Friday, April 15, 2016

Which Way the Wind Blows

The board game North Wind first caught my attention because of its designer, Klaus Teuber. While Teuber's most famous work, Settlers of Catan, has been surpassed in my mind by other games and other designers, there's no question that it's a masterpiece. It was the shoulders upon which all those later games stood, one of my first forays into Euro board games, and to this day one of the best "crossover" games for introducing new people to the world beyond Monopoly. So yes, I'd probably give anything from Klaus Teuber a try.

North Wind sets the players up as trade captains, transporting cargo through pirate-infested islands. Your job is to deliver needed goods to three major cities, getting there before your rivals do and cause the cities' demands to change.

Though North Wind does not mechanically resemble Settlers of Catan in any way, I feel a spiritual connection between the two in how they incorporate randomness. 24 ocean and island tiles are shuffled randomly into three stacks of 8 at the start of the game. When you "set sail" on your turn, you pick one of the stacks, and then turn over tiles one at a time in a sort of "press your luck" fashion until you have taken two actions or have been thwarted by pirates. Then the pile is shuffled and reset for the next player who might choose to sail it.

So consider Settlers of Catan. It shows you the odds that each tile will produce goods (letting you plan accordingly), and then dice are rolled frequently enough that things should even out over time. But it is still random, leading to uncertainty in the game. North Wind is much the same. A few rounds into the game, you should have a sense of which stack contains which goods, more or fewer pirate threats, and so forth. But every player faces the randomness of stack order on every turn they take. So you can plan, but it is still random.

That randomness bit one player particularly hard when I first played the game (much as I feel one player in any given 4-player game of Settlers of Catan gets the shaft from the dice). It was painful to watch her struggle through no bad planning on her part; even the steps she took to mitigate randomness -- which the game does offer -- didn't seem to do enough. So my impression in the end was that, however fun North Wind might be, every time you play it, there's the chance you might be the victim of bad luck.

Though it was kind of fun. And yet the thing is, I'm not sure how much of that I should attribute to the game itself, and how much I should attribute to the incredibly slick props the game comes with. Each player receives his own cardboard ship, assembled from thick board stock and placed right in front of him throughout the game. The ship has slots on the deck for wooden bits -- the goods you acquire and pirates you capture. It has slots on the side for cannons to be attached. It has slots for crew members you can recruit, including one spot in a crow's nest at the top of the mast. And it even has a sail you hoist upward throughout the game as you increase the range your ship can travel.

I'm not the sort of gamer that usually goes for flashy bits in a game. But even I was swayed; these ships are freaking cool.

I suspect the fact that I haven't replayed North Wind since that initial experience suggests that indeed, there's more style than substance to this game. But the thing is, I would try it again. Whether that's the mechanics or the props influencing me, credit goes to Klaus Teuber either way. (Well... maybe more to his artists, if the latter.)

I think I'd call North Wind a B-...  provisionally, at least, until I see how it holds up on future plays. I wouldn't say it's a must-buy for most board gamers. But there are those out there for whom solid "bits" are the main draw of a game. For those people, North Wind should not be overlooked.

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