Hɪrð (pronounced ‘Hirth’) is a two player, abstract strategy game which takes strong inspiration, in terms of gameplay and aesthetic, from the Viking era. It is not a game about Vikings, that is, in Hɪrð you won’t find an onslaught of lavishly decorated playing pieces adorned with mythical-fantasy Viking inspired art. Instead, Hɪrð is a game designed to “look, feel and play” like a game from the Viking era; a goal it achieves memorably.
The gameplay of Hɪrð is reminiscent of other abstract strategy games such as Chess and Checkers, or the more contemporary Less. However, its rules are far simpler to learn and remember than those of Chess. It is easy to get started but as the game progresses, and you became acquainted with how complex the strategy of Hɪrð can be, the true depth of the game becomes apparent. There are three ways to win a round of Hɪrð:
- Achieve control over the five middle spaces, worth 1 point.
- Force the opponent’s Lofðungr off the board, worth 2 points.
- Surround and defeat your opponent’s Lofðungr, leaving it nowhere to retreat, worth 5 points.
Each player starts the game with 1 Lofðungr (King), 15 Hɪrð (bodyguards) and 3 Karve (Viking ships). Players begin with only the Lofðungr in their home base and whichever player is gold takes the first turn. Typically, winning a game of Hɪrð involves a sequence of rounds; the rules suggest a five point game, which is estimated to last between thirty and sixty minutes. Players switch colours after each round if playing multiple rounds. It seems that this is mentioned because taking the first move in Hɪrð can be a real advantage if utilised well.
Each turn involves two actions. First, the player must move five ‘steps’, using any combination of game pieces. Second, battles are resolved, if any were instigated that turn. All pieces must be brought onto the board via a player’s home base. This counts as one action. Moving any one piece into another square (Karve, Hɪrð, or Lofðungr) also counts as one action. To make a Hɪrð board a Karve (each can hold up to four Hɪrð) counts as one action per Hɪrð – but once they are aboard moving the entire Karve counts as only one action.
‘Controlling’ a space is as simple as having your pieces occupy it. However, when moving into an unoccupied square, a piece has to stop and can move no further that turn, which contributes nicely to the feel of the theme – it’s as though that piece is your scout or pathfinder; securing the way before your army comes forward. Attacking is, likewise, very simple. Each piece is worth 1 power, except empty Karve which count as 0. Although the Lofðungr is also worth 1 it also acts as a tiebreaker. In the case that a tie cannot be broken, the defender always wins.
The game also contains a special piece called the Penningr, which begins as a neutral object, belonging to neither player. At any point throughout the game either player may offer the Penningr to the other player. Accepting it means that the stakes for the game are doubled while refusing the challenge equates to losing the game. The addition of this ‘double or nothing’ feature is clever. In the case that a player feels certain of their victory they can offer the Penningr to grant their opponent a merciful defeat, rather than drawing out a futile game, as well as the obvious function of raising the stakes to increase the tension during a round of Hɪrð.
The game comes in gorgeous hessian bag, embroidered with the title and tied with a piece of string. The playing board is also an embroidered piece of cloth and the playing pieces that I received were handmade from wood and painted in metallic gold and silver. While these pieces looked and functioned well, I believe the design of the ‘Karve’ (Viking ships) is going to change for the final version of the game. Hɪrð is extremely portable – the cloth playing board and wooden pieces, along with the rules, all fit neatly into the small hessian sack, and the game is very light. Many games advertise their portability, but few are truly portable; a light breeze can put an end to any outdoor attempt to play a board game which involves cards or other paper pieces. Having taken Hɪrð to the park to play the game in preparation for writing this preview I can say with certainty that this game could easily be played almost anywhere.
For an abstract strategy game, Hɪrð is impressively immersive. The aesthetics and design of the gameplay work very effectively to build Hɪrð’s Viking theme. Not only do the playing pieces of Hɪrð feel like something Vikings might really have used to pass the time between raids, but the rules really feel to emphasise the feeling of loyalty that the Hɪrð have towards the Lofðungr – in battles they will instantly give up their lives to protect him and rallying your Hɪrð around the Lofðungr, so they might battle together, usually makes for more effective attacks than separating them. This really feels to imitate the kind of loyalty that Hɪrð felt towards their Lofðungr, and the ability to communicate a theme this strongly through gameplay, rather than visuals (as most games tend to do) is a truly commendable feat.
The game’s Viking theme is furthered strengthened by the names of the playing pieces, which are given in an old runic language called ‘Elder Futhark’. The use of these terms rather than simply ‘bodyguard’ and ‘king’ really adds something to the atmosphere of playing Hɪrð. While I greatly enjoyed investing time in understanding the theme behind Hɪrð and the thematic use of language, some might find the unfamiliar words and characters confusing. I do not think this is an obstacle to enjoying the game at all. At the very top of the rules, in the first section, translations are given for each term. ‘Hɪrð’ means bodyguard, ‘Karve’ is Viking ship and ‘Lofðungr’ is Viking King. Players could easily use these substitute terms if they felt uncomfortable with the runic ones.
Gameplay wise, Hɪrð is hard to fault. Playing the preview copy of Hɪrð did not at all feel like playtesting an idea that was only recently conceived. Instead, it felt like the end result of careful design and a hell of a lot of testing. While the games’ rules are simple, it will take a few rounds to get your head around the strategy. As an abstract strategy game it is vital to think several moves ahead if you wish to work towards a reliable victory. The fact that the game is able to function effectively on this level proves its depth and balance, and every game I played was tense and exciting, requiring my full attention throughout.
Hɪrð is highly immersive, tactical, feels balanced, and, most importantly, is fun. While many games boast strategic depth, few are able to pair it with simple rules and a strong theme as effortlessly as Hɪrð feels to. Hɪrð achieves this balance better than any Kickstarter or preview tabletop title I have played or tested this year. Whether you are interested in Viking lore or not, Hɪrð is an impressively solid abstract strategy title that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys similarly strategic games.
If you would like to learn more about this unique title, check out Hɪrð’s Kickstarter page.