Bad North is easy to pick up, but it's a fiendish strategy game

The final wave of vikings is about to land on my tiny blood-soaked island. If they destroy my last remaining shelter, I’m finished. I move my few surviving archers closer to the beach to help thin the vikings as they approach, then move my pikemen to plug up the narrow cliffside path leading to my camp. These vikings have shields so my arrows don’t do much, but my long pikes have better reach than the viking swords. My island gets a lot bloodier, but my pikemen get the job done. The island, and its soldiers, are mine.

Bad North sparkles during photo-finish gambles like these. It's a strategy game in which you defend procedurally-generated islands from waves of vikings using the few soldiers you start with and the squads you find on your journey—similar in some ways to Into the Breach, though realtime. And while its minimalist art gives it a cute look, Bad North is a vicious game. The waves of invading vikings ramp up quickly and you don't have much time to prepare between each one, and without a proper pause button—time is only slowed while selecting and placing units—it's easy to become overwhelmed. At the same time, Bad North is incredibly easy to pick up, which is developer Plausible Concept's real magic trick. 

I played through a few islands at GDC after artist Oskar Stalberg and programmer Richard Meredith showed me the basics, and initially everything was small and manageable. You start with two heroes leading two squads of about eight soldiers each. You encounter more heroes as you visit new islands, and if you successfully save their island, you get to add them to your ranks. Of course, there's permadeath on heroes: if their squad is slain, they're lost for the run. Finding a new hero is a big deal, so every island is an exciting goody bag. 

Stalberg tells me accessibility was always their priority. They wanted to create challenging scenarios, but to present them cleanly, without getting bogged down with stats and percentages. Heroes are a good example: They don't have HP bars or numbers indicating how many members are in their squad. Instead, those are one and the same. If you want to know how a hero's doing, just look at their squad. If they only have a few guys left, they're in trouble. 

Observation is key in Bad North. Stalberg admits some of the rules sound counter-intuitive on paper, but once you see them happen, you understand why and naturally start to play around them. Your archers, for instance, are pretty inaccurate until you upgrade them, so while they're strong against groups of enemies, they'll often miss individuals. As a result, a single enemy archer can kill two or three of your clumped-up archers before they finally nail him. A squad of archers is going to kill the crap out of one guy, but a squad is also a bigger target, so they can get torn to ribbons in the process. That's why you should always lead with melee units and have ranged units back them up.

After each battle, heroes earn gold individually based on their contribution to the battle and how many shelters you protected. Naturally, if a hero flees, they won't receive anything. That said, fleeing an island is sometimes the right call, even if it means losing a potential hero. Between islands you use gold to purchase upgrades for your heroes and their soldiers, meaning you don't just upgrade your archers, you upgrade this squad of archers. This results in intuitive, navigable skill trees that are just as clean as Bad North's art.

There are basic upgrades like more health for your melee units and better accuracy for your ranged ones, but also new cooldown-based maneuvers like a plunging attack for your swordsmen. That was one of my favorites because it made me recheck each island's terrain to find ledges for my swordsmen to jump off so they could skewer some vikings. Plunging attacks aside, leveraging the land is critical to successful strategies like my 300-inspired funnel assault. Islands are small but peppered with little details that can make all the difference, like hills, ledges and tunnels. You'll come across anywhere from 50 to 80 islands in a run—though you won't land on all of them—and while I only saw a few in my demo, the ones I did see felt distinct. 

It was a promising demo, and I look forward to more when Bad North launches later this year. You can learn more on the official site.