Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Board Game Review: Le Havre

Uwe Rosenberg is something of a divisive name in tabletop gaming. Although his first big success was a bean planting game called Bohnanza, he is perhaps best know for his 2007 release, Agricola, the game that quickly shot to the top of the BoardGameGeek list and, if only for a while, dethroned the classic Puerto Rico.  [Note: Eventually, GMT's Twilight Struggle would usurp this position, almost as if part of some sinister Soviet conspiracy.]  Rosenberg's games would eventually become well-known in the board game community.  From medieval farmers to medieval monks to Chinese farmers to French dock workers, his games all simulated work and challenged the player to optimize the workflow better than all others.  Despite sounding a lot like the worst job you have ever had, these games have sizable groups of fans, each excited to tell you how Rosenberg's games are great games.  They are also well thought out, well designed games.

His second big-box work game was based on the French port of Le Havre, aptly named Le Havre.  [Note: I call them "big box" because they come in the same sized box that generally retails at approximately $70.]  In Le Havre, each player is a business person trying to make the most money working the port.  The game is divided into a specific number of rounds (based on the number of players), with each round consisting of seven turns.  Players take turns in order.  On a turn, a player does two things: move a wooden ship to the next space on the ship track (which places two new goods on the docks of Le Havre) and take an action, which can either be claiming a dock full of goods or using a building.  At the end of each round, players have to pay a cost in food (or Francs) to support their workforce.  This process continues until the end of the final round.

Gameplay in progress.
Le Havre is interesting because what sounds like a pretty basic game mechanic (place new resources, take a single action) can be both surprisingly frustrating and surprisingly fun.  The first few times I played, I quickly discovered that feeding my workers at the end of the round was harder than I thought.  There are only so many fish that appear on the docks and a lot of people want them.  The cost to feed slowly rises from round to round, so whatever strategy worked in the first round would not be as effective later.  Yet, as the game proceeds, new buildings appear that allow for a larger range of actions.  Pretty soon, you develop the ability to bake countless loaves of bread or slaughter a herd of cattle sufficient to feed your workers.  Eventually, you hope to find a "groove" that you can fit into where you can spend your last few turns turning out a sizable profit by "turning the crank" on your economic engine.  It does not always work, of course, which makes the game interesting.

Yak shaving.
As a tabletop board game, Le Havre can become quickly frustrating because of the setup (having to prepare a specific deck indicating what occurs at the end of each round), the enormous number of little bits that need to be pushed around the board, and the surprising amount of seemingly repetitive process necessary to get places in the game.  Some players find that it can feel a bit like yak shaving.  I may find that I have to go to the Fishery to get a good catch of Fish, then the Wood Pile to get wood, followed by the Smokehouse to smoke my Fish with a piece of Wood, a trip to the Ironworks to get Iron, and finally a visit to Cannery Row to trade 1 Iron and 4 Smoked Fish for 18 Francs.  Wash, Rinse, Repeat.  It is not for everybody, unfortunately, but it can be very fulfilling when you find a "good combination" that makes you big Francs. The key is finding a good series that you can repeat enough times to make more money than your opponents.

Le Havre for iOS (iPhone and iPad)
This is actually one of those board games that always made me think that it could be quite a bit better if they eliminated the fuss of moving cardboard chits around and arranging the deck in a specific order every time.  What this game needed, I thought, was some automation.  It needed a computerized version.  Lucky for me, somebody thought the same thing.  From that thought comes Le Havre for iOS.  Finally, a version of this game exists where I do not need to think nearly as much about the fussy little bits and instead worry about playing the game.  But how does it measure?  Is it comparable to its venerable tabletop progenitor?  More importantly, is it worth the $4.99?

The layout resembles the original Le Havre pretty well and has full color versions of every card that appears in the game.  For people familiar with the board game, the iOS version puts everything in the same "place" as you would expect it to be on the tabletop.  I considered that a nice feature as it made playing it more intuitive for an old-hat tabletop gamer.  In addition, the game does allow for multiple human players.  It also allows them to be seated on either side of the iPad (you select each player's relative position when starting the game).  That way, I can play on one side and my friend can play on the other and each of us sees it "facing us."  Overall, it feels like it turns a two to three hour tabletop game into a twenty minute iPad game.  That, in itself, is nice.

Setup.  It allows 1-5 players with AI opponents of varying difficulties.
The arrow by the Human Players indicates orientation of the player
around the iPad.  It even allows for the "short game."
The game sets up the round deck, three building piles, and special building pile for you.  No fuss, no muss.  The three most laborious parts of setup have been automated to the point that I forget what it was like to play on a table.  The screen layout gives you a good look at resources, wealth (score), and Francs held by each player.  As buildings are bought or built, they appear beside the owning player's resource area.  It does become somewhat difficult to determine which player has built which building, but I found I got used to scanning over the stack of names whenever I wanted a specific building.  Also, it helps to remember, "The guy to my right has the Cokery."

Second Round of my First Game of iOS Le Havre
After a few games, I feel the urge to say that this game does a good job at capturing the tabletop board game.  I will admit that this game did not take long to show me that I am bad at playing it.  Even with two AI opponents playing on the lowest difficulty, I have a pretty terrible win rate. But, that being said, I had fun doing it.

This is me by Round 13, not winning.
The game looks good, although this opinion may be colored because I normally expect computerized versions of board games to look backwards and "difficult."  Every card I saw was an accurate representation of the original game card (with a few peculiarities in symbology here and there).  The resources look like their original cardboard chit forms, something that is bound to upset a few people that got fancy resource tokens for their game.  The board looked like the board.  Furthermore, it was relatively simple to figure out how to interact with things on the board.  Tap here, tap there.  Green checks and Red Xs represent "Go" and "Back."  Intuitive enough, although the game kept trying to insist I try the tutorial.

Oh, and it has music.  The music is ... French harbor music?  I am not sure that a better name exists.  At least the game has an option to allow create a playlist from your MP3/AAC collection that plays instead of the French harbor music.  So, if you want to convert Wood to Charcoal while listening to Rhapsody of Fire, you can do that.  At least they are considerate of your musical needs.

As of the current version (Version 1.0 on the iTunes Store), there are still occasional bugs.  I played it on an iPad 2 and had the occasional "card freak out," where the card decided to stall in the wrong place.  The game continued and it resolved itself by the time that player's next turn arrived, but it is a bit frustrating to have the peculiar image of a Wooden Ship card stuck in the corner of the screen.

So, is it worth it?  Well, as a person who owns the original board game, I would say it was definitely worth my $4.99.  It is a relatively intense worker placement/labor management game, something that may not appeal to every player, but I think conversion into iOS has definitely removed some of the less pleasant fidget and twitch from the game and made it more about making decisions.  It is an attractive, faithful reproduction of the board game that takes out some of the worst parts of the game (setup).  However, as the Uwe Rosenberg games are notorious for upsetting some players, it probably warrants a play-through prior to purchase to make sure you like this kind of thing.

[Note: For the avid Le Havre players, I do not believe that this version contains the small Special Building expansion, Le Havre: Le Grand Hameau.]

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