My grandparents lived up on the Washington side of the mouth of the Columbia river. Along the coast fishing spawned dozens of little towns. These days the industry has dried up, so to speak, and the people living there have adapted as best they can. For instance Long Beach hosts an annual Razor Clam Festival that featured, what was at the time, The World's Large Frying Pan:
South of the Columbia, in Oregon, Tillamook invested in dairy products. Astoria remakes itself every decade or so: logging, fishing, canning, brewing, shipping, filming and recently tourism. On the Washington side, there's a wildlife refuge, oyster beds, a kite museum and cranberry bogs.
Nusfjord is a game about generations of families making a living in the unforgiving environment of a remote fishing village. I'd've called it Astoria or maybe Ilwako. If you've never explored such a place, you'd be forgiven for finding the theme a bit dull. The game is more than brightly colored buildings and grumpy old men, however.
When you first sit down with the rules, it feels like a typical Eurogame:
- worker placement,
- resource conversion and
- engine building.
But there are a couple additions that break the mold:
- company shares and
- feeding elders from a shared banquet table.
At this point I should admit I've yet to play Nusfjord with other players. I believe these mechanisms generate interesting player interactions, but I haven't experienced them myself. Still, these player interaction mechanisms enrich the solitaire game too.
Everyone starts with 5 shares. 3 are unissued and cost a victory point each at the end of the game if you still have them. The other 2 are issued and worth a VP each. One action space is "Issue a Share" which allows you to gain 2 gold in exchange for one of your unissued shares. Gold is a fairly restricted resource, especially in the beginning of the game. However, each turn you must pay a dividend to whoever is holding your shares. Initially that means a fish goes into the general supply during your fishing phase. Later it could mean you are paying someone else one fish a turn per issued share.
It's slightly more complicated than that, thanks to the way fish are distributed in the fishing phase. Elders get paid first, then outside shareholders, then you get a fish per issued share in your possession, then you add to your reserve and finally the general supply, if your reserve is full. Setting aside the elders for a moment, the result is you only get 2 fish in your supply per turn unless you buy more shares or transfer fish from your reserve (with the "Transfer Reserve" action).
Another action is "Take an Elder". Each elder represents a powerful action space only you can use. But in order to use an elder, you must feed him a fish from the banquet table, which is a shared resource. If you use the last fish, nobody can use an elder until someone servers more fish with the "Serve Fish" action. So you might think it's an advantage to take the fish from the last plate on the banquet table.
The catch is that each plate served grants the server a gold coin. The first plate costs but one fish. The second costs 2, the third and fourth 3, the fifth and sixth 4, and the seventh 5 fish. Secretly, therefore, the banquet table is really a fish market with supply and demand. If there are no fish to serve, the market buys 1 fish for 1 gold. As the table fills, the price decreases. Eventually, you reach a limit and can't sell fish at all.
There are a few more quirks such as a third of the fish you pay elders eventually come into your supply. Though it feels strange (or even pointless) on first play, these mechanisms add up to a functional economy. Critically, the theme hides what's going on. We're still in a fishing village, so it's "elders" and not "experts". It's a "banquet table" and not a "fish market". Yes it's a business, but it's also a way of life that must be preserved.
All of this (plus the forest and ship mechanisms) create a platform for the stars of the game: building cards. The base game comes with 3 decks, 2 more come as expansions and 2 additional expansions are coming soon. Each deck contains 45 unique buildings that can be placed on your personal board. Each player board has room for 11 buildings, at most.1 As the game progresses, each player is building a unique town.
Some cards are simple: build a Fish Stand and get 4 fish. Others give ongoing advantages: a Pier House gives 3 wood each time you build a ship. That card can be especially useful as ships are made of wood and the building can supply it. The deck is divided into A, B and C cards. A cards can usually be built in the first turn. B cards come into play in the midgame. And C cards are only revealed in turn 4 of 7. Those cards offer the largest victory point gains.
Buildings give your company a character. No visually—they are all a rather drab sort of tan. I'm talking more about the character of how your town adapted to the changing economy. For example, here's a game in which I sold my fleet and focused on finance. Sorta like Iceland in the early 2000s.
Other cards might encourage reforestation or large fleets or using more elders or building up a reserve. Buildings change the basic rules to give their owners advantages that nobody else will enjoy. Even onetime bonuses (like gaining 4 fish) gives the player who claims them a leg up because resources don't come easily.
When playing the solo game, all the A and B cards that can be played are in the opening display. I spend several minutes planning my strategy. It's entirely possible to plan out exactly what you are going to do for the first three turns because there are no surprises until the C cards come out. It's all about finding the best combinations to build a thriving economy.
However the puzzle isn't so easily solved. While there aren't opponents to block you, you can block yourself. In the basic solo mode, you alternate between two colors of worker. Nothing is blocked in turn one, but those workers don't return home and block those spaces on turn 2. The advanced variant uses three colors.2 The idea is to simulate other players occupying spaces.
Timing of actions presents a greater challenge. It's common to find yourself a few resources shy of an action and need to do things in a different order. If you want to build a building that costs gold, you need to first take an action that gives gold, such as issuing a share. But if one of the buildings has an action tied to issuing shares, you'll want to build that first in order to maximize the benefit.
Something must give. It can be a quite satisfying puzzle even when the solution is compromised. Often you'll need to forgo one benefit in order to gain an advantage elsewhere. So much depends on the three simple resources: fish, wood and gold. Being one short is common, but there's often a surprising way to turn up a resource. In one game, I was delighted to discover that the humble "+1 Gold" solved a tricky problem I'd backed myself into.
Starting on turn #4, it's time to see how well your strategy deals with change. Four C cards appear with four new strategies your town might take. Three more will come in turn #6.3 Some of those cards won't be viable for your town, but odds are good that a few of the C cards will fit in nicely. If you've managed to build an efficient economy with your A and B cards, you'll have the resources to build the most suitable C cards.
Other than the dull card illustrations (it's mostly text), the most common complaint about Nusfjord is the C-card reveal. The argument, as I understand it, is that people don't like building an economy one way only to discover it doesn't work with the C cards they turn up halfway through the game. I grant there could be a balance concern if one person gets just the cards they need and other players don't. Frequently the solution suggested is to deal C cards from the start of the game so that players can know what to build for.
This complaint fundamentally misunderstands Nusfjord. C cards represent a sea change your village must respond to. The old ways aren't working in the face of a modernizing world. Previewing them early breaks the theme and the fundamental strategy of the first half. There are plenty of games where you can pursue the same strategy from the beginning and Nusfjord is not one of those games.
Having played many solo games, there's always something for me in the first 4 C cards. I won't be able to build any for a turn or two, of course, but there will be some possibilities. By turn 6, when the final 3 C cards turn up, I'm planning for the end game. Sometimes those plans don't change—I had the right cards already. But sometimes I pivot a second time as the new options work better with my current economy.
I suspect if you go into Nusfjord thinking it's essentially themeless, that it's economic system is oversimplified and that it's not in the same class as the epic A Feast for Odin, you'll feel the mid-game reveal is flawed. Better to give players a clearer path to victory. But if you take the time to explore the economic system and don't compare it to other Uwe Rosenberg games, you might find it tells a story that's authentic to many small towns in the age of urbanization.
None of this is to say Nusfjord is some sort of "message game". It's an economic puzzle that offers huge variation. Solo players have the option to play the Nusfjord campaign which consists of three games using one deck. The first two times you play with half the deck each game. For the third through, you can use the cards you didn't build in the first two games. It's a tour of the deck that fills an evening if you take your time.
My first campaign used the Herring deck. I'd only played once or twice so I didn't know the decks very well. (In fact, I was still setting up wrong and using 6 forest tiles instead of 4.) I dealt out the Lighthouse, which is a B card that automatically triggers a "Transfer Reserve" action when the Reserve is full of fish. It's an incredibly useful card even if it only triggers once or twice. Reading about it in the Appendix, I learned that it also can trigger the Dairy and Wet Storage from the same deck. I didn't have those cards, so I decided to save the Lighthouse for the third game.
When I got the other two cards that combo with the Lighthouse in the second game, I avoided building them too. So in my final game, I focused on a Transfer Reserve strategy. Finally I could use this combo:
- Fill my reserve in the fishing stage.
- Trigger Lighthouse's Transfer Reserve action.
- Trigger Wet Storage's bonus 3 wood in the newly empty Reserve.
- Trigger Dairy's bonus gold in the Reserve.
It was the perfect cap to the evening and I got my personal best score. And yet . . . I think I enjoyed the other two games more. In theory Nusfjord's solo is all about chasing a high score. But I find it best when I'm trying to solve the puzzle each tableau of cards presents. Lighthouse's chaining action effect got me a high score, but it wasn't a very complicated puzzle.
Better to have a final turn where you want to do 4 things with your 3 remaining actions. Staring at the board you start comparing other options. As you reject one idea after another because you are an action or a resource short, you might stumble on a plan that clicks together as if the game was designed for this solution. It wasn't, of course. But I do think Nusfjord was designed specifically for me.
Well, there is one card that can be played in the ship area, which could allow 12 buildings. ↩
You also get to use the side of the Imitation board that gives you 3 "Copy an Action" spaces rather than just 1. Personally I find the Advanced variant no more challenging than the basic variant. ↩
This simulates the C card that other players haven't built in a multiplayer game. ↩