Count on Simulations Canada to cover topics that no one else does, usually with game mechanics that no one else has used. Both of those features attracted me to their games. In the case of "Norseman," I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the number of players was flexible -- up to 78, although obviously no one would try that.
I should add that I haven't actually played a full game. I usually avoid writing reviews in such circumstances, but this game is so unusual and so difficult to grasp (and, besides, has no reviews) that I will post this anyway in the hope that someone finds it useful.
The first complicated feature of the game is the amount of numbers involved. Every area on the map has a counter rated for wealth, population, and growth. Each area also gets assigned a jarl, who is rated for military ability, trading ability, courage, and independence. That is seven numbers, and you will find that they are combined in a dizzying variety of ways. I have finally worked up what I believe to be an accurate reference chart, which was invaluable to me as I attempted to play a turn, but I wouldn't be shocked if someone found a mistake in it.
In addition to the raw numbers, there are also separate attrition charts for trades, incursions, and military moves, plus a combat table and separate resolution tables for raids and incursions. Then there is the problem of finding the numbers you need at a given point. You are supposed to keep the counters for your provinces in front of you, but then you will constantly be looking to find which province on the map matches the counter in your kingdom. Jarls are placed on the map in their respective provinces, but once you move them, there is no indication of where they came from. This isn't a problem for most game purposes, which involve moving only one jarl at a time, but it is a disaster for military campaigns when you can bring all of your jarls along (and have little incentive not to do so).
The rules are comparatively simple. The first phase is trading, which is an important chance to get victory points for jarldoms with a growth of three (the highest). It is also important for those with a growth of one, because they will have to check for revolt if they don't receive trade. The procedure is simple: move a jarl, roll a die for attrition (almost all of Stephen Newburg's games seem to require attrition checks for moves), if successful the trade occurs. You can also raid other jarldoms, although for some reason your jarldom has to have a minimum wealth plus population to carry this out. Raiding can occur against a jarl attempting to trade, or against a neighbouring jarldom; success reduces the growth of the other jarldom and raises your own, but does not earn victory points.
Next, there is the opportunity to make an "incursion" in another jarldom. This is one of the most intriguing mechanics of the game. You go through the usual attrition procedure and a die roll to see if your incursion is successful, and if so you get one or two incursion markers in the target jarldom. At the end of the turn, a die is rolled for each incursion: on a one it is removed, on a six you take over the area, and any other result is no effect. It is a slow way to expand, but highly cost effective, and it seems very much in the spirit of the Viking age.
The military phase offers a more direct route to conquest. First, you have to calculate how many troops and sailors your provinces can possibly supply, which could easily be a very low number. Then you decide how many of those you actually want to raise -- an important consideration, since each troop costs you a victory point. You can raise at most two separate armies in a turn, plus your jarls can all gather at the assembly point for free. Then you move, check for attrition, and fight the defending jarldom. Your jarls bring free combat points with them, but if they don't roll greater than their independence rating, they return home before the battle. Since independence (like the other leader ratings) ranges from 1-9, not many jarls are likely to stick around for the fight. If you are successful, you take over the defending area, and your army disbands in either case.
In the final phase, you have another opportunity to gain victory points by raising taxes. Again, most jarldoms probably won't bring in any victory points at all because they have little wealth and/or their jarls have a high independence rating. Then you get a chance to move jarls around, and at the start of the following turn you get replacements for the ones that died, while others age and die from natural causes.
If the game were as simple to play as the rules are to read, it would be no problem. In practice, you are overwhelmed with options, most of which turn out to be impossible, but you can't know that until you have checked the numbers carefully. Finding the nearest jarldom to trade with is not trivial, but it is the least of your issues, and I haven't even tried it in a situation where you have to negotiate with other players. Incursions are a good way to expand, but they are useless against highly independent jarls, so you have to look around for targets that you can actually defeat. Since every jarldom *must* trade, raid, or try an incursion, or else it risks going into rebellion, you can't just ignore your weaker territories, either. Waging war is more straightforward, but it is very chancy because you never know which of your jarls will stick around for combat, and it is costly because you lose victory points directly for raising troops.
I can't say for sure, but it looks like rebellions will be rife because of all the low-growth jarldoms and the possibility that even more will be reduced by raiding. There is a die roll to check whether a revolt succeeds, but it looks like there is no chance of failing in about 90% of the provinces. Moreover, I can't see any point in troubling to reconquer the poorest provinces, which are the most likelyt to rebel. They won't produce any victory points from taxation, they may not even be able to raid, and their chance of backing a successful incursion is near zero. The effort to reconquer them seems likely to be worth less than the reward.
I have put more effort into figuring this game out, without succeeding, than any other game in my collection. It intrigues me, but each time I try to play it I become overwhelmed with the factors I have to consider. Playing on only a small portion of the map (e.g., the British Isles) helps somewhat, but requires re-jiggering the starting countries because England is so much richer to start.
I keep thinking, "if only..." If only there were fewer than 78 provinces on the board. If only there were an easy way to identify low and high growth areas visually. If only there were some large visual indicator for the many leaders with a high independence, which basically says, "this leader will be useless for military and tax purposes." If only I didn't have to make half a dozen calculations to decide what to do with each of my jarldoms. I wonder if there is some way to take these basic mechanics and make a game that I could play in the evening, something more along Euro-game lines.
I can't criticize the designer for not making a game type that hadn't really been invented at the time, of course. I would also like to thank Stephen Newburg for answer several rules questions I had in the forum here. I wish I could have sat in on a playtesting session and seen how players dealt with the issues that leave me stymied. I doubt Stephen himself remembers much about it now, thirty years later. If anyone else has played this game successfully and can offer some insight, I would appreciate hearing it.
Nice thoughtfully written review thanks for taking the time to post it. I have often wondered about purchasing this game.
Very nice review.
Airfix Rules anyone?
Ashwin in front of Tiger 131
A thoughtful and interesting review. It sounds like it might make a moderately fun computer game.
Interesting- I had the thing out on the table this past weekend, deciding if I wanted to try and play. Sounds like more of an undertaking than I am ready to do at this point.