The Lofoten Islands are a remote region of Norway, high in the Arctic Circle. Although they benefit from relatively benign sea temperatures due to the effects of the Gulf Stream. I’ve visited the archipelago for its dramatic seemingly untouched scenery. It is tourism that probably now makes up a high proportion of the Island’s income but, traditionally, the communities on the Lofoten Islands have survived through fishing. And it is fishing in the Lofoten Islands that is at the heart of Nusfjord – the latest title from game designer Uwe Rosenberg and published by Mayfair and Lookout Games.
Best known for titles like Le Havre, Agricola, Caverna and last year’s Feast for Odin, Uwe Rosenberg has become something of a specialist in designing intricate worker placement games, often revolving around aspects of farming. Nusfjord is very recognisably a Rosenberg game. Rather than growing crops and breeding livestock, this time the game is centred on the fishing industry of a Lofoten village.
Nusfjord – Something Old, Something New
Though the theme is slightly different from Nusfjord’s forerunners, the game is to some extent more of the same. You place out your workers to select actions. You recruit village elders for the special abilities they give you. You build ships to increase your supply of fish (naturally enough) and you plant forests and deforest to add a succession of buildings, all with the aim of accumulating points.
Alongside the usual points engines, though, Nusfjord introduces some new elements into the mix. In a departure from previous Uwe Rosenberg agribusiness games, the companies in Nusfjord issue shares. The game gives you a vested interest in selling shares (you suffer a points penalty if any are left unsold at the end of the game) but you will feel the pain of having to pay out valuable fish as dividends. Given that the theme of the game is tied to a village fishing community, this was probably not the best game, thematically, in which to roll out share options.
Like Uwe Rosenberg’s previous games, Nusfjord has a fairly steep learning curve: there is quite a lot for a brand new player to assimilate before play begins. If you know any of the designer’s previous games, however, you’ll find much here that feels comfortably familiar and you’ll have the game underway relatively quickly. Once you understand the use of fish as a type of currency (alongside gold and wood), most of the actions available to you begin to make thematic sense, making the game itself reasonably easy to comprehend. However, you will need to get your head around the notion of having a “personal supply” and a “reserve”, each of which is quite distinct from the other. If you’ve played Photosynthesis, which was published at the end of last year by Blue Orange, then this will not be an alien concept, but it jars initially for players who haven’t encountered it before. For most players, the game really ‘clicks’ when they appreciate that they can set up a neat little engine that ‘recycles’ the fish, allowing the player to get gold for contributing it to the banqueting table, having an elder they’ve recruited take the fish from a plate and then have the fish transfer to the player’s personal supply when the elder has had his fill (had three fishes placed on him).
What you see is what you get in Nusfjord
As worker placement games go, an usual feature is that you only ever have three workers to place out each turn. Unlike most other games with a worker placement mechanic, there is no option available in Nusfjord for players to use an action to acquire additional workers. This makes them an especially precious resource. It also means there will be things you will just not be able to choose to do in this game. You’ll only ever be able to take 21 worker placement actions over the course of any game, so even a novice player will soon realise that they will have to be focused and selective.
A positive feature of Nusfjord is the fact that point values are very transparent. There is no unseen scoring information: all the cards and spaces on the boards have clearly marked point values (including negative values for spaces left uncovered at the end of the game). This isn’t a game where you can think you are ahead and then have opponents reveal some hidden agenda or multiplier that affects the total. As regards your scoring in Nusfjord, what you see is what you got.
What you get in terms of components may be a disappointment to some players. There are Agricola-style large wooden discs representing the workers, and a supply of attractive tree and fish shaped wooden pieces. If you get a sense of déjà vu looking at the wooden fish, it’s because they are the same as those used in Hans im Gluck’s Carcassonne: South Seas. By contrast, the cards and cardboard pieces are pretty basic. The cardboard one gold pieces are tiny – really only the size of the pieces that you’d throw away if punching out a ring-shaped token. You may well find that, like me, you will want to substitute better gold pieces from another game. More significant is the fact that there has been no attempt by the publishers to offer illustrations of any of the buildings represented by the cards. The buildings cards are all perfectly functional – they state the type of building and show clearly what it does – and there are a lot of them, in three discrete sets, so you can be reassured that no two plays of Nusfjord will every be exactly alike. However, it would have made game play just a little more immersive if the cards had each featured a illustration of the building for which they stood.
One further complaint about the building cards relates to the scoring buildings (‘C’ cards) that are dealt out halfway through the game. These can generate quite wide point swings if a player can meet the building cost and match the criteria on the card by the end of the game. Problem is that one player may find he has been randomly dealt buildings that dovetail very well with the strategy he has been following while you might happen to get buildings cards which demand a wholly different strategy to the one you’ve been following, and you are getting the cards too late in the game to adjust your play… This is a frustrating element that sadly detracts from the game.
Nusfjord – Competitive rather than cut-throat
Nusfjord plays competitively from two to five players. There isn’t a huge amount of player interaction: players are each primarily focused on their own achievements rather than looking over their shoulder at what others are doing. If your preference is for “take that” games, Nusfjord is probably not for you. You’ll be trading shares with other players, and you may annoy an opponent by grabbing an elder or building card that they wanted, but you won’t be attacking each other and, much of the time, you won’t really be blocking other players from taking the actions they want. This all makes for a game that lends itself well for the inclusion of a solitaire option, and the publishers have helpfully obliged, with rules based on a clever variation of the two-player version of the game. These allow for two levels of difficulty for solo play, so there’s plenty here to keep you occupied.
There’s nothing fishy about this game’s 7/10 score. Nusfjord is very much a ‘euro’ game but it’s not as heavy as Agricola or Feast for Odin, and it plays notably quicker. Even a first play should take less than two hours and subsequent plays are likely to come in under 90 minutes. Don’t be fooled by the “20-100 minutes” timings on the box, though. A game comprises seven rounds, each of three phases, so it is hard to imagine the swiftest of players completing even a solitaire game in just 20 minutes. This is not a game you can expect to play as a filler! Indeed, you could easily find it takes you the better part of 20 minutes just to set the game up!
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.