Bremerhaven and Le Havre are from the same publisher, and the artwork is done by the same artist. Le Havre is the largest port in France, while Bremerhaven is the largest port in Germany. However these two games are by different designers and are very different.
In Bremerhaven, every player runs his own port, and you try to score the most points at game end by maximising your wealth and your prestige. Victory Points = cash x prestige.
The core mechanism is blind bidding. Every round a number of ships (bringing in various goods), a number of trucks (demanding various goods), and various actions are available for players to bid on. Everyone has five cards of various values, and you take turns playing a card face-down next to the thing you want. Once all cards are played, they are all turned face-up. If more than one player have played cards on one spot, then whoever has the highest card value total wins and gains the benefit, while the others leave with nothing. There are two exceptions - the build action space and the card upgrade action space allow losers to take actions, but they have to pay the difference between their total card value and the winner's total card value. Once all competition at the centre of the table is resolved, players take what they have won and do their own thing at their player boards.
The top row is for the ships which bring various goods. The bottom row is for the trucks which demand various goods. The six action spaces in the centre row are: earn parking fees, gain a building card, perform a build action, upgrade a card, determine market prices, change turn order.
You make money mainly by taking goods from ships (for free) and then delivering them to the trucks (which pay you). You only have three berths for ships and four loading bays for trucks. Two of the loading bays are not even available initially. You need to do build actions to open them up. Every ship and every truck that you win will stay at your port for a certain number of rounds, thus tying up your berths and loading bays. The length of stay of a truck is basically your time limit to fulfill the truck's demand. If it leaves without all the goods it wants, you are penalised.
Money is just one multiplier for your final score. The other one is prestige. Prestige is not accumulated. Instead, it is a measure of the highest total prestige value you have ever achieved throughout the game. Ships and buildings have prestige values. Buildings, once constructed, stay forever, but ships come and go. So your total prestige will fluctuate. What is important is your highest ever achievement, not what you have at game end.
The player board. Berths for ships on the left, and loading bays for trucks at the top. Whenever a ship or truck arrives, you place a number of time tokens on it, and remove one token at the end of every round. Once all tokens are removed, the ship or truck leaves. Initially only the six spaces on the left half are available for temporarily storing goods and constructing buildings. You need to use build actions (and pay money) to remove the construction cards on the right half to make more space available.
Stars mean prestige. Ships and buildings have stars. The track on the right is to mark your highest ever prestige total.
Notice the bollards at the berths. Some ships specify a minimum number of bollards required. If you don't build enough bollards, you won't be able to get some of the larger ships.
Buildings give special abilities. The build action lets you construct buildings that you've won from the building card space, add bollards, and also expand available space at your harbour. The upgrade card action lets you discard the lowest card from your set of five, and replace it with a higher valued card. So you can compete better next round. The set market prices action lets you determine the prices of all four types of goods for that round. Trucks leaving that round pay players according to these prices. Naturally you will want to maximise your earnings and minimise those of your opponents, if they have trucks about to leave. If no one takes this action, prices are determined by a random card. The turn order action not only determines turn order. It also determines the tiebreaker advantage and the salary for the round.
At the end of every round, an event card (which can be good or bad) is drawn for the next round, and the game end countdown (either 1 or 2 steps) is also determined. The number of rounds in a game varies from game to game.
Ainul, Ken, Heng and I did a 4P game, all being new to the game. It all started peacefully enough, as we tried to figure out the game, but soon those moments of hey-why-did-you-put-your-card-on-the-same-spot-as-mine started coming, and evolved to become downright vicious competition. We had plenty of escalations as sometimes two, and even three, players kept committing more and more cards to the same spot. It was painful for all involved, even the winner, because he had to spend many cards. This destructive bidding that we had was probably partly due to a rule mistake we made. We had thought that the buy building card space allowed more than one player to buy a card. We had some rounds when the second or third player on that space paid to buy the next building card that came up. Since we had more building cards in players' hands than we should have had, the competition for the build action space was very heated.
The bidding can get very brutal. Look at how competitive it is! Green has committed three cards (out of five available), and Red and Blue two each.
That said, I suspect the bidding would still have been quite cutthroat even if we had played correctly.
I did not do much card upgrading, and my cards were the weakest. So I had to settle for going for spots that I didn't think others would want. In a way that helped, because it meant I got into fewer contests. But then sometimes it may be good to compete. If your cards are strong enough and you can read your opponents well, you will be able to kill two birds with one stone - win what you want and deny your opponents.
I had a building which let me adjust the duration the ships and trucks stayed at my port. I almost always made them stay for a shorter period, so that they tied up my space for less time, and I could do more business. It was very helpful. However it was Ken who did the best in making money. By mid game his wealth had shot ahead and he left us in the dust. I was quite sure he was going to win. In the late game he made a call which costed him the game. He wanted to boost his prestige. To do that he had to build bollards so that he could receive large ships with high prestige values. He invested quite a lot to do that. Unfortunately the end result turned out to be not worth the money he sank into this effort. Ouch.
What I remember most about Bremerhaven is the brutal blind bidding wars. The logistics and coordination part with the ships and trucks are okay - not bad but not particularly exciting either. They mainly provide a context and an ever-changing backdrop for the competition in the bidding rounds. You must watch your opponents' boards to determine what they need and guess what they want. There is not much long term strategy. Player boards don't really develop to become very different from one another, although the buildings do provide some variety and player ability differentiation. The timing aspect is interesting. You need to be careful with your money. In the second half, you need to start scrutinising every dollar spent to make sure it will give you sufficient returns. If not, you are basically throwing away VP's. The prestige element is also about timing. You only need to hit a good peak once during the game. It doesn't have to be exactly at game end. You don't need to maintain a high prestige total throughout the game. You only need to orchestrate that one perfect storm. Planning for and grabbing that right moment is an interesting challenge, especially when you often don't get what you want from the bidding wars. One tough decision that sometimes comes about is after you have hit a decent peak, do you want to spend more effort to go for another even higher peak? Is there enough remaining time to do so?
Some won't like the unforgiving nature of the blind bidding mechanism. I think it is indeed quite harsh, but I find it very funny too. How players crash and burn spectacularly and get one another killed in the bidding rounds can be quite entertaining, even when you are part of that mess. My game being played with a group of crazy fellows certainly helped make it a fun experience. I can imagine if played with serious types the game can be a grim and merciless one. But then maybe some will like it that way too.