Thursday, August 21, 2014

Le Havre: The Quest for Usefulness

"Oh, I can't get the smell of slurry out of my clothes. I was a fool to help that horrible old man!" 

-- Lisa Simpson

The saga began at game night a while back. I had just finished the rousing chuckle-fest of Small World when I was asked by my friend to take over his seat because he had to go home. I agreed, and walked over to his table. I was immediately greeted by this monstrosity.

Behold. Le Havre. By Uwe Rosenberg.

I was pleasantly surprised.

The Buildings

Do you see the sprawl of building cards in the picture? The game begins with only a couple of simple actions to choose from. Then, incrementally, the count and availability slowly increase. Much like a deep pressure chamber, the complexity is raised in small amounts so your brain gently acclimates.

ALL buildings can be used by ALL players (with a little something always being paid to the owner) so you soon have a huge selection of actions to pick from, but honestly I can say I never felt overwhelmed.

At its gruesome industrial-age core, Le Havre is all about turning things into other things. You pick up a supply of raw material at the docks. And then you turn it into something more useful. Clay becomes bricks. Wood becomes building materials or charcoal. Grain becomes bread. 90% of the buildings turn 1 or 2 resources into 1 or 2 other resources.

Sometimes you are making fuel required for other transactions (like wood and coal), sometimes incredibly useful building materials like steel and sometimes you are creating products purely to sell (leather).

Making Useful Products

You feel like a industrial baron trying to find an "angle" to deliver massive payouts starting only with these paltry raw resources. Feeding a stack of 12 cattle into the Abattoir and getting a stack of 12 steaks and 6 hides feels about as Montgomery Burns as you can in a board game.

Look at how I've transformed these simple animals into useful products! Magic!

At one point I found out the magical awesomeness of a certain resource known as coke. Coke is worth a stack of money at the end of the game, and you can fuel all kinds of energy-intensive actions with just a single nugget. If there was one thing I wish I would have done differently, I would have worked harder to make more coke. Because coke just makes life in Le Havre so much easier in so many ways.

And when you reach the end of the game via the somewhat boring fixed number of turns, Le Havre at least has the purest of scoring conditions…whoever has the most money. Sweet, sweet money. 

Worker Placement

Le Havre seems to fall under the definition of a worker placement game. Each building or dock space is an action, and by taking that action you are blocking the other players from doing the same thing.

What makes Le Havre different from Agricola or any of the millions of other worker placement games out there is this: you only ever have 1 worker. You start with 1, and there is no way to get more.

The result is a completely unified turn! No skipping around! You place your worker, buy additional stuff if you have the money, and pass your turn. While the other players rack their brains about their turns, you figure out what your next action is going to be.

There is also little maintenance to take care of. Replenishing the stacks of resources is also a gradual affair, done by whoever's turn it is and following the simple instructions on the card. Unlike similar games I've played, one person never has to take on the role of "facilitator" for the game, continually staking more chits and moving markers around the board.

Feeding Time

A Rosenberg game is not complete without regularly scheduled feedings. The staff of your empire need to be paid, which you can do with coins if you really need to but hopefully instead you will be able to use some type of food. They will accept some of those tasty steaks, or maybe some fresh baked bread from the Bakehouse.

Bread and steaks both take a certain amount of effort to produce, however. And you do only have that one singular worker to use every turn. So I found myself, more often than not, rewarding my hard-working employees with the stinking half-rotten fish I had left over from a dock-side resource grab many turns ago. They earned it!

The Long Game

Le Havre was a blast to play the first time. Would I like it in the long run?

Around experienced players I don't think I would be winning very often. The low level of randomness (the buildings come out in a random order, but everything else is 100% open information) doesn't give you much room to make seat-of-your-pants tactical decisions. Much like Puerto Rico, there is probably always a 100% optimal "correct" play I should be making during every turn.

In fact if you looked hard enough, you could probably find some sick analysis of every single Le Havre building with the pros and cons of each.

But the enjoyment I got from Le Havre wasn't so much the winning as it was creating and growing my dockside empire. And I could do that over and over again.

When you ship out a boat full of leather, steel and coke you get a pile of money in exchange. If someone else has a little bit bigger pile…well, you still feel pretty rich.

If you are looking to satisfy your longings to be an evil business tycoon, La Havre is probably the way to go. And don't worry about smoking those fish first, your workers love it raw and wiggling. Spend your time making coke instead.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A True Boss Monster Knows to Enjoy the Simple Pleasures

There are a number of candidates for my 3rd critique of the worker placement genre. None of them were Boss Monster. You aren't getting another worker placement game…you get this!

I finally played Boss Monster yesterday, and now this funny Nintendo game shaped experience have left a tremendous, 8-bit, mark on my game-playing soul.

Two full dungeon line-ups square off in fierce competition

I had VERY few expectations. Sometimes you hear "buzz" about a game and when you finally play you get disappointed. One thing Boss Monster had going for it were my expectations. Before we started playing Boss Monster…I had only negative expectations.

The game comes to our reality by way a small company called Brotherwise Games. So small, I think Boss Monster might be their only product. As a company creating its very first product, lacking in traditional board game creating experience, you don't often see a polished, well-crafted product.

The only thing I had heard was in regards to their rulebook which is legendarily bad. I won't go into it too much, but without the Internet, I would be playing a far different game, and I would be liking it far less.

So let's just skip over that speed bump (thanks to our brave new interconnected world) and go right to the beverages!

The Lemonade Stand

Imagine a lemonade stand. You are trying to attract people to your business. So you can kill them and make a trophy out of their bones. But not everyone likes lemonade so you are going to have to stock more beverages like root beer, fruit punch and bloody mary mix.

The central conflict of the game is simple. You adding different flavors of beverage, or improving on the quality of your beverages, while your opponents are trying to do the same thing at their lemonade stands.

Whoever can lure the most customers in wins.

But you're forgetting something. You also have to satisfy your customers. So while you are juggling the quality of your lemonade, you also have to be adding enough poison sugar so they die enjoy themselves before leaving your establishment. When you first start, you might not even WANT customers because they will just eventually leave unhappy. And unhappy, still-living customers will eventually pile up and lose you the game.

Here are the phases:

1) Build your dungeon

You build one room of your dungeon. This adds either 1) more flavor, 2) more killing power or 3) hopefully a little of both.

The Golem Factory has one sword, which Fighters like (maybe its root beer). And it has 2 killing power to help finish them off. And it even has a little bonus if someone dies in it.

2) Bait the adventurers

This is a judging round! I love judging rounds. All players compare their dungeons and the people randomly drawn into the village automatically go to the most attractive establishment. Only takes about 10 seconds.

The Dragon Hatchery has all the kinds of treasure a hero might want, but absolutely no killing power.

3) Kill the adventurers

The customers go through the line, sampling each room and taking the damage printed on the room. If they come out dead you get gems, if they come out alive you get wounds.

4) Did you win the game?

A player wins when he or she has 10 gems, or loses when he or she has 5 wounds.

The speed of the game

The rooms are all easy to understand. You can easily see what your opponent's rooms do at a glance from across the table. And there aren't many kinds so you quickly become familiar.

Most of the actions in the game can be done simultaneously.

I've logged about 50 games of the DC Deckbuilding Game. And until I played Boss Monster I hadn't realized how annoying it was to sit and WAIT while your opponent went through a long drawn out combo.

In Boss Monster, the turns are INCREDIBLY short. Maybe a minute or two per turn. It is awesome.

Winning the game

Here's another thing, and I feel this is getting rarer all the time. There are TWO end game conditions, and you can meet either of them.

For whatever reason, game designers have slowly moved to a environment where most games end after a set number of turns. You can see how many turns you have left, and you can plan everything out. I'm looking at you, worker placement games!

Boss Monster harkens back to an age when gameplay itself also has to move the players towards a resolution.

This, combined with the overall speed of the game, means you are never sitting in round 3, waiting for final round 8, knowing you have already lost. In Boss Monster if you get blown away in the first couple turns, the game is probably over. I love that!

If you see your opponent is only a few gems away from victory, but also only a wound away from defeat, you can play a spell card and turn one of his potential customers into a powerful assassin to remove him from contention. No need to count up those victory points!

My Big Surprise

Boss Monster looks like a boring, casual, "play a card, see what happens" game. But there are so many little beautiful things you find as you play. There is real strategy here. Some serious out-of-the-box thinking went into it, and I have to applaud the brains who put this game together. I hope there is a Boss Monster 2 coming out there, because I am picking it up.

Contemplating his next move.


I don't know if I have ever mentioned Kickstarter in a positive light. But today I do so, because I also see Brotherwise is attempting to raise funds to make a digital (iOS AND Android both!) version of Boss Monster. I have never been tempted before, but I think I might have to back this game. It's also a perfect way to grab the game if you don't have it already.

Rarely do I pitch anything, but there you go.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gen Con or Gen Cool? 5 Board Games of Interest

The next worker placement critique in the series is still on the way.

But I've been hanging out on my Twitter feed a little too long. And unfortunately, I caught something that's been a real lamprey to get rid of. But this blog post might just do it.

I try to avoid current board games. The marketing blitz surrounding them often conceals key inadequacies only later revealed once you open the box. You pull back the curtain, a woman screams and you say "My God, what have I done?" And the game is already on your shelf.

The last game whose spiky hype I fell upon was a little pirate game called Get Bit. And MOST ironically…that is exactly what happened!

Far better to look at the games people are still talking about 1 or 2 or 3 years later. What has survived the hype?

So I was loitering on Twitter and picked up a true social disease. We'll call it Gen Con Fever.

I'm not even going to Gen Con. It's happening this weekend. If you didn't buy tickets a year ago, you are out of luck. If you really want to go to Gen Con, trying going to literally any other board game con. There is probably one in your very own metro area, and possibly as many as three…get researching!

One thing publishers like to do is show off brand new titles, and this is where the fever found a way into my brain. So the following games might completely suck. But something about each of them draws me in, pulling my strings, enticing me with a spicy, curious brain scent I am unable to identify. Before long I'm zombified and dangling from a tree branch.

1) Destination: Neptune
Seen in action: PairofDice Paradise's GTS coverage
I really love space flight and space exploration. Today's "science fiction" games typically don't deal with the technology of space but instead use it as a setting to trot out the traditional tropes. I used to play Buzz Aldrin-approved (he approved the computer version at least) Liftoff!. To see something with similar theme added to more a modern almost Puerto-Rico-esque design makes me take notice. I have 90 minutes for that, easy.

2) Pay Dirt
Seen in action: Rahdo Runs Through It
I'm am going to be so sick of worker placement games. But, add a new theme, with cool interactive mechanics and I start to get interested again. Love speculation. Love blowing up my opponents. Love creating machines. The publisher saw fit to make this as a promotional video. Despite the fun everyone seems to be having, this might be a little too complicated for my blood…but there's only one way to find out.

3) Imperial Settlers
Seen in action: Portal Training Video
For a long time, I have tended an interest in Ignacy Trzewiczek's 51st State. The game is a complex hand and resource management game with drafting. Somewhere in the same vicinity as Race for the Galaxy. But the game keeps going through different revisions. And the very last revision is a complete overall into something called Imperial Settlers. Did I say I love creating machines? The main mechanic of Imperial Settlers seems to be finding a combo and taking over the game with it. And if you are on the receiving end? At least the game is short.

4) Five Tribes
Seen in action: Boardgamegeek designer preview
This has been described to me as a "worker placement game in reverse". Designed by famed game artisan Bruno Cathala, I think Five Tribes looks more like Carcassonne in reverse, where you are picking meeple back up to score points. I love Carcassonne, I love Kingdom Builder. And what really blows my mind…this game starts out with all the pieces on the board, and during playing the game you're actually picking it up! Who hates long maintenance phases in board games (I raise my hand)?

5) Abyss
Seen in action: GreyElephant LivePlay
Another Bruno Cathala game! Fantasy themes are boring when absolutely no effort goings into making them different. The underwater theme of Abyss, full of jellyfish acquisition in order to woo powerful aquatic lords, is something completely different. And the money for the game is pearls!

The best thing to do for all of these games is to wait a couple months at least. After some of the hype dies down you will start to hear about the problems. Some of these games are no doubt completely broken and unplayable (or maybe not). Push down your emotions. Or forever will they rule you and your wallet.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Belfort Rap

Today I am a fan of 2GoaTees.

I hope one day to make something with this level of creativity.

This rapper has a really good point on how awesome the player aids are. There are far better games that run far less smoothly because you have to keep referring back to the stupid rulebook.

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Study in Worker Placement Deux: Prêt-à-Porter

For the next game in the series, I wanted to try to find a polar opposite to Belfort. Can something have more than 1 polar opposite? With magnets, the answer is no. With board games, the jury is still out.

The game we will discuss today is Prêt-à-Porter.

"Ready to Wear" as they say. A game I have already commented on previously, but so deliciously interesting I had to drag it back out of the word hell I had specially constructed.

Before we dive in, let me emphasize something…it is monumentally difficult to continuously refer to and search for a title containing both hyphens and accent marks. But I did it all the same, time and time again. It's those sorts of sacrifices you can expect to see in this blog.

The Comparison is Made

While Belfort's workers are represented by elves and dwarves taking up resources and visiting buildings, the generic worker placement pawns of Prêt-à-Porter aren't really workers at all. They aren't employees. And you can't get more of them, you always have the base 3. What are these guys?

The choices you make

The worker pawns are opportunities. Moments in the timeline of your company where an appointment is available, where a contract is open, when a future employee is job-hunting or when a lease is on the market.

Instead of sending people out to do work, Prêt-à-Porter feels like an incredibly complicated Choose Your Own Adventure novel. You get 3 choices per month, then the unchosen decisions go away forever. Leaving you to easily go back in your mind and remember the one poor decision you made where your whole business started going in the crapper.

The number of opportunities is incredible, each section has a huge stack of cards. But they are never overwhelming because you always have at most 3 to choose from.

so many things to keep track of

Board but never Bored

While Prêt-à-Porter has a hoary host of tokens, counters and chits to keep track off, one of the big things it has going for it is a more streamlined design.

I spoke a bit about the annoying "micro turns" in Belfort, and its true Prêt-à-Porter still has them. But there are fewer (only 3 workers) plus everything is easily contained on the one single board. A simple rectangle, far better than scanning around 3 different boards to see your action options.

4 Phases of Stuff

This should feel just an inane as Belfort, but each action feels like so much more. In Belfort, you might spend a gold to generate 2 metal. In Prêt-à-Porter, in the same time you can hire an ace employee who is going to positively influence your company for the rest of the game.

Something as excruciating as paying operating costs even feels better. And it shouldn't. Prêt-à-Porter replaces Belfort's cartoony capitalism with a swimming-with-sharks once-you-smell-the-blood-you're-already-dead economic nightmare. Prêt-à-Porter has loans. It has regular bank loans, and then it has the kind of loans you take out to make the interest payments on your other loans. Sick.

This player board tracks your operating costs in a simple manner. 
Of course you always screw up the accountant, don't you?

Prêt-à-Porter more directly connects operating costs with the stuff you sign up for. You can actually play sort of conservatively and keep your costs under control (try to stay away from most buildings) while Belfort taxes you more as you get victory points, regardless of your ability to pay them.

And that's right, there are no taxes in Prêt-à-Porter. Because you are in an special economic development zone, or something. I'll take it!

Pole Position

So lets go back to the poles. One one side, we have Belfort. Belfort workers operate similar to the peons in Warcraft. You tell them to go out and do things, and that's what they do. Prêt-à-Porter is more like opportunities in your life you are presented with.

Do other worker placement games fall between these 2 poles? Or do other worker placement scenarios fit into other poles, strange poles separate and yet infinitely interconnected to this reality we live in.

I will continue to study and report on this issue. This Worker Placement series has already exceeded my wildest dreams, so I may have to move the success goal posts out a little.