Nidavellir assembles together a number of tried and true mechanisms with such a sure hand that I didn’t realize until my second play how completely unoriginal it is. The tried and true usually becomes that way for good reason, of course, though tossing together familiar ideas like a hastily made salad doesn’t always result in a delicious meal. It’s usually edible but dull, all the components familiar and plain.
Nidavellir works, however, and I’ve got to figure out why. You’ll note I have not yet figured out why. I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and my thinking has done me little good. So I’ve decided to just start writing to see where it goes. Maybe this review will crash and burn. Maybe you’re rooting for it to do just that. I don’t blame you. Either way it’s getting published because I’m a dangerous man who lives on the edge.
Maybe Nidavellir works because of its simplicity. You see three rows of cards, you place your bid down for each row, and after a (semi-)dramatic reveal everyone gets to select their card in bid order. Everything else is counting. The details of how to operate the game are straightforward, leaving a good amount of brain power for strategic considerations. Even then the on-ramp to competent play is gentle. It sits in that sweet spot which encourages strategic exploration. Games don’t last particularly long, different strategies abound, and even if you do massively screw up it’s not going to feel like you’re dragging the game down with you.
Many games boast of various strategic paths, but far fewer actually make exploring those paths feel worthwhile. There’s nothing wrong with a game demanding excellence, and I probably enjoy punishing board games more than the average gamer, but sometimes it’s nice when it feels more like a playground and less like a meat grinder. Nidavellir’s one of those games that gives you points for everything and challenges you to discover the inflection points hidden beneath its free-for-all VP fire sale.
But maybe it’s not the simplicity but the yomi elements that make Nidavellir work. I know that simultaneous reveal bidding drives some people batty but I love it. Sometimes your best laid plans burn up in the grips of chaos, that impossible void. Other times you reach a state of yomi perfection, reading the table with effortless precision.
Nidavellir’s bidding never feels like blind guessing. You’ve always got enough information to make a reasonable guess at what other people want to do, but you don’t quite know how they’re evaluating that same information. Suppose someone will clearly really want one particular card, but they don’t have the highest bidding coin in the field. Will they still throw out their best effort and hope they win, or will they recognize that they’re unlikely to get the card they want and low-bid that row not caring much which of the other cards they get? If you own the best coin, do you use it on that row, guaranteeing that you’ll block your opponent their big payday, or do you guess that they won’t even make the effort and instead use your high coin to get the card you most want?
For Sale’s second phase whittles down this dynamic to a fine point. Nidavellir always has a few more elements clouding the calculations. Perhaps this is what makes it work so well: the balancing. Like with many set collection games, you’re going to do well if you heavily specialize. Out of the five primary categories of cards you’ll be collecting, three of them grow exponentially. Monopolize any one of those and you’ll probably win. Countering monopolization is relatively simple, though. There are more opponents than you and they collectively need to gather fewer cards than you need to gather individually to block you from winning the game via one category alone.
To soften this spoiler-power, Nidavellir does a very clever thing: it gives people bonus cards from a special deck whenever they gather generalized sets of each color. This transforms the game from one of trying to find a niche to one of navigating the relative benefits of specialization against generalization. You’re never going to get every card you want; Nidavellir rewards the realists who are able to adapt best to unpredictable situations.
Maybe Nidavellir works so well because of its theme. As you blind bid for cards with colors and numbers on them, you really start to feel like nordic fantasy dwarf…warriors? I suppose they’re warriors, though maybe that’s only the red cards. Some of them might be employed in various trades. I’m sure the rulebook gives them all names. However fun Nidavellir is, it’s definitely not because of the theme.
That leaves one other possibility, by my count. Maybe Nidavellir works because of its bidding upgrade system. In terms of originality this mechanism comes closest to doing something new. You begin the game with coins valued 0, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Each round you’re using three of them to bid. If you use the 0 coin, you take the two you didn’t use to bid that round and upgrade them into a new coin equal to their sum (discarding the greater of the two).
Playing a zero bid is tricky, but not as dangerous as it would be in other, similar games. Even the worst choice of any given row is still beneficial, typically in the pursuit of those bonus hero cards. The real fun with this coin upgrade system is trying to figure out your path to the best coin (the 25) before anyone else gets there. The coins are not distributed regularly, and if you upgrade into a coin value that isn’t available, you get the next highest one. Effectively timing your upgrades to take advantage of this is a small joy. Figuring out when you should stop upgrading coins and start getting the cards you really need is an interesting end game decision point.
Serge Laget has packed Nidavellir full of those clever little decision points that aren’t particularly consequential on their own, but together add up to the difference between winning and losing. I suppose what makes Nidavellir work is its familiarity. It’s a comforting game, calling to mind classics like 7 Wonders, For Sale, and Ra. It’s never stressful. Instead it provides a steady pace of simple decision points and little surprises. It has the confidence to not try to be more than it needs to be.