most famous Colony Sim’s was SimCity released in 1989 which went on to inspire a very successful franchise of its own. The massive success of Banished released in 2014 and Cities: Skylines released in 2015 shows us that the genre is still going strong in the modern day.
The basic premise of Colony Sims is to produce and distribute resources to develop your settlement, defend it from enemies and keep your inhabitants happy. They often offer very little graphical stimulation, limited combat mechanics and there are rarely any missions or narratives to follow – the goal is simply to grow and nurture your city. In some ways, they are the antithesis of the high-energy, action packed caricature of a videogame, but that doesn’t stop the genre from attracting a passionate and dedicated audience. The slower, more deliberate, more strategic play style makes the genre very attractive to people who prefer a more cerebral gaming experience.
I absolutely love a good Colony Sim. When I turned to the Switch library, I was delighted to find Northgard – a Colony Sim following a band of vikings as they venture out to colonise the mysterious frozen continent of Northgard. Colony Sims have always been quite niche and PC-dominated, so I was excited to see what a new console like the Nintendo Switch could offer the genre.
There really isn’t much to a Colony Sim without good gameplay. Unlike other genres, there are no fancy cinematics or narratives to hide behind. Thankfully, Northgard doesn’t disappoint. Compared to other Colony Sim titles, Northgard’s gameplay is delightfully simple, well-balanced and easy to understand. There are only three main resources to manage – food, wood and gold. The algorithms (how the game calculates how many resources you’re generating at a time) are more consistent and predictable than in other Colony Sims such as Banished, which makes it easier to find a strategy that works for you. It also offers a wide variety of ways to “win” a game, which encourages the player to get creative with their gameplans.
Obviously, Colony Sims have quite a specific formula to adhere to; making them stand out from each other can be a challenge. Northgard offers some original features, such as the seasons mechanic, which requires the player to make clever use of the temperate, fertile summer months to stockpile food and wood for the long, harsh winter months. Surviving feels like a constant battle against nature.
Usually in a Colony Sim, the player is dropped into an environment with little in the way of context and instructed to just get on with it. It’s very refreshing to find that Northgard has an actual story! The campaign stages are very varied. Interestingly, each stage forces the player to adopt a particular play-style or strategy by setting very specific victory conditions – for example, one stage might be to destroy an enemy settlement, the next might be to win a trade-war. In this way, the campaign plays almost like a tutorial, but a tutorial that is actually fun. As you progress the story, the game is subtly teaching you how to play. This makes it a really accessible title for newcomers to Colony Sims (or someone who just sucks at strategy games, like me)
The Element of Luck
One thing I noticed immediately when playing through Northgard was how much the element of luck counts towards your success. There are countless random events that can occur as you play through a save, and some of them are quite catastrophic for your village. This is quite common in Colony Sims, and although it does keep you on your toes, it’s something which always irritates me. I have always felt that I should win or lose solely on the basis of my decisions, nothing else – and certainly not because a portal to hell opened outside my village, unleashing demons on my defenceless villagers before I even had a chance to get a farm going. That’s a little bit cheap in my opinion. Lots of people disagree with me, though. After all, real life isn’t fair and it certainly isn’t predictable. They add to the immersion for some people.
I would never pretend to be a competent strategy game player, but particularly on the standard single-player versus AI mode, Northgard is difficult.
Northgard is quite special in that, not only is it a Colony Sim, it is also a “real-time strategy game.” This means that there is no turn-system in the game – the timer is constantly running, meaning you have no time to sit and think about your decisions or plan your strategy. You have to muddle along as you go.
Northgard’s games are very short, lasting maybe 2 hours, which means there is little room for error. Single-player games put you against three AI clans to see who can fulfil one of the victory requirements first. The AI is efficient – if you make a mistake early on, you have very little time to claw yourself back to the top of the leader-board before the AI storms so far ahead you might as well restart. Being effectively disqualified from the game from a simple mistake is frustrating to say the least, especially for someone trying to learn the game.
My advice is to stick to the campaign stages until you have a crystal-clear well-rehearsed strategy you can employ in the single-player mode.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Somehow, Northgard manages to exist in a state of equilibrium – it’s sufficiently difficult that newcomers to the city-builder genre might find it frustrating and complicated, but it’s also sufficiently simple in it’s mechanics that veterans of the genre might find it shallow or dumbed-down. Thankfully, most people will fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, which is exactly the type of people I think Northgard is designed for – people who understand the fundamental principles of Colony Sims, but don’t have a lot of experience actually playing them. If you think that city-builder strategy games might be for you, and are looking for a good place to start, I can certainly recommend Northgard. The graphics are fun, the story is intriguing and the ancient-Scandinavian setting sets it apart from the standard, cookie-cutter medieval European Colony Sim aesthetic.
Colony Sim’s have a reputation for being complicated, niche and nerdy. I think it’s fantastic that the style is being preserved by releasing good-quality and accessible games on the newest platforms. Long may it continue.