Gulveig is a 2-4 player trick-taking card game from Fate of the Norns RPG creator Andrew Valkauskas. I’m going to start with an explanation of the rules, before moving on to the review proper; you’ll understand why once I get there.
A round of Gulveig has three phases: bidding, trick-taking and scoring. You can choose to play to either 500 or 1000 points, depending on how long you want your game to be. The version of Gulveig that I played contained a fifth, Dvergar (or Dwarf), faction so the rules I am about to describe apply only to this version of the game. If only two people are playing, you remove all Dvergar cards and all cards with 7 Strength. During any game, regardless of the number of players, you must choose whether you are playing with, or without, the Valknut-symbol cards (small, grey symbol which looks like three overlapping triangles. If you choose to add these four cards, remove the four original versions of the same cards.
Each player is dealt eight cards and the remaining three are placed face-down in the middle of the table as the Treasure. Next, players bid, starting with the person to the left of the dealer, based on how many points they believe they will be able to score this round. The minimum starting bid is 50 and whoever makes the highest bid is called the Bid Winner. The Bid Winner reveals the three Treasure cards, so that all players may see them, and may then swap out three cards in their hand for the three Treasure cards. The discarded cards are placed in their Winnings Pile. The next phase, trick-taking, will feel familiar to anyone who has played traditional card games such as Hearts, Bridge or Spades, as Gulveig uses the same basic mechanic. Cards in Gulveig have two values: Strength, in the top left-hand corner, and Value, in the top right-hand corner.
The Bid Winner becomes the Lead Player for the first trick. The Lead Player plays a card from their hand. All other players must play a card of the same clan (colour), if they have any. If they do not, they may play a card from a different clan, but the Strength of that card will be reduced to zero. Whoever has played the highest Strength card wins the trick, claims all cards in the trick for their Winnings Pile and becomes the Lead Player for the next trick. Alternately, the Lead Player may choose to play a Supremacy Combo. These are special combinations of cards which score far more points than ordinary cards.
To play a Supremacy Combo, when you are the Lead Player, reveal both the cards that make up your Supremacy Combo, instead of just the usual one. The Supremacy value of the combo is considered immediately scored by the Lead Player. Then, the Lead Player chooses one of the cards of their combo to leave in play for the trick and returns the other to their hand. The lead card used for this trick determines the Supremacy (or trump) for the rest of the round, unless another Supremacy is declared. For example, if the Supremacy is the green faction, green is considered the strongest faction for the rest of the round and the highest value green card will always win tricks.
Once eight tricks have been completed, the scoring phase begins. To calculate your score, add the value of each of the cards in your Winnings Pile plus any Supremacy points scored. The Bid Winner must have achieved a score equal to, or greater than, their bid in order to score their points. If they have not, then they must subtract their bid from their total score. Points scored by everyone except the Bid Winner are referred to as Scavenger points, and Scavengers points can only be scored provided you are more than 150 points away from the victory condition (usually 500 or 1000 points). Once scoring is complete, the next round begins, and play continues in this fashion until someone scores the victory condition amount of points.
If you’re still with me at this point, you might be wondering why I have explained the rules so thoroughly in this review. The simple answer is that I found the rules included with Gulveig muddled, and wanted to clarify how the game works for any future players. There is a video on the Fate of the Norns YouTube channel which illustrates some of the game rules, and although it provides some useful examples of play, it does not make it clear in the video that the version of the rules shown is for use with the base game – not the Dvergar faction expansion. I am usually fairly lenient when it comes to preview rules, as the game may still be a work in progress; however Gulveig is a published game, originally released in 2014, and a written review published soon after the first release, expressed concern at the same issues. Clear rules are vital to a game being enjoyable and adding some examples and clarity to the Gulveig rules would definitely be beneficial.
Gulveig works, but it didn’t really work for me; the reason being it felt that winning a round of Gulveig relied too heavily on the quality of the hand you drew. Yes, there are some ways to play Gulveig strategically, but for the most part, if you are dealt a bad hand, there is no way to play it so that you score enough points to make anything other than a very low bid. If you are dealt no Supremacy Combos at the beginning of a round, the risk of bluffing a bid you know you do not have is enormous, especially as the penalty for not meeting your bid is so high. In my time playing Gulveig I found that you could tell, simply from the bidding phase, who had Supremacy Combos and who did not, as the penalty for losing a round as Bid Winner is so high that players rarely wished to bluff in order to inflate the bid of the confident player. This meant that the player with the strongest hand was always most likely to start taking tricks as the Lead Player, and the advantage gained from this position almost always guaranteed them the round. Such situations were fun for the Lead Player, but for everyone else, it just felt as though there were very few strategic options or meaningful choices to make.
That said, I found the game was far more fun with two players, compared to games of four. In a two player game, rounds are faster and the removal of some cards makes the likelihood of players drawing Supremacy Combos higher, putting you on a more even playing field
Of course, if you are dealt a poor hand, you can always bluff during bidding and pray that one of the Treasure cards will give you a Supremacy Combo, and it is exactly that kind of gambling that some players will doubtless find fun. However, when it comes to strategy, it is a play that is ultimately more likely to hurt you than the other players. This high element of probability is present in many gambling games – things like Poker and Blackjack – and a game in which luck is as important as strategy is not, necessarily, a bad title; but as a strategy and narrative fan, it just really is not for me.
Gulveig is very impressive to look at. The cards are beautifully illustrated, courtesy of Natasa Ilincic, and greatly enhance the game’s theme, which feels strongly woven into the title. As mentioned previously, Gulveig was designed by the creator of the Fate of the Norns roleplaying game, which has been around, in some form or other, since the early 90s and is very deeply rooted in Viking mythology. The colourful, ornate, eye-catching works make Gulveig visually memorable. Although very aesthetically pleasing, I did notice that a few of my fellow players had trouble distinguishing the blue and purple faction cards, which led to a few misplays. More distinct faction symbols might be a way to fix this problem, simultaneously making the game more accessible for colour-blind players. The game comes with a few variant rules included in the box, as well as rules to help scale the game depending on the amount of players – a thoughtful consideration. There is also an invitation to visit the website, where you can discover even more ways to play.
Gulveig has a strong theme, lovely art and some good core ideas, and if you like gambling-style games, you’ll have a good time with it. However, I found basic gameplay frustrating, as I felt much of my chance of winning came down to luck and that I was not able to make meaningful strategic choices during a round unless I was dealt a good hand. Fans of risk-taking, gambling-style games will likely have a lot of fun with Gulveig, but if you are not a fan of bluffing, risk-taking games then it probably isn’t for you.