Greenland Review


What does this rating mean?

Posted by Dan on Jan 28, 2016

In piecing together the largely unwritten history of Britain after the withdrawal of Roman rule at the beginning of the fifth century, one central point of debate among scholars revolves around the difference between the communities that flourished, eventually growing into medieval market or castle towns, and those that simply failed to thrive. The Romano-Britons underwent an enormous decline in population — but why? Were they displaced by migration? Integrated into new communities? Killed off by plague or climatological changes? Some combination of the above? Historians have struggled to understand the fifth to ninth centuries for a very long time, but the one thing they tend to agree on is that the main factor in who lived and who died in those small centuries before the coalescence of British dynastic families tends to be one that modern minds aren't generally very comfortable with.


Simple as that. While one community settled in a spot that gave them a solid trade relationship with the Vikings, another had their cattle sicken and die. Some were fortunate enough to go unnoticed by raiding bands, others sank into a bog. One group happened to earn the favor of a petty lord, another was caught in a raging forest fire. And that's all there is to it. It doesn't seem fair because it isn't fair. All the smarts in the world, all the innovation and planning, and the village elder might still fracture his leg and have it go sour, the children might die in a particularly cold winter, the fighting men might eat a flank of pork that wasn't prepared right.

So when some people complain that Greenland is too random to be a simulation of what life was like for three different cultures braving one of the most inhospitable places in the world in the year 1200, they're talking out their bums.

Here's what might happen. Let's say you're leading the Tunit, one of the game's northern cultures. You excel at fishing, but lately the Thule — your northern competitors — have been hogging all the good fishing holes, leaving nothing left over. It would be tempting to fight them for the choicest spots, but they've swapped ivory and furs for fine iron axes and chainmail from southern traders, so there isn't much chance of coming out on top if it came to a scrap. You might be able to domesticate some oxen or caribou to drag sleds down the coast to the southern half of the island, or maybe just promote a hunter to the position of mariner to accomplish the same by boat. Unfortunately, the Norse have settled in down there, and they might present an even tougher opponent than the Thule.

This is the sort of crisis that every single round of Greenland presents. Whether playing solo or with the maximum three players, resources are scarce, prime hunting grounds are swiftly claimed and jealously guarded, and starvation is always rumbling at your belly.

So what do you do? In this case, perhaps it's time to take a chance. Hunting bowhead whale might not sound like a good idea, but this time you have plenty of warriors, an arranged marriage to a Thule daughter has taught you some of that tribe's secrets of maritime hunting, and there isn't much else to do. Besides, a whale could provide a huge amount of meat and blubber, perfect for both feeding and warming the next generation. And if you happen to exterminate the monsters, your tribe will be renowned for all of time. So, while the Thule snack on cod, you send your warriors, all of them, to pursue the whale. It's a gamble, but it's a good one. You pick up a handful of dice and send them clattering across the table.

Greenland may be a dice game, but it's certainly an atypical one. Where most dice games are streamlined for maximum speed, ease of play, and breezy fun factor, Greenland is ponderous, packed with rules and exceptions and simulation-style caveats, and can run for upwards of two hours before its tale of survival and clashing cultures is brought to a close. Worse, it doesn't really care if you're having fun or not. It might as well be a Tunit hunter whose furs were lost in a blizzard for all the jolliness it promotes. Instead, it wants to tell you a compelling narrative, one where the losses are felt like a gut punch while the successes will have you hooting right alongside your hunters. Rolling the dice and watching your men bring home a bowhead whale is elating; watching them be devoured by the monster's jaws and the icy depths might make you flip the table.

I'm getting at two things here. First of all, this isn't a game for everyone. It is not easy to learn or teach. It is not chipper or breezy. It is not "tight." It isn't the sort of game you'll power through five times in an evening.

On the other hand, this is one of my favorite games of the past couple years. It is compelling. It is deep. It is alternately stressful and so relieving that you will immediately begin dreading the next turn because all your good fortunes might be reversed. It's the sort of game that gets under your skin and makes you think, where every play is different and new stories are told.

For example, you can over-hunt the island, resulting in leaner times than ever. Or the climate might shift, making certain areas harder to hunt. Or tribal relations might devolve into constant warfare. Or you might settle the New World only to be driven out by the natives. Or you might abandon your polytheistic traditions and end up sending Christian missionaries to pester everyone into changing their victory criteria.

No matter what happens, Greenland is a game that demands attention. And the thoughtful sort whom may be so inclined to give it a chance will find themselves rewarded with enough blubber to keep their fires burning for a long time to come.