Sunday, 26 September 2021

revisiting Le Havre


I had not played Le Havre for quite a while when I booted up the iOS version recently. This is a 2008 game from Uwe Rosenberg, previously famous for the Bohnanza series, and now famous for Agricola. Le Havre was his second heavy boardgame after Agricola. Agricola was an important milestone in his game design career. Prior to that he mainly designed light card games, so Agricola was a very different beast from what he had been well known for up to that point. Post-Agricola he had many more heavy boardgames, and many told stories about farming. Later he made many games with polyominoes, like A Feast for Odin and Patchwork

I have always enjoyed the story told by Le Havre. There is a more or less fixed set of buildings in the game, and they will generally get constructed in a particular order, reflecting how this port city developed through the years. On the other hand, this can make the game feel a little scripted. Every game a small number of buildings are randomly determined. That can change things up a little, but there are only a handful of such buildings, and they don't always have a big impact on the game. Despite the general trend in the game, players do make many tactical decisions that create variations in how each game unfolds. Depending on the strategies you pursue, the buildings you construct will differ. You will find many tactical decisions to be made, and sometimes these lead you to pursue certain mid and long term strategies. An abundance of fish due to being ignored by other players may tempt me to grab them all, and once I have so much fish, I may decide to construct the fishing related buildings, and eventually focus on the fishing industry in the early game. 

The accumulation of resources on the offer spaces is similar to Agricola. When resources pile up, it becomes harder and harder to resist the temptation. Also as the number of buildings increases, the options for players also increase. Some early game buildings will become less useful. Towards game end there will still be competition for the more powerful buildings that are needed by most players in the late game. 

I was a little nervous when I booted the game up on my iPad to play it again after some time away from it. I remembered the AI's weren't particularly strong. However I knew I was rusty too. I was afraid of the ego hit if I lost to the AI's. I played carefully and seriously, paying close attention to what the AI's did and meticulously planning my own actions. I avoided loans as much as I could. I did remember that loans weren't that bad. The interest wasn't high. It was out of instinct that I tried to minimise taking loans. I probably should have trusted my memory more than my instinct. Due to not having loans for most of the game, I missed out the cash flow benefit that comes with owing money. In Le Havre, sometimes when you visit other players' buildings, you have to pay an entry fee. You can't borrow money for this purpose. The banks won't approve your loan application if you state this as your reason. However if you happen to be in debt and fail to pay interest, they automatically give you another loan. You can use the money to pay interest, and then have some spare cash for your cash flow. I missed out on this cash flow side benefit because I wasn't in debt most of the time. As a result there were quite a few times I wanted to use an AI's building but could not. 

The screenshot above shows the buildings I managed to construct. I didn't construct the harbour or any of the wharves. Not that I didn't want to. The AI's beat me to them. I had to pay them to use their harbour and wharves. In Le Havre, every player has only one worker. It may seem bizarre how this could work as a worker placement game. The more recent Beyond the Sun also has a worker placement element where players each have only one worker. In Le Havre, despite the low worker count, you often get blocked from the buildings you want to visit. The other players' workers can squat at a building for a very long time. If on their turns they decide to claim resources instead of using their workers, their workers will stay where they are, and you have to hope for the next turn. Sometimes the squatter moves away, only for the building to be used by another player before your turn comes around. 

You are not even guaranteed the use of your own building. Sometimes you patiently stockpile the resources required to construct a building which you intend to use frequently, only to have another player send his worker immediately after you construct it. As the owner, if you are desperate enough, you can sell the building to the city council. This removes the squatter and allows you to send your own worker. The painful part is you will be selling your building for half its value. Also once the building is no longer yours, you will have to pay an entry fee to use it. 

Thankfully I managed to beat the AI's. It was a tiny margin, only 5pts, but a win is a win. 

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