Monday, April 11, 2016

The Harbour They Fall

As my friend started explaining the game Harbour to me, I immediately thought, "ooo, it's Le Havre Lite!" This was instantly appealing to me, because while Le Havre is a game I enjoy a great deal, it is a lot of game. Lots of bits, lots of rules to explain to a new player, lots of time to play (especially with newer players). A game that could scratch the same itch in a simpler rules set and shorter play time? Sign me up!

In Harbour, each player has one worker to move around from place to place each turn, taking an action either on his own home building, or on one of the small number of general buildings in town (dealt from a shuffled deck). Each building has its own way of accruing resources for you, and can hold only one worker at a time. If an opponent is clogging up the building you want, you must look elsewhere to achieve your goals.

Your accumulated resources are used to buy the general buildings, putting them under your direct control. Once there, you can use them for free, while opponents must pay you to place a worker there. They also provide points toward winning the game. And with each building purchase, a new general building is dealt into the center of town, where it provides still more strategic options (and the possibility of player purchase).

So if you're at all familiar with Le Havre, you can see a lot of the similarities here -- not just the theme of acquiring and shipping goods in an expanding coastal town, but in many of the specific mechanics. But I'm sorry to say that Harbour doesn't play nearly as well.

Despite many similar elements, Harbour somehow comes off feeling like a more luck-driven enterprise than Le Havre. Really, the only true difference that would explain that is that new buildings in Harbour are dealt from a face down deck, where the order in which buildings are made available in Le Havre is known ahead of time. So the only real random element that could foil your plans is a lack of new buildings to support your overall strategy.

But somehow -- and perhaps it's just lack of experience -- Harbour feels vastly more chaotic. In theory, you ought to be able to look around at your opponents, develop some sense of where they'll go next, and plan accordingly (whether than means moving to block them from a desirable building, or planning your strategy around buildings that others are ignoring.) But it's actually quite hard to do that in Harbour, thanks to its wacky commodities mechanic.

There are four different goods in Harbour, arrayed on a market board. One always sells for 2 gold, another for 3, another for 4, and another for 5. When any amount of a good is sold, it's booted down to the lowest price on the market, with other unsold goods sliding up to fill things in. Looking at what your opponents are stockpiling, you should be able to deduce what they're going to sell, and how that will impact the price of your goods if they do. But in practice, the selling of goods feels next-to-random -- or at least, it certainly does when playing with the maximum 4 players. It's hard (and not fun) to build up a lot of a commodity without seeing it chaotically driven to bargain basement prices just before you were about to sell it.

The victory goes to the player who first accumulates a set total point value of buildings. So add the chaos of commodities to the randomness of which buildings (of differing values) are in the game in the first place, and the game can feel out of your direct control. It did to me. And it did to the player who won, when I played. And to the player who finished second because of an unanticipated tiebreaker.

Harbour may have appeal to the sort of mind that adores chess, the sort of person who likes trying to look several moves deep into their opponent's plans. But I feel like if I'm signing up for a game like that, I'd like it to be a bit more sophisticated. Like... well... Le Havre. I give Harbour a C+.

No comments: