Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Hansa Teutonica

Hansa Teutonica didn't get a lot of attention when first released. However as more and more people played it, the positive reviews grew and grew, and it is now one of the most liked game among the games released within the past year. What is most surprising is it is a very very typical Eurogame. Nothing innovative about it. Same boring style of box cover and artwork, same boring theme of medieval merchants. Yet despite all these, it is getting a lot of good feedback. That made me very interested to try it, and I got my chance when Chong Sean got hold of a copy.

The Game

The theme of the game is merchant families in the Hanseatic League competing to gain prestige. They do this by deploying their traders and merchants onto paths on the map, and then establishing trade routes when a path is filled up with their people. When you complete a trade route, you can either open an office at one of the cities at either end of the path, or make use of the special power of one of the cities. All the actions that you can do in the game are related to placing and moving your people on the board. You can place one person. You can replace another player's person with yours, but you will spend an extra person(s) to do this, and your opponent gets to move his person plus another person(s) to some place else on the board. You can move your persons already on the board. You can bring persons from the general supply to your personal supply (El Grande-like concept). That all sounds rather boring, but the rule about kicking out another player's person turns out to be very interesting and very important.

There is a tech-tree in the game. The 5 aspects are: (a) how many actions you have on your turn, (b) how many persons you can bring into your personal supply each time you take this action, (c) how many persons on the board you can move when you take this action, (d) what coloured office spaces you can build on, and (e) points per city in your largest office network at game end. There are 5 cities on the board that allow you to improve your skills. To do so, you need to establish a trade route that touches the cities offering the specific skill, and forgo the chance of establishing an office there. So the tech-tree is the investment part of the game, where you try to improve your abilities, while building offices is the reaping rewards part of the game, because it contributes a lot to gaining points.

The player mat looks like a desk. The 5 sections on the table top are your skill levels (keys, letters, scroll, book and bags). The plate is for you to place new bonus markers as a reminder to place them onto the board when your turn is done. The front side of the table show the 5 possible actions you can take.

When you improve a skill, you take a trader (cube) or merchant (disc) off the relevant skill track and put it into your personal supply. The number revealed represents your new skill level.

There are many different ways to score points in the game, and establishing offices is definitely not all. With offices: you gain victory points for your largest office network, you gain 1VP if anyone establishes a trade route next to a city you control, you gain 1VP for some office spaces, you also gain VPs if your network spans the map and connects two specific cities at the east and west ends. Other than that, you also gain VPs for bonus chips collected (these are placed on paths and are awarded to the players who complete trade routes on those paths), and for reaching the top level of skills on the tech tree. There is so much diversity in scoring opportunities that the game is very open. The game is an interesting balance between deciding which strategy to pursue and deciding how much effort to spend on stopping other players from executing their strategies.

The game can end in 3 different ways - (a) in-game scoring reaches 20VP for any one player, (b) 10 cities are filled up, (c) bonus chips are exhausted. Much of the scoring is done at game-end, so the in-game score is not always the best indication of who is leading.

The Play

I played a 4-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. First time for all of us. I taught the game. From the start Chong Sean and I kept making many sneaky suggestions to Wan and Shan, mostly trying to persuade them to sabotage either Chong Sean or me. The game started with fierce competition around the city which allowed improvement in the number of actions skill. I stayed out of it, deciding instead of pick up a bonus marker that allowed improving a skill (which I later found out to be a rule mistake I made). I used that to increase my skill to 3 actions per turn, and never bothered with getting more.

I avoided the fiercely contested area, and instead tried to open offices in other hopefully lucrative locations (mostly skill-improvement cities), in order to earn those single VPs when other players completed trade routes next to my cities. This helped me a lot, as those locations indeed became quite popular. I also completed trade routes myself so that I could earn VPs.

Competition was fierce on the southern side of the board (far end of this photo), so I (green) decided to work on this path in the foreground which gave bonus chips. The setup in this photo was wrong. At game start there should not be any "improve one skill" bonus chip.

Shan used up her start merchant (everyone starts with only one) early, claiming the special 7VP spot at Coellen. 7VP is a lot, but then we later realised that losing a merchant early can be a big handicap. Some office spaces required merchants to set up office, and without any available, Shan was a little stuck.

I was first to start building up my network, followed by Shan. I had hoped to improve my Key tech (which awarded more VPs per city in largest office network), but Shan monopolised the path for this tech, and I was unwilling to spend so many resources to fight for it.

I (green) had built up a decent network in the north (foreground of this photo). Shan (red) had also started her network building.

Because of my big lead, Wan, Shan and Chong Sean had to work together to stop me. But I think by the time they realised my strong position it was a little too late. I had already set up my offices in very strategic locations, and I had enough flexibility to continue scoring that even if some options were blocked or made more costly, I could still pursue worthwhile alternatives. And while the rest worked to hinder me, they also sacrificed focus on their own strategies. The game actually ended due to Chong Sean giving me my 20th in-game VP. He did that hoping to ensure he would still come in 3rd place. However after the end game scoring, he came in last place. I think he was only 1VP behind Wan. Aarrgghh. But then that was probably the best he could do, because if he had allowed the game to continue, Wan and Shan would have both taken one more turn and would probably have scored even more.

I re-read the rules after the game, and found that I had made a number of mistakes, and all happened to benefit me in this first outing. Firstly, the three starting bonus chips are actually fixed and not randomly drawn from the pool. There should not have been an "improve one skill" bonus chip available. I was the one who picked that up. Secondly, the bonus chip locations are not fixed. Only the three start locations are fixed. After that, the player who has claimed a bonus chip decides where to put the newly drawn bonus chip. In our game we thought the locations were fixed. I intentionally set up office at one such path, and as others completed trade routes to claim the bonus chips, I earned VPs. The rules mistakes applied to everyone, so in a way it was fair, but then I happened to be the only player who had actually benefited from them. Sorry guys, please don't blame the game. It's the rules explainer's fault.

Chong Sean found the game quite tiring, and probably Wan and Shan too. There were so many options, and also lots of opportunities to mess with one another's plans. The game was probably a little frustrating for them due to the runaway leader problem partially caused by my rule mistakes. No, I didn't do any Jedi mind trick to convince them to fight among themselves. Of course Chong Sean would say otherwise. :-) Don't believe him. He's just trying to pull some Jedi mind trick.

The track on the left with the black cube shows the number of full cities, i.e. all available office spaces occupied.

The Thoughts

I like the game a lot and am very keen to play again, with the correct rules this time. There are many viable strategies. You have a lot of freedom in deciding how to play. At the same time, the most powerful strategy is only as powerful as how much the other players are willing to do to stop it. So the game is very interactive. You simply cannot not stop your opponents.

The rule for replacing an opponent's person with yours is a critical part of the game. It means you are never safe. Someone else can always stop you if he is willing to spend the effort. Also you often want to exploit this rule. Block your opponent and try to get him to displace your person, because by doing that you are effectively getting him to bring one of your persons onto the board on his turn. That saves you an action on your turn. In addition, that extra person comes from your general supply and not your personal supply. See how this rule encourages nastiness.

Actions in the game are very simple, so you can execute your turn very quickly. You can plan your turn ahead easily. If the board situation changes significantly by the time your turn comes around, you can quickly adjust your plans. This simplicity in execution allows you to focus on the big picture, on your overall strategy. That's a good thing. You're playing more than you're working. The many scoring opportunities can feel like a fair bit of work when you learn the game. You do need to digest that to see the full picture.

Hansa Teutonica is a game brimming with possibilities, and I feel there is a lot more to be explored. The game is the winner of the Hippodice game design competition in 2009. I have always been skeptical of game design competition winners, as they are mostly amateur or semi-professional game designs. I tend to pay attention to established publishers or well-known game designers. Hansa Teutonica has proven me wrong.


wankongyew said...

What are the bonus chips that the game is supposed to start with? I thought that it was interesting that our game started with the skills upgrade chip which would obviously be used to upgrade actions. It alleviated congestion around the only other area to get more actions.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

They are:
1. Remove 3 resources from board
2. Establish extra office (to be placed to the left of the leftmost office)
3. Swap two offices (disregarding whether disc or cube).

John Choong said...

I've been reading your game reviews and I like to get my hands on Hansa Teutonica. Where can I get it? It's not available at www.boardgamecafe.net. Would appreciate if you can let me know at brightknight_216@yahoo.com.

Anonymous said...

In my Z-man version of the game, the three start up bonus markers are yellow in colour.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

i think that's an excellent decision - to make the starting bonus chips yellow. makes it much easier to get the right chips quickly when setting up the game.