Disclaimer: This is a negative review of the upcoming solo trick-taking game For Northwood!, and a rough one at that. Yet I wish no ill for this game and for the upcoming Gamefound campaign. I’ll be pleased to see it succeed. It’s a clever card game, and I really appreciate games that try to exploit simple components. The designer has shared everything for free, and I got a printed copy from the Game Crafter at a very low cost. So, this is not an attempt to bash a game that doesn’t deserve success. Here again: I wish them the best of luck.
What is it, then? Well, these days I’m seeing a lot of people are overly enthusiastic or excited about this solo trick-taking game. I can understand that. Trick-taking games are good – it’s one of my favorite game genres actually – but they tend not to work solo. So, having a truly good trick-taking solo game is some kind of a grail for game designing. But I don’t think any of them has managed to offer the delightful card play that, to me, is the signature character of trick-taking games. And For Northwood! is certainly not the one.
I also think all games have negative aspects. For this reason, it always pains me a little to see everyone raving about the next title. Especially when I don’t think it’s that good. Sure, some people enjoy feeling enthusiastic. If you relate to that, please do not read further. I’m here to offer a counter perspective to this enthusiasm regarding For Northwood!. Actually, I don’t think it’s that fun. Of course, this is pretty much subjective; but if you like some negativity to balance your decision-making, I’ll try to provide some and more.
First of all, let me start with the thing I dislike most about For Northwood!: the art. Some people have praised the cute animals. Well, I love cute animals. You know I have backed Habitats for the cute animal meeples. I had to resist very hard when presented with Everdell, each and every campaign because I just loved the cute animals in there. I also love the animals in Root (and they can arguably be regarded as cute). Redwall is one of my beloved childhood series. Anyway: you get it. The problem I have with the “cute animals” in For Northwood! is that I don’t think they’re cute, at all. They feel silly. They feel like cheap uninspired drawings on a disposable cardboard plate for a toddler’s birthday. Worst, they are embarrassing. I was playing the game on the train, and I was feeling truly uneasy to display these cards in front of everyone else. And I can’t remember a game that I felt so stupid being seen playing. Even when there is no one to watch.
Second, it’s barely a trick-taking game. The card play is actually very minimal, and the decisions to be made in this regard, usually obvious. Let me summarize the rules. You face a ‘leader’, who sets the trump suit, and the score target to reach – and you must reach this score exactly. You have eight cards. Leaders, well, they always lead. So, each round, you produce a card from the leader that you must respond to. Following suit is mandatory – otherwise, you can play anything. As usual, the winning card is the strongest one of the leading suit, or if there is any, the strongest card of the trump suit. And that’s it. Yet it turns out, facing a random card generator is pretty boring, and you don’t have a lot of leeway to play your hand, from a pure card play point of view.
It doesn’t mean you are at the mercy of luck of the draw. There is very much leeway, actually, but it doesn’t come from the card play. It comes from the abilities of your allies – a team of four specialists you draft once you’ve chosen a leader to encounter. The whole crux of the game is which ally to choose given your hand and the leader you want to face, and when to use their powers. And this part is pretty good. It definitely works. But I feel like it’s cheating. It’s no longer a trick-taking game. It’s a game of managing your abilities to use them when you need them most. It’s interesting, but the card play itself is a bit limping.
Third, I don’t like the overall aim of the game. You have 8 leaders to face. Against the first one, you must win exactly 0 tricks; against the eighth one, you must win exactly 8. Each time you defeat a leader, they are added to your roster of draftable allies – but unlike your starting allies, you can only draft them once. So, as you face encounters, your options shrink – until you can no longer avoid facing the toughest ones – but you can also customize your abilities more. It is rather well-balanced, I think. But there are two things I dislike here. First, winning an exact number of tricks is always somehow frustrating. There are lots of factors that you just can’t control. Losing just because you flipped the wrong card in the last trick only feels annoying – especially if there was no way you could truly avoid defeat. It adds the wrong kind of tension. Second, the greater goal of the game is to reach a given amount of points. The easy encounters (with a mid-range score target) bring the least points; the extreme encounters, the most points. Depending on the difficulty level you choose, you aim for a different score to beat. This in itself is silly, because the game is exactly the same. If you decide to play on easy, but win all the encounters, you achieved a “hard” difficulty, so these are not difficulty levels, these are score tiers. Finally, the hardest score tier is to succeed in all of the encounters, which feels pretty extreme, especially when you account for the fact that you’re trying to beat a random card generator.
These three reasons add up to dry up all the fun I could have had with the game. The flow of the game feels a bit dull – mostly because I was expecting a good card play, and I don’t care about optimizing the use of abilities – while the overall objective is slightly harsh and arbitrary. In the end, it leaves me wondering whether there could be a good solo trick-taking game. ECK was a disappointment as well: although the slightly convoluted rules for the random card generator made for a much better card play, the objective of meeting exact scores was at odds with this lack of overall control. Anyway, I choose to believe: one day, a designer will nail it at last, and it will be beautifully fun.