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.

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