Settlers from three Nordic empires have decided to start their voyages and set sail for new lands in hopes of finding more resources, and increasing their opportunities to expand. Building new structures, taking advantage of upcoming events, and outsmarting opponents in their path to greatness. You don’t know who your opponent might be; it might even be a different clan from your nation. Even so, you will do what is necessary. Your current lands are meager, and the resources scarce, so you’ll need to work hard to acquire the food and resources necessary to thrive!Empires of the North Rulebook
For today’s board game intro, let’s keep things as simple as possible. Want to be a viking, explore new lands, gather resources, and build up your empire in a boundless attempt to overcome every adversity life throws at you? No? Maybe it’s just me then. Either way, Empires of the North will put you straight into the helm of a clan of misbegotten people as they try to thrive and conquer the lands as the most prominent clan in existence. Welcome to Empires of the North!
Empires of the North is for 1-4 players, takes approximately 45-90 minutes to play, and is for ages 10 and older.
Setup for Empires of the North will feel slightly weird because there’s no central board for the play area. For this post, I’m going to break it down into steps instead of putting it in a full paragraph.
- Place the Score Board in a central area where all of the players can see and reach it.
- Put the Expedition Board in a central area where all of the players can see and reach it.
- Shuffle the Distant Island and Nearby Island decks and put them facedown in the appropriate spots on the Expedition Board.
- Flip over 2 cards from each of those decks and put them in the corresponding spots on the Expedition Board.
- Mix up the 5 Action Tiles and randomly flip them over, placing them together to form a circle somewhere in the middle of the play area.
- Each player then chooses a Clan and takes the following components for that Clan: Deck of Clan cards, 2 Clan Ship tokens (3 if you’re the Ulaf Clan), and a Clan score marker.
- Each player should then choose a player color of his/her choice and take the matching Clan tile (Spent Workers) and the 2 matching Clan Action Pawns.
- Each player places a Clan score marker on the 0 of the Score Board.
- Place all of the goods and resources within reach of all of the players or designate a “banker” to handle them.
- Each player should take their 3 Basic Field cards that came with the Clan deck and place them faceup in front of them.
- Each player takes the goods/resources listed on those Basic Field cards.
- Each player takes 5 workers.
- Each player should draw 5 cards from the Clan deck, keep 3 of them, and discard the other 2 into their own personal discard pile.
- Randomly choose a first player.
- Time to begin!
The object of Empires of the North is to finish the game with the most Victory Points. You do this by taking actions to build your empire into a thriving and resourceful clan, scoring points from a myriad of effects from cards, sailing into unknown waters to explore land, and spending resources. This is all done through rounds that consist of four different phases. Those phases are Lookout, Action, Expedition, and Cleanup.
The Lookout phase is the main way you’ll gather new cards to add to your hand. All players will do this phase at the same time. The first thing you should do is put the cards you already have in your hand off to the side. Then draw 4 cards. Look at the new cards you drew. If you want to keep any of them, you have to take one of your workers and put 1 worker per card you decide to keep on the Spent Worker tile you took during setup. Discard any cards you don’t want to keep to your personal discard pile. Pick up the cards you put off to the side and add them to any of the cards you just kept. This is your full hand of cards. As a point of reference, you don’t have to keep any of the cards you drew during this phase and can choose to discard all 4 without spending any workers.
This phase is the main phase of the round where almost all of the action takes place. During this phase, you’ll build locations, use your Clan Action Pawns, and activate the actions on your location cards. The players will take turns taking actions by taking one action at a time until every player has either passed or has no more actions to complete. There is no limit to the number of actions a player can take during this phase, however each player can only take one action at a time before passing to the next player. Once all players have passed or have no more actions, the round will move to the next phase. Yes, much like Viticulture, this means that if all other players have passed, you can technically take as many actions in a row as you’d like as long as you have actions to take.
The four main actions you can take on your turn are:
Build a Location
Use a Clan Action Pawn
Raid an Opponent
Use an Action From a Location
Build a Location
When you build a location, you must have the resource cost listed on the top left of the card. Simply pay the good on the card by returning it to the supply and then place the location in front of you. There is no particular format you have to follow when placing locations in front of you. Place them in whatever way is convenient for you, reorganizing the order or format of the cards at any time.
Use a Clan Action Pawn
You took 2 Clan Action Pawns during setup. Remember those five tiles you formed into a random circle during setup? Those five tiles have actions on them that you can take by placing a Clan Action Pawn on one of them. Those five locations are Explore, Populate, Construct, Harvest, and Sail.
When you place a Clan Action Pawn on this space, you draw a single card from the top of your Clan deck and add the card to your hand.
When you place a Clan Action Pawn on this space, you take a worker from the supply and add it to your pool of available workers. There is no limit to the number of workers you can have over the course of the game.
When you place a Clan Action Pawn on this space, you can build a location card from your hand for free. (It must have a resource/good cost and not be a Field (this will be explained later)).
When you place a Clan Action Pawn on this space, you gain the goods/resources from a single Field of your choice from your Empire.
When you place a Clan Action Pawn on this space, you get to sail on the Expedition Board. Take one of your Ship tokens that you took during setup and place it on the Expedition Board. When you place it, you can choose to add a fish (good/resource) and/or axe (good/resource) to the ship. You do this because an axe allows you to conquer a Nearby Island (which will be explained later). A fish allows you to sail to Distant Islands. No fish or axe means you can simply pillage a Nearby Island (more later). A fish and an axe allows you to conquer Distant Islands. Having only a fish means you can only pillage Distant Islands. Keeping track of who plays on the Expedition Board and in what order matters, so make sure you make a vertical line of ships, placing your ship below the most recent ship played on the board. If no other ships are there, place yours between the Nearby and Distant Island decks. Also, the board isn’t very big, so if enough ships are played to fill up the board, continue placing ships at the bottom of the board in whatever way is easiest for the table, making sure to keep track of the order the ships are played.
You can only place 1 Clan Action Pawn on your turn. However, on subsequent turns, if both of your Clan Action Pawns are on the Action tiles, you can spend one food (resource) and move one of the pawns to an adjacent tile. Flip over the Clan Action Pawn to the side with the X on it, resolve the action on the Action tile, and now that pawn is exhausted until the next round. This means you can technically play a total of 4 Clan Action Pawns during each round. There are also no limits to how many players can have a pawn on each tile. The only real rule is that you can’t place a Clan Action Pawn on a tile that already has one of your own pawns nor can you move a pawn to an adjacent tile that contains one of your pawns.
Raid an Opponent
Raiding an opponent is a simple way to interfere with another player’s ability to use one of their location cards. Discard an axe to the supply and choose a location in a player’s Empire and exhaust it. We’ll discuss exhausting locations in the next section, but as a precursor, this means that the player can’t use that card during this round.
Use an Action From a Location
This is where the bulk of your actions will most likely stem during a round. Other than the Fields that you have built either by your basic cards at the very beginning or through the Build/Construct action, you can activate the actions on those cards by paying whatever resource cost, taking the appropriate action, or spending the number of workers listed. Resolve the ability of the action on the card. Then rotate the card 90 degrees to the left/right to show that it is exhausted. Each action location can only be used once per round unless it is stated otherwise. I will discuss the different kinds of action locations later.
Once all of the players have passed on their turn and/or no longer have actions that can be taken, it’s time to explore the Expedition Board! Starting with the first ship at the top of the column of ships, the player with that ship chooses what Island card to which they want to sail.
If you have no fish or axe on your ship, you can only pillage Nearby Islands. When you pillage, simply choose the Island you want to pillage, look at it, and gather the resources listed under “Pillage to Gain.” Discard the Island to a discard pile to the side of the Expedition Board. If you have an axe but no fish, you can conquer a Nearby Island. Discard the axe to the supply and take the Island you want to conquer and add it your Empire. Conquered Islands become a building within your Empire that have effects or activations that can take place during the Action Phase, so make sure you collect the Building Bonus listed on the bottom of the Island card when you conquer it. The Building Bonus is something you gain from building a card.
If you have a fish but no axe on your ship, you can pillage the Distant Islands. Do the same thing above when pillaging. If you have both an axe and a fish on your ship, you can conquer Distant Islands, taking the same steps listed above for conquering.
A point of note is that you don’t have to use the fish and axe. If the time comes and you decide you want to pillage a Nearby Island but you put a fish and axe on your ship, that’s perfectly fine. Unfortunately, you still have to discard the axe and fish. You can also choose to draw from the Island decks rather than picking one of the faceup options. However, if all of the faceup Islands are gone from other players, you must draw from a deck and look at the card. You can choose whether you pillage or conquer it depending on what resources you put on your ship, but you must take an action on the card you drew.
Take back your ship and then the next player with a ship goes. This continues until all players with a ship on the board have resolved their expedition.
Cleanup is done in small phases. Those phases are:
- Take all workers from the Spent Workers tile and add them back to your personal supply.
- Unexhaust all cards in your Empire.
- Take back all of your Clan Action Pawns.
- Discard any of the faceup Islands that weren’t pillaged/conquered and flip over four new ones.
- Pass the first player marker clockwise to the next player.
- If nobody has reached 25 points during the Action Phase, begin a new round starting with the Lookout Phase. If a player reached 25 points during the Expedition Phase, the next round will be the final round of the game.
The Different Kinds of Locations/Actions
There are varying kinds of locations and actions that can be taken on those locations. Attempting to describe every single action and location in this post wouldn’t be feasible, so instead, I’ll cover some of the basics that help play the actual game without going into too much spoiler detail.
Fields are shown in the picture above and will almost always provide resources/goods. The only way to gain the resources listed on those Fields is by using the Harvest Clan Action tile or through an action on one of your cards. You will notice some Fields that you might draw that have resources where they only appear on the right side of the card (unlike in the center like the picture above). These are Fields that must be placed on an already built Field and put underneath it to “upgrade” that Field to give more resources/goods.
Feature cards have special abilities that can be taken during another player’s turn or through the activation of some other kind of action. These almost always produce goods or resources but can sometimes perform other functions as well.
Most of your standard action location cards will have a cost in the upper left hand corner of the card. These costs range from goods and resources to spending workers in order to build. However, Fields and a few other miscellaneous cards will have an action as a required cost. As an example, a Field may say, “Explore to Build” over a red banner in the upper left hand corner of the card. This means on your turn, you declare that you’re going to build that Field but it requires you to Explore to Build. So you build the Field and then place a Clan Action Pawn on the Explore tile. It’s one of the few ways to technically perform two actions in one turn.
You might also come across cards that say, “Populate to Play” or “Explore to Play” or any other Clan Action tile in order to play. Just like above, you must declare that you want to play this card and then place your Clan Action Pawn on the appropriate tile. Resolve the card first (they will almost ALWAYS be an instant effect that gets resolved and then the card gets discarded), and then resolve the Clan Action Pawn.
As a note of reference, you can’t play these cards if both your Clan Action Pawns are exhausted or you have a Clan Action Tile already on the tile which the card requires in order to be played.
Card Actions Clarifications
There are a total of six Clans to choose from, and each one has a different difficulty and play style. Some Clans come with completely different mechanics than the other Clans and it changes the way the rules affect the game. Here are some of the mechanics you might see and small clarifications on those mechanics.
Some cards will award different rewards for having a certain number of a resource or good stored on a card. If you have workers stored on a card, you do not gain those workers back during the cleanup phase. These resources/workers/goods get stored on cards by being assigned there from other actions (see below).
If you take an action that lets you release a worker, you simply remove the worker from the card on which it’s stored and place it back in your personal supply. Workers released this way are available to be used in the same round they are released.
If any card asks you to assign a resource or good on a card, you simply place it on the card and leave it there. The assigned resource stays on the card until another action releases it (see above).
Other Miscellaneous Important Rules
- Anytime you gain Victory Points (VP) from a card, immediately score the points by moving your Clan score token forward the appropriate number of points.
- You can use gold tokens (a resource/good) in place of any other resource/good for a 1:1 conversion. However, you cannot use a resource/good in place of a gold token.
- Whenever you gain a good/resource, it should be taken from the general supply.
- Spent workers will always go on your Spent Workers tile instead of the general supply.
- Your goods/resources/workers supply must always be visible to the other players.
- If you ever run out of cards in your Clan deck, shuffle it and start drawing from it again. Same goes for the Island decks.
- A rule on a card will ALWAYS override the general rules for the game.
- When an ability allows you to move your Clan Action Pawn to an adjacent tile, you DO NOT activate the new tile. This allows you to move the Clan Action Pawn to a spot you normally wouldn’t be able to reach when you take the Clan Action Pawn action on your turn.
Ending the Game
When a player reaches 25 points during the Action Phase, that means the game will end at the conclusion of the round. If a player reaches 25 points during the Expedition Phase, you’ll play one more full round and then the game will end.
This is where you’ll add up all of the final points and declare a winner. Here is how to calculate the end of game points.
- Add 1 VP for every card in your Empire. This includes Locations, Fields, Field Upgrades, and Conquered Islands. Does not apply to cards in your hand.
- Add 1 VP for every 2 resources (not axes/gold/workers) in your personal supply. Any resources assigned to cards do not gain you points.
- Add 1 VP for every axe in your personal supply.
- Add 1 VP for every gold in your personal supply.
Once you’ve added up all the points, the player with the most points wins the game! In the case of a tie, the player with the most locations wins. If still tied, the player with the most workers wins! If still tied, the player with the most cards in hand wins. If still tied, all tied players share the victory!
For some reason, I really struggled to learn this game when I first got it. Without having the central board in the middle of the play area to give me hints and clues as to the actions I could take, I had a hard time comprehending the aspects of it. However, after a few mock playthroughs, I eventually learned the intricacies of the game and was able to comprehend the rules rather well. Now that I’ve played it many times, I absolutely love the feeling of this game. Over time, I’ve learned that engine building resource management games are really my bread and butter. This game is different than most resource management games as there really isn’t much interacting with other players. The only way to really interact or inhibit the other players is by Raiding them to exhaust a card or taking an Island you thought they might want during the Expedition Phase. However, you have to pay close attention to the other players because their actions might dictate what actions you take and in what order. You’ll learn over time that your order does matter greatly as it can dictate how your engine works. Optimizing your actions is essential to maximizing your VP output. Each Clan plays differently, and even though the rulebook provides you with a difficulty rating for each Clan, your play style will end up dictating the difficulty. One of the easiest Clans to play, the Glenn Clan, is not my style of play, so I always struggle when playing them. However, the Heidel Clan, a middle of the road difficulty, plays to my strengths, so I tend to make it look easy when playing them.
Overall, Empires of the North is a fantastic little game that requires thinking several steps ahead in order to optimize your play. Watching your Empire go from 3 Basic Fields to over 10+ cards that have varying actions and effects is ultimately satisfying. It’s a fun game that really tests your ability to multitask and think ahead, and with the different clans and their varying degrees of difficulty and playstyles means that the replayability of the game is midrange. It’s not something you can play hundreds of times and never get boring, but just one or two playthroughs isn’t going to supply you with much variance. I genuinely love this game, and I will continue to play the Clans to learn more and more about their scaling difficulties and playstyles.
As a final note, Empires of the North comes with a solo mode that plays similarly to the multiplayer game but has different rules and scenarios that changes the gameplay. I will discuss the solo mode in a future post.
Grab your Clan, begin your Empire, and become the most prosperous explorer around! Welcome to Empires of the North!