I love games that are an experience. I normally don’t like “take that” games all that much or games that are designed to be mean spirited (although I do love wargames with their direct conflict between stacks of cardboard). But I also like games that have subtle and hidden nuances to the strategy needed to win, and if a game like that has some of the negative side included, then I am game to give it a try….mainly for the experience! This is the case in Jórvík, designed by the great Stefan Feld and released by Stronghold Games.
What is Jórvík About?
The game is a re-design of Die Speicherstadt (2010). In this game, players acquire cards from a card display through a simple worker placement and bidding mechanism to build up their trading empires but the mechanic has a twist. More on that later. Jórvík includes two versions: A base game that is equivalent to Die Speicherstadt, and an advanced game that equates to Die Speicherstadt including its expansion Kaispeicher. During the Viking age, parts of England were occupied by the Norseman and used as bases for trading. Such was the case with the City of York, called Jórvík by the Vikings, and the game allows you to take the role of one of the tribes that settled in this region of Northern England.
Jórvík takes place over four seasons of the year (Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn) and uses the highly thematic (sarcasm buzzer is going off!) element of trading goods, fulfilling contracts and defending the port from invasion by the nasty blue faced Picts (I swear their leader looks like Mel Gibson!). This theme may seem overdone and not unique at all to the Vikings, and if you think that…you are NOT wrong! This game is not concerned with making a deeply thematic experience and makes no apologies for it. But, the difference with this game, as compared to the bevy of other trading and auctioning games out there, is the gameplay itself and the way that it handles the economic principle of Supply & Demand. In this review, I really want to focus on that aspect and kind of ignore the theme, although, as a general rule, I enjoy Viking themed games more often than not.
Jórvík follows the same trend of its predecessor game and is, at its heart, an auction game…but with some unique differences that normally are not a part of such games. The main purpose of the auction is to get cards that will benefit you and your efforts to gain a monopoly on certain goods to score the most points but it is dually about making the other player’s choices impossible for them to carry out. What? How? Simply by making the cost too high for them by demanding the same good, whether you really want that good or not. I will explain. Think about an auction game in which you can increase the value because you might want the very same good and, once the other person drops out because the price has become too rich for them, you can simply drop out too. You don’t have to buy the good you attempted to buy, and to make matters worse, you don’t lose any gold as a penalty and you don’t even have to apologize or give a reason at to why you chose not to buy. Be warned that this aspect of the game can make enemies of your otherwise friends. The name of the game is this “I don’t want it, I just don’t want you to have it!”. In our group, we refer to this type of thing as douche baggery! Many of the members of my group didn’t like this game because of this aspect, but I found this part of the game, dare I use the most overused word in board game blogging, ELEGANT!
As mentioned before, the game plays over the course of 4 seasons and each of those seasons follows these 4 sequences, including (here is the reference to Supply & Demand) the Supply Phase, Demand Phase, Buying Phase and Loading Phase.
The Supply Phase is where the starting player will draw cards from the deck and place them in the appropriate spaces on the game board. These cards represent various things including goods, artisans and the dreaded Pict card. If a Ship card is drawn, the player places the card in the appropriate spot on the board and will then reach into the draw bag and bring forth the number of good cubes listed on the card. These goods represent amber, iron, leather, wool, jet (a type of lignite crystal that is a precursor to coal), silk, glass and gold. This ship card can be bid on during the auction and the winner will collect the cubes from the card and place them in their supply to use to activate their various Artisan or Trader cards to gain victory points.
Another special card, that if drawn, will interrupt the remaining portion of the Supply Phase, is the “Attack of the Picts” card. When drawn, the normal process of the Supply Phase is interrupted and each player must add up their total defense points from all of the Warrior cards in their play area. The player with the most defense points wins the day and defeats the Picts gaining the listed VPs on the lower left most part of the card, while the player with the fewest points loses the value listed in the lower right corner of the Picts card. So it behooves players to make sure that they are at least not losing points, as points are really at a premium in this game. Losing one to two points from a Picts card can be very damaging and make it such that you will be behind from the get go.
The best part of the game! In the Demand Phase, players use their Viking meeples to indicate their interest in the cards that are available in the market, or if playing the Jarl game mode, also in reservation row. If you want a card, in turn order, you simply place one of your Vikings in the corresponding interest lane. The player that places first however is not guaranteed to be able to afford the card in this lane as each player can place one of their Vikings in the same interest lane behind the placed meeples, which simply increases the price of the card. This is the basis for the Viking Law of Supply and Demand. When goods are placed (Supply) then consumers want (Demand) those goods and place bids on them. This part of the game can get a little mean spirited and definitely is what sets this game apart from other trading and bidding/auction games.
The reservation row of cards works slightly differently than the interest lanes. If players want a card that is in the interest lanes area, they simply put a Viking meeple on it and move it to the reservation row and then they must wait until all of the auctions in the interest lanes have been resolved. Each card placed so in the reservation lane will increase the cost of your reserved cards by one. At the end of the round, this extra line will be resolved last and as in the other auctions, you don’t have to pay the cost and can just decided to let the card go and discard it. Talk about a waste of good resources. This part of the game is a little more douchey than the regular auctions, as in most cases, players reserve a card, following the Viking Law of Supply and Demand, to simply prevent the other players from getting their hands on them. I would say that most of the time, if I choose a card to reserve, I really have no intention of actually buying it, especially if I was the first or second to do so as the cards will typically cost 3-5 coins and be out of reach. I do think that reservation row can be a last resort to get a card in case you were unlucky and unable to get a card in the interest lanes, but once again, it is typically just to be a jerk!
Beginning with the card above the leftmost interest lane and continuing to the right, each card is now put up for auction one at a time. The player who placed the first Viking in the interest lane gets the first crack at buying that card. But how much is he going to have to pay for that card? Well, the answer is simple. The cost of the card is the same as the number of Vikings in the interest lane. So, if there are two Vikings there, the first player can purchase that card for the cost of two gold, IF they even have that much gold. If they cannot pay the cost, they must pass, but they can also choose to pass as the price is now too steep and they really might have their eye on one of the later cards that they feel they can get for cheaper. The really interesting part about this phase though is that sometimes players will simply place one (or even two) of their Vikings in a specific lane to prevent a player from getting that card. This is the douche baggery part of the game and truly makes it interesting, but also will make this game not appeal to many.
The Loading Phase is pretty simple and involves several distinct parts. First, each player will take income by getting one coin from the reserve (did I mention that this game is really tight on money?!?). If you couldn’t buy a card during the Demand Phase, you will take another coin for a total income of 2. If playing the Jarl game mode, each player gets 2 coins as regular income and can get a third if they weren’t able to buy a card. The players then move the cards they purchased to their personal areas and then unload goods and take actions listed on their accumulated Artisan, Skald or Trader cards. The rewards for these efforts are usually victory points but can also be gold.
That pretty much sums up the main elements of the gameplay. The winner is the player with the most victory points at the end of the four seasons, and we have found that scores will only be in the 30s or 40s, and even lower with more players.
What I Liked About Jórvík
Douche Baggery – In this game, you have to be ready to have your plans dashed upon the rocks of the craggy fjords of Jórvík. Due to the fact that the game is tight and resources are so limited, players will cut your throat in order to get a card they really want. This most often will take the path of reserving cards with no intention of ever buying. But can also take the course of simply placing a meeple or two in the same interest lanes as you, making the cost for that particular card prohibitive, or at the very least, painful to buy. But, you cannot get caught up in this game, as in the long run, you will be damaging your own strategy as well as your opponents if you simply focus on bringing the pain, but maybe that is exactly the point. There have been many instances in our plays where an action by a player perceived as out of the game, drew chuckles from the rest of us and groans from the player that was being hosed. Overall, a really interesting take on the auction mechanic.
Auction (or whatever you call it) – This game doesn’t really use a traditional auction mechanic. As mentioned above, you simply pay the price associated with the number of Vikings remaining in an interest lane. This mechanic is truly elegant and well done, although, as mentioned above, is very mean spirited. This game cannot be played without some of that meanness and if your group cannot handle it, don’t play this. You will only ruin friendships, destroy long standing relationships and most likely fracture your gaming group. Be warned, here be dragons!
What I Didn’t Like About Jórvík
Super Tight on Money – In our plays, we have felt that money is too tight. I know that is the point of the game but it would be nice to come up with a variant where you can get a little more money. This has to be balanced though with the intent and design for the auction mechanic, because if there is too much money, then it will defeat the main point of the game, that of driving the price too high for your opponents.
Douche Baggery – As mentioned above, it can be great fun, with the right group and the right mindset. Players that take things personally or cannot stand for others to be able to affect their engine, shouldn’t play this game…period!
Scarcity of Goods – The availability of goods in the game is also very tight, same as money. When ships came out, too often they had the wrong type of goods associated with the cards on the table and this made it very difficult to get an engine going. But, once again, that is somewhat the point. We would each fight tooth and nail over those scarce ships and sometimes would be stockpiling goods that we actually couldn’t use at the moment hoping desperately to gain a card that would allow us to use the stored goods or to trade them in for other goods that we actually needed. Also, a good source of douche baggery!
Painted on Theme – This game could have been about anything involved with trading. But, recently Viking themed games have been popular so that is what the theme is. Not a terrible thing, as I really enjoy Vikings, but not overly well done or thematic.
Overall, Jórvík is not a game for the feint of heart! If you can take pain, as well as dish it out without remorse, then you will emphatically enjoy this game. But, if you have a fragile group, it is best to just pass it by and give another, more “fair” game a try.
If you are interested, we did an unboxing video of the game showing the various components.