Buzzworthiness: For Northwood!

Thanks to Side Room Games for providing a prototype copy of this game.

I like trick-taking games quite a bit, but it’s difficult to find the people to get them played. Well, now there’s a solo trick-taking game called

image by BGG user inaytaobako

For Northwood! is a game designed by Wilheim Su that will be published by Side Room Games. As mentioned, it’s a trick-taking game for one person that began life as the winner of the 2021 54-card contest on BGG. The idea of the game is that you’re trying to unite the various fiefs around your kingdom.

To set up the game, you shuffle up the eight fiefs and deal them out with their For Northwood! side up. Four of these fiefs are dealt to the left of a signpost, and the other four go to the right. The signpost tells you how many tricks will be required to win each fief, from 0 to 7. You’ll deal out four allies below the fiefs (Jacks in the basic game), and one ruler to each fief (kings and queens in the basic game). Shuffle up the deck, and you’re ready to play.

image by BGG user inaytaobako

At the start of each round, you’ll draw a hand of eight cards. After looking at your hand, you choose one of the unvisited fiefs. As previously mentioned, the signpost tells you how many tricks will be required to win, so keep that in mind. Also, each ruler has a suit which defines trump for that fief. After choosing your fief, you can choose your allies. Any previously won rulers are available to substitute in for one of your normal allies, but be aware that each ruler can only be used once per game.

Once you’re done with this, it’s time to play out dialogues, which is this game’s word for “tricks”. First, you’ll decide you’re going to use an ally’s ability. You can only use an ally once per round, so exhaust it after you’ve used it (turn it sideways, flip it, whatever). You’ll draw a card from the deck, which is the ruler’s statement, and put it on top of the discard pile. Your response is a card from your hand, and standard trick-taking rules apply. You must follow suit if you can, and if you can’t, you may play any card. You win the trick if you have the highest card in the led suit, or if you played a trump card on a different suit. When you win, you put your card in a score pile. When you lose, you discard your card.

Here’s an example. You’re battling the King of Flowers, who is in the sixth position, meaning you want to win five tricks against him. His first play is the Six of Claws. You have a Claw card, but it’s a Three, so you discard it. His next play is the Four of Claws. You have no more Claws, so you play a One of Flowers. Flowers is trump, so you put it in your score pile. You manage to win the next four tricks, so with two cards left in your hand, you don’t want to win anything else since you’ve gotten the target five. His next play is the Seven of Eyes, and you follow suit with your Two of Eyes to lose. Your final card, unfortunately, is the Seven of Flowers, so it’s very likely that you’ll win the final trick and lose the fief. You decide to use the ability of the Jack of Eyes, which allows you to draw two cards then discard two cards. One of these two cards is the One of Leaves, so you keep that because that will guarantee you lose the final trick and win the fief. Which you do when the King of Flowers leads a Five of Claws.

When you win a fief, the ruler slides down so the “For Nothwood!” speech bubble is shown. The ruler is now available as a substitute ally. However, if you lose the fief, the ruler is now hostile, and you flip it upside down to show this. You then shuffle up and deal a new hand, going to a new fief.

Once all fiefs have been visited, the game is over. In the basic game, you flip over the fiefs you claimed, and if you got three stars, you win. Otherwise, you lose. For the advanced game, you have to win the out fiefs (the ones that require 0, 1, 6, and 7 tricks). If you lose any of those, you lose the game.

image by BGG user inaytaobako

I was sent a preproduction copy, so components may change. However, cards are well-illustrated and very cute – the rulers are all animals, and they’re adorable. They give you a kind of woodland theme, though it could have been anything. The powers on the rulers are all pretty well explained. The suits are all easily distinguishable, and different from the standard playing card suits (though I am guilty of referring to the Leaves suit as Spades instead).

Trick-taking is not a genre that I expected to find as a solo game, and that concept is pretty unique for me. I am a fan of trick-taking games, though I haven’t played a whole lot of them. For me, trick-takers are all about hand management and trying to figure out what needs to be played and when in order to maximize your success. And For Northwood! has that because you’re trying to manipulate what you have in order to win the required number of tricks. I only want to win one trick in a round, do I want to win it early or do I want to wait?

Because you have a set number of tricks to win, the game is a lot like some of the traditional bidding games, like Spades and Bridge. Which, full confession, I hate. But, probably a better comparison is Skull King, which also has bidding on a more personal basis, rather than team-based. And I like Skull King a lot more than Spades or Bridge, so maybe it’s that team-based thing I dislike in trick-takers. I don’t particularly want to rely on someone else to meet our bid, I want it to be on me. But then, I like Euchre, so maybe I just don’t know what I like. This is probably a discussion for another time.

I really like the tug-of-war aspect of the dialogues here. It’s of course quite random what gets drawn, but you never know what others are going to play in other trick-takers either, so you just want to try to roll with it. Save your trumps until the end to hopefully guarantee wins, or play them early to get them out of your hand. When do you use an ability. Which rulers are you going to pull down to substitute for this fief.

My biggest gripe with this game comes with the winning conditions. There are two winning conditions, based on the version you’re using. For the basic game, you need to have collected three stars. However, you don’t know where those stars are. You could win seven of the eight fiefs, and if the one you didn’t win had a star, you lose. Whereas if you just win three, and all three happened to have stars, you win. So you somehow did better by winning 3/8 than you did winning 7/8? It’s random, and kind of unsatisfying to me – you did the best you can, but it’s still chance that wins or loses the game. And if you lose the first fief, and it happened to have a star on it, you don’t know you’ve lost until you play seven more rounds.

For the advanced game, the object is to complete the outer fiefs (0, 1, 6, and 7). This is a much more concrete goal as you have specific four fiefs you need to win, rather than a random three. However, this still feels kind of unsatisfying to me. I really only have to win 50% of the fiefs to win, and while they are the toughest four, it’s still a case where I don’t have to bother with the middle fiefs unless I want their ruler powers. Also, there’s an instant loss if you can’t defeat one of those fiefs, which is kind of unforgiving.

My thought on this (and this is completely unsolicited and unplaytested) is to increase the stakes a bit. If you lose a fief, the ruler turns hostile, and you lose the use of its trump. What this means is that, if you lose to the King of Flowers, you can’t use Flowers as trump against the Queen of Flowers. You can try to beat a hostile ruler a second time, without the use of its trump, and if you win, great, it’s a potential future ally. But if you lose, the ruler goes to war against you. Its suit becomes super trump, and when drawn by the deck in all subsequent dialogues (even against rulers that don’t share its trump), it beats whatever you play (unless you play a higher card of the same suit). If two rulers go to war against you, you lose. So you need to win seven fiefs to win the game.

Again, this is just an idea. But it seems that something like this might be a bit more satisfying. I don’t want to sound like this ruins the game for me. I still really like it, and am recommending the game. I just feel like the ending could be something more.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? I think that For Northwood! is a lot of fun. It’s quite an interesting take on trick-taking games. It’s a good solo experience, and it amps up the strategy on what might otherwise be a pretty random game with required numbers of tricks to win and ally powers. My issues with the ending aside, I do really like it and recommend it for fans of trick-taking as well as fans of solo games.

Thanks again to Side Room Games for providing a review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

PS: Here’s the Gamefound project link.

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