North Wind was published by KOSMOS in Germany a few months ago (as Norderwind), and is being released here by Z-Man Games soon. It is the latest game from famed designer, Klaus Tueber. You might recognize that name - Mr. Teuber designed what is arguably the most popular hobby board game ever, The Settlers of Catan.
North Wind is a light/medium weight game where players are trade captains sailing from port to port, delivering goods and dealing with encounters like pirate attacks and merchant ships. Similar to Catan, the game is a race to 10 points (8 in a 4 player game). The main mechanisms in the game involve upgrading a "player board" (more on that later) and a small dose of push-your-luck as players draw tiles from a deck, usually choosing to either use an one of two actions per turn to perform the action of the tile, or continue drawing.
The "player boards" I mentioned earlier are amazing. They are 3D cardboard ships that help players track upgraded abilities and to store resources. The mast, for instance, indicates how many tiles a player is allowed to draw from a deck on her turn. Players begin with the ability to draw 4 tiles before their turn ends, but this can be upgraded to draw as many as 6 tiles per turn.
There are 3 decks of tiles in the game, 1 each for the ports - Norderkap, Trutzhavn, and Olesand. During set up, each deck is seeded with its corresponding port tile, then 6 more random tiles are added, and the deck is shuffled. One of the more interesting parts of the game is that although the deck is shuffled whenever a player chooses to go there, the composition of the decks doesn't change during a game, so once players get to know what is in each deck, the decision of which deck of sea tiles to explore each turn becomes more and more informed.
The action tiles in the game allow players to purchase or sell goods, upgrade their ship, or search a shipwreck (gain 2 gold). The most interesting part of the game is how each player decides to upgrade her ship. Players can put a crew member in the crow's nest and gain the ability to check the first tile in a deck after deciding to go there, and then either put it back or move it to the bottom of the deck. Players can hire an accountant so that whenever they sell goods, they gain +1 gold. There are 3 other crew members players can add, but each player can only choose 4 of them to have in any given game, and once a crew member is added, she cannot be changed.
The upgrade tiles also give players the opportunity to raise their masts (thus allowing them to draw more tiles each turn) or to add cannons to their ships (allowing more die rolls when combating pirates).
That's right! Pirate attaaaaack! There are four fog tiles in the game. If a player draws one, she rolls the white die, and will most likely have to fight off a pirate ship - though there is a 1 in 6 chance she will discover treasure in the fog, and not have to fight anyone. If she rolls at least 1 skull on the die, she has to either pay 1 gold to continue her turn, or choose to battle. For every cannon on a player's ship, she gets to roll her cannon die 1 time. She can also hire a cannoneer when using the action of an upgrade tile to increase the odds of hitting the pirate ship. If a player wins the battle, she gets a pirate captain to throw in her ship's brig. Losing a battle with a pirate ship can be painful - the player's turn ends immediately (so she loses either 1 or 2 actions depending on if she had taken one yet or not). But since one of the ports (Trutzhavn) is basically a prison, it is likely that at some point during the game, players will choose a sea tile deck wanting to find a fog tile.
Speaking of delivering to ports, on the main board, each port has a column of contracts. If players have these resources when they draw the port tile for the corresponding city, they can deliver them to earn a victory point. Once a player puts her cube on a contract, it is fulfilled, and none of the other players can fulfill that same contract.
The game proceeds like this, with players taking turns drawing tiles from one of the sea decks, and using their two actions, until 1 player has place all of her victory point tokens out onto the board that player is the winner!
North Wind is a great family strategy game with excellent components, a fun theme, and plenty (but not too many) decisions to be made. There is a good combination of short-term and long-term considerations to be made, which is good to keep more dedicated "gamers" interested, and to keep those less initiate in the hobby from feeling overwhelmed.
The mix of short-term and long-term decisions is really brought out in the way players upgrade their ships. Do you want to get a Treasurer, which will be a big help in the beginning of the game? Or a Lookout, which will always be pretty valuable, but will let you see all 7 of the tiles on a turn if need be? These decisions are very engaging, and being able to make your actions stronger (especially in ways that you choose) is something I think everyone inherently enjoys.
There is limited interaction between the players, but what interaction is there (completing contracts) is a nice addition. Since most of the columns of contracts build upon each other as they ascend, having the contract you were collecting resources for taken by another player is unfortunate, but not too punishing. I really like the fact that the overall goal of the game is a race, and the way that the contracts are taken off the board as they are completed contributes to that sense of urgency.
North Wind is not an especially deep game, but there is a good amount of game here, especially for groups just getting into the hobby, or for those "mixed" groups that are made up of "gamers" and their "non-gamer" friends (thoughts of playing this with my parents come to mind). I had a good time playing North Wind, and though I probably wouldn't bring it to any of my monthly gaming meetups, it would certainly be on my list of games to bring when playing with people whose only definition of "Euro" is the EU's currency. A solid family game - I'd give it a 7.5.