Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Le Havre

Le Havre is the name of an important port city in France. My copy of the game actually went to France before it reached me. A friend visited France on a business trip, and I ordered the game from an English online retailer, and had it sent to my friend so that she could bring it back to Malaysia for me.

Le Havre was inspired by both Caylus and Agricola. Mechanics-wise it seems to be more like Caylus, because of how buildings have an entry fee and give different benefits. Theme-wise it feels more like Agricola, because of the constant need to pay food. However overall it feels quite different from both. It really does feel like witnessing the growth and development of a port city. Industries change over time. More people fish and make smoked fish in the early game. Later on people may turn to steel-making. The city also grows. New buildings get built, increasing options for the players and shifting the focus of the game to more lucrative businesses. Older types of business, like making charcoal or building wooden ships, gradually get forgotten.

Through all this, the players build their business empires and try to make the most money and own the most valuable assets (buildings and ships). Every round (which consists of 7 player turns) the players need to pay food, and this food requirement keeps increasing. One way to help alleviate this burden is by owning (building or buying) ships. Ships reduce the amount of food you need to pay (I'm not sure how this ties to the theme or to real life though). Ships can also be used to sell goods. This is one important way to make money.

So how does it all work? A player turn in Le Havre is very simple. First you add some goods to some offer spaces on the board. There are 7 types of goods being offered - cattle, grain, clay, wood, fish, iron and money. These accumulate over time, just like in Agricola, but only two items get added on each player's turn, rather than all spaces getting replenished at the start of a round. After adding goods, you have two choices. Either you take all goods from one offer space, or you send your person (you only have one, unlike the many in Caylus and Agricola) to use a building. Buildings provide many different benefits. Some allow you to gain goods. Some allow you to upgrade goods. Some allow you to earn money. Some allow you to construct buildings. Two important ones are the wharf, which allow you to build ships, and the shipping line, which allow you to ship (i.e. sells) goods.

There are some actions which you can do without any restrictions during your turn. You may pay cash to buy buildings, or sell your building for half it's value. In this game you are usually cash-poor (well, maybe that's just me). Buying buildings is not something you will be doing often. More likely you will be gathering resources to construct the buildings. Owning buildings, especially the ones that you will use often or the ones that others will use often, is good. Most buildings have an entrance fee, which must be paid to the owner (the town, i.e. the game, or the players). So owning an often used building means you save some cost, or you earn some fees from other players, or both.

There are 16 goods types in the game (excluding money), 8 basic types and 8 upgraded types. E.g. iron is upgraded to steel, cattle is upgraded to meat, grain is upgraded to bread. Different goods have different characteristics. Cattle is not considered food (it's a pet) and you can't pay in cattle when you need to pay food. But meat is food. 1 meat is 3 food. Wood can be used as energy and is worth 1 energy. But if you upgrade wood to charcoal, it is worth 3 energy. Coal (3 energy) is upgraded to coke (10 energy). Hide (worth 2 Francs if you ship it) is upgraded to leather (worth 4 Francs). This may all seem quite complex, but I actually find it quite intuitive. I enjoy the variety and the realism. It all seems quite logical to me.

A 2-player game just set up and ready to go. The round blue disks (not yet turned over) will tell you what goods to add to the offer spaces. The offer spaces are the bottom row. The orange roofed buildings are where you are supposed to stack all the goods (not yet on offer), but I have a different storage solution (see below), so I don't use these spaces on the board. The deck of cards on the top left are the surprise special buildings. The 3 columns are the standard buildings. There is a round card on the right, which tells you how much food you need to pay at the end of the round. When the round ends, the card is turned over, and there's a ship at the back. This ship becomes available to be build or bought from the next round onwards. There are some spaces on the right-side board for the 4 types of ships - wooden ships, iron ships, steel ships and luxury liners. There are 4 buildings already built at the start of the game, on the right side of the game board.

Here's how I store my game pieces. This is very convenient. I should do this for my other games too.

The buildings. Only the top most buildings are available to be constructed or purchased. Upper left icon(s) are the materials required if you want to build them. Upper right icon(s) on the entry fee. Upper right number is the sorting number (buildings are sorted within each column). The number on the big coin is the value of the building. You can pay this to buy it if you don't want to or don't have the resources to build it. This is also most much the building is worth at game end. However some buildings cost you more than this value when you buy them. The central icons show the functionality of the buildings.

Reference card on the top left, telling you the food requirement at the end of each round, whether the town will build some buildings, and what kind of ships are available at the end of each round. Loan card on the top right. Start buildings (for the 2-player game) at the bottom. The three green buildings allow you to construct other buildings.

Many have compared Le Havre to Uwe Rosenberg's previous game Agricola, the #1 game on www.boardgamegeek.com, and commented that it is much more open, and I agree. It is less restrictive in terms of food requirement. In Agricola lacking food and getting a begging card is a disaster, but in Le Havre it only means going to the friendly loan sharks (大耳窿). Their interest rate is low and they don't hang dead chickens at your door. Because of this, the game is more flexible and you can think longer term. You can sacrifice the short term and pick up some loans. But do try to eventually pay them off before the game ends.

There is one thing that I can't explain when comparing Le Havre to Caylus. The buildings mechanism is almost identical, but I like the Le Havre buildings more. They feel more thematic while Caylus buildings feel abstract, "Euro". When I play Caylus (and not that I dislike the game) I feel like I'm just collecting cubes of different colours and using them to construct new buildings or converting them into victory points. Le Havre is essentially the same in this respect, but somehow it feels more real. Maybe the ordering of the 3 building stacks in Le Havre provides a story arc. Buildings don't get constructed in a strict order, but within these 3 stacks they do follow a strict order. Generally the cheaper buildings and earlier industries do come out earlier, and the more advanced industries appear later.

Although the game is quite open, there can still be some blocking. Some buildings tend to be used more often than others. Sometimes players happen to need the same building at the same time (e.g. when you have collected enough resources to build a ship, you will want to visit the Wharf). Sometimes a building can be "locked" for many turns, because the player occupying it happens to decide to collect goods on his next few consecutive turns. In this case his person stays on the building, just loitering and annoying the other people queuing outside (赖死不走). This may be surprising to some, since there are so many buildings, and each player only has one person, but it does happen sometimes.

After my first play, I worried whether the game would feel repetitive. Most of the buildings in play are the same. There are only 6 special buildings in each game, and not all are built. These are drawn randomly from a pool of special buildings, and they provide some variety to the game. Now that I have played a few more games, I find the game to be quite replayable. Despite the same general story arc, there are enough different strategies to explore - there are different industries to invest in, you may want to construct and buy many buildings, you may want to earn your fortune by selling goods. Some of the special buildings that come up can provide very different strategies, even though there are only very few of them per game. Many of these provide some special way of earning money. Because money is scarce, such buildings may drive a player's strategy.

One thing that is exciting about Le Havre is how it accelerates towards the end. In the last few rounds, you suddenly realise how few turns you have left, and start to plan carefully how to fully utilise them (ahem... I guess I can't blame Michelle and Han for teasing me for being a sloooow player). You need to make tough choices to abandon some activities and focus on others.

Michelle enjoying Le Havre.

My buildings, and one ship.

Later in the same game. I had 4 ships now. Notice that the Wharf has a brick on it. That means the Wharf had now been upgraded to be able to build iron / steel ships. The first player to use the Wharf to build non-wooden ships must pay this single brick.

So far I have played three 2-player games and one 3-player game. I had a lot of fun. In my first game, I built many ships, heeding the advice from reviews I've read, and also from the rulebook. That saved me much effort in later turns in getting food. Having many ships also allowed me to ship goods to earn money. I especially enjoyed shipping cattle and bread. Interestingly, cattle is worth 3 Francs, but if you slaughter it to become meat, although it can provide 3 food, it is now only worth 2 Francs.

There was a game where I spent much effort constructing buildings. Towards end-game I built the two large buildings (like those in Puerto Rico and San Juan) which provide bonus points depending on other buildings you own. I think I owned half the city in that game, although I didn't do much shipping (if any). There was a game when I produced much steel to be sold for a handsome profit, but generally I find that getting into the steel industry is hard.

I like Le Havre a lot, and look forward to many more plays, maybe even as much as Agricola.


Frank Conradie said...

Thanks Hiew for a great overview of Le Havre! My copy is in the mail, and your comments just reinforced that I made a good purchase and will enjoy the game. How long has your 2P and 3P games lasted so far?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

My first 2P game (both new players) took slightly more than 2 hours. After that it takes us about 1.5 hours to finish a game. Our 3P game (only Han was new to it then, but I was actually the slowest player...) took about 2hrs 15mins.

Notso said...

I haven't played any games like Le Havre or Agricola yet. I am always afraid I won't like them because their themes are so economic. I tend to be more interested in games that deal with battle or space or I guess disease in the case of Pandemic. I do like Pillars of the Earth quite a bit, though, and that is along those economic/building lines a little. I want to try Le Havre, but I would end up playing it with people who have played it many times, and I am afraid that I would just get pummeled by them and the game would not be fun. Do you think the learning curve is high to where I am going to have to lose badly a few times before I figure out how to play it, or could I do pretty well on the first try?

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Le Havre is more complex than Pillars of the Earth, and requires longer term planning. Don't expect to win your first game of Le Havre against others who have played it a few times. It does take at least the first game to get a feel for it, and to know what to expect next time. One important tip (which the rules also tell you) is build/buy some ships! So at least you won't lose too badly. :-)

Chris Norwood said...

I just ordered it from Tanga the other night, so I hope that it's as good as you (and apparently everyone else) says. My biggest concern for getting it to the table is the 2+ hour play time.

Aik Yong said...

Glad you like the game. I've found that people who like doing min/max-ing a lot will like the game.

I was thinking about this when our group played Games of Thrones last week, the group just doesn't seem to take to it as much as they took to Le Harve.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I thought a 6P game of AGOT would be quite cool. I like the books a lot, but so far have only played very few games of my copy of AGOT.

Aik Yong said...

AGOT is quite cool actually, especially 6 player, since i read that 5-player would have skewed the game towards Baratheon and Tyrell with the empty spaces were Martell would be.

But since our group seems to like min-maxing, backstabbing in AGOT does not come easily.