Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf

I don’t remember the first time I played Werewolf, but I do remember the first time I moderated. See, the game was always fun for me as a player – I love hidden roles and nothing was better than trying to throw people off your scent as a werewolf. But the first time I moderated, I noticed something: that first person that the werewolves kill on night one? She’s kinda bummed. Cause now she’s got to sit there and watch people play the game for at least 20-30 more minutes as everyone gets winnowed down and the game comes to a conclusion.

Sure, we could sit here all day and debate whether the player elimination in Werewolf is a good thing or not, but what I noticed was that my gaming group wasn’t as fond of it. The premise of the game still resonated with a few of us, but the execution wasn’t really hitting home. Then, in 2013, there was a Kickstarter for a new take on the old Werewolf game. Played in one round, it took the spirit of the game and boiled it down to something even more pure than before.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a game for 3 – 10 players by Ted Alspach and Akihisa Okui. It’s published by Bezier Games and will play in about 10 minutes. That’s right. 10 minutes.

The game is exactly what you would think it is: one night of a game of Werewolf. At the start of the game, everyone is dealt a role card, with three extra cards going unseen face-down in the center of the table. You look at your role, place it face down in front of you, and the game begins.

Much like regular Werewolf, there is a night phase and a daytime phase. During the night phase, certain roles will wake up and take actions: the Werewolves will look at each other, the Troublemaker will switch other players cards, the Drunk changes with a card in the center but can’t look at it…that sort of thing. Once all the nighttime actions have been completed, the daytime phase begins. This is where, as they say, shit gets real.

One Night Ultimate WerewolfThe daytime phase is five or so minutes of discussion about who was what role and what players did or saw on their turn. The game comes with a little character token for each of the twelve roles, and players will typically grab these to either place on their own card or toss on someone else’s card. These are meant as placeholders – if you think you know what someone is, toss it down. Want to claim to be something? Grab one.

As an example, we all wake up and I say “Whelp, I was just a plain ol’ Villager, so I didn’t see a thing”, and then grab the Villager token and place it in front of me. Of course, people don’t trust me, so I’ll immediately get a Werewolf token tossed at me and the roller coaster starts heading out. The tokens will move around a lot, but help keep things straight for people as there is only one round.

Once the allotted time has expired, everyone will vote at the person that would like to see lynched. The person with most votes is killed, and flips their card over. If it’s a werewolf, the villagers win. If it’s a member of the villager team, the werewolves win. And that’s it. Mostly. I mean, that Tanner throws a monkey wrench in there, but that’s a whole different story.

Now in case you’ve never played a Werewolf style game before, I will talk a little about what I see as the appeal with this style of game. The gameplay here is simple. I can teach people how to play in about a minute, so that’s obviously a plus. But the magic comes from the bluffing. Sure, if you’re a werewolf, you’ll pretend to be something else. But do you do that by not talking at all, or by jumping on an opening someone else has provided with their faulty logic?

Can you sway people to your side, no matter what that happens to be? “Look, he reached for that Villager token WAY too quickly. That’s suspicious.” Are you able to talk your way out of a corner when the votes look like they will stack against you? This is a negotiation and bluffing game through and through. And I love it.

One Night Ultimate WerewolfOne Night Ultimate Werewolf fixes the problem that I noticed my group having with Ultimate Werewolf – since there’s only one night, there’s no player elimination. And with the shortened time span, it makes it even harder for both teams. The villagers have to work together even more and the werewolves have to sow as much discord as possible.

This game is fantastic. I’ve played it more than 50 times since picking it up, and it still comes out all the time. The interplay between the roles is incredible. The Robber will allow a player to switch their card with another player’s card, and then look at their new card. Easy enough. Well, then the Troublemaker switches two other players cards……..which might be the two which were just involved in the Robber’s turn. It’s chaotic and amazing.

It might take a few games, but the daytime phase is more nuanced than it might first appear. Let’s say I’m the Seer and chose to look at two of the center cards on my turn. Now I have two pieces of information which may or may not come into play. I could either admit this right off, revealing what I saw, or wait and see what people claim to have…hoping to catch someone in a lie. There will be advantages to both.

A couple small side notes about this game. There’s a player mat available for the game, which is basically a gigantic mouse pad with the One Night logo on it. Well worth the money. Nothing is worse than hearing cards move around during the night phase. Speaking on hearing things, there’s an app which will moderate the whole game for you. Best. Thing. Ever. And lastly, sleeve your cards. They are a really thick cardboard, which is awesome, but they tend to wear quickly, so sleeving them will help make them last.

So if you’re looking for a game which is going to play insanely quick but still give you that Werewolf feeling, look no further. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is the game for you! Oh…and there’s an expansion…

Review: Steam Park

Remember going to the amusement park as a kid? It was so amazing! All of the lights, and the smells, and the sounds…and those rides! Towering rides that would whip you around or take you up higher than you’ve ever been before! And once you were on them you never wanted to leave! You just wanted to stay there forever…

Steam Park is a game by the design trio of Aureliano Buonfino, Lorenzo Silva, and Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino with absolutely amazing art by Marie Cardouat.  The 2-4 players will assume the role of amusement park architects, with a little twist: these parks are for robots. And they never leave. Ever. Which is both a good thing and a bad thing, as you will soon find out.

Steam ParkThe gameplay is quite simple, with each round broken up into two parts. In the first part, you roll dice to determine what actions will be able to take in the second part. But it isn’t as simple as just rolling dice. You have to race the other players to get the results you want and then claim a turn order card from the center of the table. So you can roll to get what you want – but you’ll wind up going last.

After you have your dice selected, you will use them for the actions in the next phase: building rides and stands. cleaning dirt, playing bonus cards, or placing guests on your rides. You can also use dice to expand your park, and because of the ride adjacency rules you will need to do that sooner than later. Once everyone has taken their actions, every robot in your park will provide you with income and will also create dirt.

Dirt. It’s everywhere here. Everything you do generates dirt. The turn order cards get increasingly filthier the later you pick them. The dice have dirt on them. The robots generate even more dirt. It turns your whole park into a filthy mess. And if your park is dirty, well, no one will want to come there. So cleaning up is one of the most important things you can do. If you’ve got leftover dirt at the end it’s cutting into your income, so keep that park clean!

One of the things that I love about this game is the playing time. Once you’ve played the game a couple times you will find that it only takes 20-30 minutes to complete. This makes it a nice game for an evening where you aren’t looking to commit to an entire evening, or perhaps one that opens or closes a get together.

Steam ParkAdmittedly, the simultaneous dice rolling won’t be for everyone. Some will find it too rushed and chaotic. I think that it’s actually cleverly balanced. One of the die faces is blank, so chances are pretty good that people will be rolling quite a few times trying to maximize their action potential. It could be viewed as too much luck by some.

The game is quite clever though. You can purchase stands which will help mitigate the limiting factor of the various dice – especially a stand that will allow you to attract robots which normally wouldn’t ride your rides. The bonus cards will give you some direction for your turns and will also be one of the easiest ways to earn money.

I do want to touch on one thing – you need to be careful when first opening the game. Iello did a fantastic job printing the game, and the components are top notch. But make sure you have an sharp knife handy when punching this one out. The ride and stall pieces aren’t always fully punched through and are susceptible to tearing. The game is far too pretty to wind up with damaged pieces.

Needless to say, Steam Park is a fun little game that will have you laughing while rolling the dice and swearing about the amount of dirt your robot guests are generating. It’s a great game to play at any player count and makes a wonderful game when you’ve only got 20 minutes. And come on, who doesn’t want to build an amusement park…even if no one ever leaves?

iOS Review: Talisman

The world of digital board game implementations has been growing quite steadily over the past few years, and gamers with tablets and smartphones have been reaping the benefits. About a year ago Nomad Games released a digital version of a classic board game, and since then I’ve been wandering the world of Talisman on a weekly basis.

Talisman is a game that has been around forever, enjoying staunch support from a loyal fanbase and plenty of new content coming from Fantasy Flight Games. It is a game that hasn’t enjoyed a huge influx of new players because it has a tendency to be quite chaotic and very luck based. Combine that with a setup and play time that can drag out (especially with newer players) and it is approached with caution.

Talisman iOSOne of the benefits of a digital version is that setup time is reduced to…well…whatever time it takes you to open the app. And the app does all the messy housekeeping for you with rules, tracking life points, keeping an eye on item limits, and so forth. Of course, this will be true of any app, but with Talisman this is certainly a selling point.

Simple bookkeeping benefits aside, this is a beautiful port of a board game. The graphics are absolutely top notch…to the point where the actual board game falls behind a bit. I mean, I don’t have the time and patience to paint any of my figures, so that alone puts it above the physical copy in my book.

The developers did an excellent job with making the gameplay quite intuitive as well. I guess this wasn’t ever a game that left you burned out from 10,000 rules, but it’s nice to have everything laid out properly and helpful hints the first time you play. Combat, which could grind most tabletop versions of this game to a halt, is sped up as the app handles all of the “well, I’ve got a sword, but also the Holy Lance, and this is a dragon so I should…” for you.

Talisman

Talisman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, that’s not to say that this is a perfect app by any means. There are a couple flaws, one that could be taken care of and one that, well, cannot.

The first has to do with the AI. There are times where it will make sensible decisions and times where it is an absolute idiot. I have seen it enter the Portal of Power only to exit on the next turn…about six times in a row. It will use an axe to create a raft, sailing across the river…and then cross back over in two turns. Again, this isn’t a constant thing. But when the AI goes off the rails, forget about it.

The second issue is mostly a personal thing. When you play Talisman, especially with a group of friends, it turns into a storytelling event. You wind up laughing at your misfortune, you make grandiose excuses for why you pissed the farmer off, and the time flies. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate with the app. The AI isn’t exactly looking to have a beer with you.

As a side note, I haven’t played the online multiplayer version of this yet. Pass-and-play, yes. I’ve heard there are some minor bugs with it, but I haven’t encountered any on the solo side of things.

Talisman

Perhaps one of the best thing about this app are the expansions. Nomad has already released four expansions to date and they are working on more at the time of this writing. Along with the standard expansions, there are also various characters that you can purchase. When new content is released they also tend to put the existing stuff on sale, so paying full price for anything isn’t necessary if you’re patient.

But, those small things aside, this is a great app worth adding to your collection. Now you can enjoy the Talisman experience, well most of it, anytime you want!

[well]Talisman is available on the App Store for $6.99.
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/talisman/id681942253?mt=8[/well]

Review: Evolution

The cry of a neighboring creature splits the afternoon sky, warning all in the area about the presence of a carnivorous intruder. You look around to spot the threat before it arrives. Unsure of where the attack will come from you run for your life, scrambling over rocks and hills as fast as you can. Approaching a copse of trees, you seek shelter in the thick vegetation. Stepping into the shade you slow – and feel claws rip into your back as the unseen predator ambushes you. The light fades as you slip away………….

…and you discard your three trait cards, picking up three more. Your next species will not make the same mistakes and will safeguard against the ambushing carnivores. For this is Evolution.

Published by North Star Games, Evolution is a game for 2-6 players by the design trio of Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitry Knorre, and Sergey Machin. This represents North Star’s first foray into strategy games, and they couldn’t have picked a better title to lead off with.

In Evolution, players are in charge of different species of animals which will grow and evolve to adapt to the changing world around them. Each species can have up to three traits which will help improve their odds of survival and allow them to thrive. Traits such as pack hunting, climbing, fat tissue, and several others will make every species different and create interactions which are constantly…well, evolving.

The game is played in a series of rounds, starting with the committing of food to the general supply and ending with the feeding of all players’ species. A player will have a hand of trait cards which will allow them to add or change a trait on an existing species, increase the body size or population of an existing species, or create a new species. The trait cards are also how food makes it to the watering hole, but more on that later.

EvolutionAs players take their turns, the landscape of the table will change dramatically. A creature which was once a small climbing animal might turn into a giant carnivore, might become a burrowing animal with a large population, or could gain fertility and start spawning new species. Because of this, you will always want to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing…for once all the new traits and species are resolved, it is time to feed!

Each trait card has, at the bottom right-hand corner , a number. The cards which were committed for food are now revealed, summed, and that amount of food is added to the watering hole. Starting with the first player, everyone now feeds one of their species…and here is where the trait cards are going to make or break you.

For non-carnivores, feeding is simple. You will take one food from the watering hole, or possibly more if you have a trait that allows it, and place it on your species board. Then the next player goes, and so on. Your species is still considered to be hungry if your food is less than your population. If, for some reason, the watering hole runs out of food? Well, you’re going to starve and lose population.

Now carnivores? Well, these guys and gals are going to attack any species which is smaller than it in body size, and which has defensive traits which cannot be circumvented. In other words, climbing is going to protect a species from being eaten…….unless the carnivore has that trait as well. Then? Well, it’s dinner time and the carnivore takes meat tokens from the food bank equal to the attacked species’ body size. Much like the non-carnivorous species, if they cannot feed up to their population number they will starve.

Food goes into your bag and a new round starts where you’ll get more trait cards. Once the deck is exhausted you’ll start your final round and then points are counted up based on the food you’ve accumulated, as well as the traits and population of your surviving species.

So what’s the selling point of this game? I’m glad you asked, because it’s one that is worth owning, especially if you entertain new gamers.

First of all, the game is very accessible to new players. The ruleset is simple, and once you play a couple rounds the rules all make thematic sense. You can get this one done in about an hour, even at highest player count, which is good for new players. And there’s enough variance from game to game that you can have a new experience almost every time. For as good as the game plays, it’s pretty darn amazing to look at as well. The art (by the amazing Catherine Hamilton) is top-notch and the components are of a high quality. You can tell that a lot of love went into this game, as you will find with any North Star game.

EvolutionSecondly? There’s an elegance to the gameplay which unfolds after you start to see the big picture. When a species goes extinct, either from getting gnawed on by too many carnivores or from starvation, you get to draw trait cards equal to the ones lost from that species. I can’t begin to stress enough how important this one little thing is…because a handful of crappy cards can get replaced in an instant by dumping them onto a species you know is going to croak.

At the time of this review, North Star has launched a Kickstarter to fund the first expansion for this wonderful game, and a revised second edition which will modify some of the traits slightly. You can find the project here, and it’s already well past the funding goal.

Evolution falls into the category of a quintessential light euro game. It presents gameplay which is interesting and thematic while being easy to grasp. Do you need a game to play with six people? Something with some strategy that won’t take an hour to teach? A game that drips with so much theme that you want to tell stories about your species? Well, look no further than Evolution.

[well]Editor’s Note: I was actually an official playtester for the first edition of Evolution. Other than the large number of plays that I have put in to this game, this has no bearing on my review. Nor does the fact that I have a total win-loss record of about 1-17 with this game…though that should have some bearing on why I still choose to play games in general. -Ed.[/well]

Review: Patchwork

When the bulk of your gaming takes place with one other person, you tend to look for games that will accommodate having only two people while still offering some good gameplay. If that person is your significant other, you also tend to look for games that they will find interesting as well. Needless to say, when I saw a two-player game about quilting I knew I had to get it for my quilt-making fiancé.

Today we’ll be talking about Patchwork, a little two-player game published by Mayfair Games and designed by Uwe Rosenberg. Each player is a quilter that will purchase various patches of fabric (using buttons as a form of currency) to add to their ever-growing quilt. The patches of fabric have both a cost in buttons and an hourglass representing the amount of time it will take to sew the patch onto your quilt. Some of them even have buttons printed on them, which help build your income.

PatchworkTo set the game up, lay the patches out in a circle around the table with the time tracker in the center. Find the smallest patch and place the wooden marker to the right…er…left…um…place it after the piece, clockwise. The three clockwise pieces past this marker are the ones that are available for purchase on a player’s turn. Give each player five buttons and a quilt board.

On your turn you may take one of two options. Either spend buttons to purchase a patch and place it onto your quilt board, or move your time marker forward until you are one space above the other player. When taking the second action, you will collect buttons based on how many spaces you have advanced. The time tracker also has buttons and single space patches on it…and if you pass one you either take the patch or collect “button income” based on the buttons present on your quilt.

Play proceeds in an interesting fashion here. The person who is last on the time track is the one that will take their turn. If, after their turn, they are still further back than the other player, they continue to take turns until the pass them. The game continues until both players have reached the end of the time track, and the person with the most buttons wins.

Patchwork combines a tile placement game with…well, Tetris. You’re going to get to a point where you’ll spin each piece two or three different times looking for a way to fit it onto your board before making your decision. The game plays quickly and making the quilt will be enjoyable, and maybe a little relaxing. Of course, you lose points for empty spaces at the end so you’ll really want to fill as many spots as you can.

This obviously isn’t a deep game…there’s not a lot of strategy involved on your turn, and the player interaction is almost nonexistent. But that’s okay – it’s a two-player game which is supposed to play in 15 minutes. It’s meant to be a quick appetizer or a tasty dessert around an evening of gaming. Or maybe just a quick shot when you don’t have time for something more.

PatchworkMy only quibbles with the game are minor. Taking the second action, which will move you up on the time track and give you buttons, almost never feels like a good idea. True, it gives you income, but you’re also eating up time. And there’s not really a way to catch up. If you happen to miss out on patches that have buttons on them repeatedly, and they go to the other player? You’re sunk. In our last game I was netting 17 buttons when I passed the last couple of income points. It’s hard to overcome.

Is Patchwork the right game for you? Well, the game plays in 15 minutes. It’s easy to pick up and learn, and is going to be a little different every time. Sure, there are a couple issues…but you won’t notice them all that much. So if you’ve got a person in your life that you play games with who might enjoy a bit of quilting and a bit of gaming? Go ahead and sew this one into your collection.

Review: Kanban: Automotive Revolution

I love a meaty game. Give me a wealth of options, numerous strategies, and a theme that holds it all together? Well, color me excited. Tell me that the game is created by Vital Lacerda? You have made yourself a sale. From my first play of Vinhos I have appreciated the way that Vital is able to take a robust set of mechanics and tie it nicely into the theme, giving a complex game a sense of order…which in turn, makes the complexity fade.

KanbanToday we’re taking a look at Vital’s latest game, Kanban: Automotive Revolution. And you can tell right from the get go that it’s a doozy. When you open the box, you might feel overwhelmed. There are literally hundreds of pieces – wooden cars, cardboard tokens, cards, player boards, etc. to sort through and set up. And set up will take a little bit, especially the first couple of times.

Then you’re going to crack open the rules, and you WILL feel overwhelmed. Now that’s not to say that the rules aren’t well put together, because they are. There are only five different departments you can work in, but there are a ton of things to consider with each one. Thankfully, once you’re a couple of turns into the game things should start to click. If all else fails help is available, and I’ll touch on that at the end. No matter what your initial thoughts are, I encourage you to stick with it – this is a game worth playing.

Kanban derives its name from a system, developed by Toyota, which is used to maintain a high level of lean automobile production. Not surprisingly, that is exactly what you will be doing here as well. The board is divided up into seven different departments, five of which have workstations which allow you to take actions. These workstations are executed in order from left to right, with each department having two different workstations you can choose from. You take your actions and then lay your worker down, indicating that you are done for the day. The next day, from left to right, everyone chooses a new department to utilize by putting their worker on any empty workstation.

Much like the actual manufacturing process, time is of the essence here. When you take an action at any workstation it costs you time, or shifts. These shifts are acquired when choosing the workstation, and certain actions will allow you to “bank” shifts to be used later. No matter how you’ve earned them, you can only spend four shifts in one day…we all need our beauty sleep. Actions cost a varying number of shifts, so you need to plan ahead and make sure you have enough time to complete your tasks for that department. These are actions like taking a new design, taking car parts, or actually rolling a car down the assembly line. There is also training to accomplish in each department, which is how you will be able to unlock extra action choices and score points based on your performance.

KanbanTo make matters a little more complicated, the factory manager is always moving throughout the departments. Sandra starts at her desk in Administration during the first day, staying out of everyone’s way. After that she moves to the first open workstation on the left and proceeds through the departments from day to day, always taking the closest available one to her current position. As her turn rolls around Sandra will evaluate the worker with the most training in that department, awarding or subtracting points based on their performance. If she is in the Design Department, for example, she is going to want that worker to have at least two designs on their player board. If they do, they will gain points based on how many shifts they have banked. If not? They will lose that many points.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the various departments as we’d be here all day. However, I will briefly talk about one of the primary ways to score points – tested designs. As you gain designs you’ll notice that some have a car part on them. These are designs that will allow you to make innovations on that part of the car. As the game progresses, you will want to work towards getting a car of the same model as the one you innovated – these are tested designs. Finding the flow needed to get this done is the most challenging thing you will encounter in Kanban.

KanbanScoring phases will happen at various times in the game, and there are three different types: end of week scoring, meetings, and end of game scoring. The end of week scoring is based on tested designs, meeting are your chance to speak about performance goals, and end of game scoring will take into tested designs and a slew of other factors.

There is obviously so much more to the game and a great deal of minutia that I haven’t even touched on…but let’s talk about whether you should get this game or not. I mean, that IS why you’re here, right?

Games are often talked about in terms of their “weight”. A light game is going to be considerably more taxing than a heavy game, and medium games are obviously somewhere in the middle. I have found that heavy games are often classified as such because either they have a complex set of rules or the strategy required to compete is quite deep. Kanban has both of these things, both presenting a unique challenge.

Looking at the rules, each workstation will have at least two actions that can take place, each action having different steps involved. You’re often taking an action which will have an effect on your player board and at least one other spot on the main board. In an attempt to grasp the week’s actions you’ll often put off thinking about scoring until the end of the week shows up…and then there are meetings. There’s a lot to keep straight here and you’re going to need to consult the rules. Frequently.

From a strategic standpoint, you have to plan out your moves two to three turns in advance, keeping in mind the movement of the other players…and Sandra. Often you’ll find that if you are forced to do something deviating from that plan it will take you several more turns than it should have. Getting a plan in your head and sticking with it is the greatest key to success here.

Of course, the weight of a game can be very subjective. I’ve played with people that find games which I would consider to be light to be much heavier…and vice versa. But I’ve found that when I play this game, I feel like a dog trying to chase four squirrels at the same time. And I like it.

KanbanKanban, for all its moving parts and scoring opportunities, makes sense. It makes sense that you’ll get a bonus for manufacturing a car that is in demand. It makes sense that Sandra tests the person that has trained the most. It makes sense that meetings only allow a certain number of people to speak about a performance goal before Sandra is sick of hearing about it. It is a relatable and thematic way to get the player to grasp the inner workings of the game.

And I love that you’ll find yourself staring at the board and trying to plot what everyone else is going to do:

[well]

“Now, if she moves to Logistics, which she should, that will leave the Assembly Line Department open for me. I can move there, spend two shifts producing cars and one to train. I’ve got the parts I need, so I should be all set.”

Your turn comes. You move there. And then you realize you forgot about Sandra, sitting there in the workstation before you, who will wipe all the parts out of the assembly spaces, leaving you short the parts you now need.

“Well, shit.”

[/well]

When you are first getting your feet wet, you have the option to play with “Nice Sandra” instead of “Mean Sandra”. The nice one doesn’t make you lose points, so it takes some pressure off.

And there’s just a lot going on here. There are always actions that you can take and I’ve rarely felt like I had a turn that didn’t matter in one way or another. The large number of choices never feels contrived.

Lastly? Vital Lacerda is THE most active game designer I’ve ever had the chance to observe. If you’ve got a rules question? Post it on BoardGameGeek. He’s watching. You’ll get an answer. Better than that though? He knows just how heavy this game is. He’s prepared a “how to play” list on BGG which walks you through the steps of the game. He supports his products.

So do I recommend Kanban to you? Absolutely. Sort of. I mean, there are some things to really think about before taking the plunge with this one.

It is an absolute beast to set up. Apart from setting it up once, resetting it after every play, and leaving it set up? You’re looking at a good chunk of time just setting this game up. And I still haven’t gotten to where I can do it without consulting the rules. After a few plays you start putting things away differently, which helps some…but it’s still a lot.

It is heavy, and I mean HEAVY. Your brain will hurt halfway through the rules explanation, and you’re going to find yourself making mistakes that you don’t realize you’ve made until three turns down the road. It’s going to be way too much for a lot of people, and the rest of them will only want to play this after a whole bucket of coffee. It’s going to be way too much choice for some gamers.

Speaking of time? The box says 2 hours. It will take you a good number of plays to get things down to that. This is a one-and-done game for most groups, both from a time aspect and the fact that everyone will be scooping their brains off the floor after having slid out their ears.

So if those things won’t dissuade you from giving this one a shot, you are in for a treat. Is Kanban for everyone? Not at all. But it’s going to speak to some people…and you might just be one of them.

Review: Harbour

I like to read. Ever since I was a small child, there are few things that I have enjoyed more than sinking myself into a book and getting transported to another time or place. And when you find a novel that’s well written it can turn into a fully immersive experience – you think about the story long after you’ve put it down for the evening and can’t wait to pick it up again. It’s amazing, but it can also be taxing on your brain. A good taxing, but taxing nonetheless.

Now while this is a great thing, sometimes you just need a little escape. You want to pick up a book that you will enjoy that doesn’t ask you to invest a ton of yourself. We often call them “popcorn” books. It’s enjoyable, but you don’t have to digest a ton after you’re done. It’s the perfect book when time or brainpower is in short supply – you get a bit of what you’re looking for without the investment.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve started to have the same options with board games. A few designers are making an effort to take a specific game or mechanic and boil it down to its essence, serving up a condensed version. One good example of this is Ted Alspach’s One Night Ultimate Werewolf. He took the very popular (yet sometimes lengthy and boring for those eliminated early) Ultimate Werewolf and made it into a single-serving game that delivered a very similar experience.

HarbourSo it is with Harbour. Designed by Scott Almes, this game offers a compact (in size and gameplay) package that still delivers some of the experience you get from more immersive games. The box is small, 4″x6″, and inside you’ll find building cards, player boards, and some wooden tokens. It may not sound like much, but Harbour delivers.

Each player takes a player board, one pawn, and one each of the four goods markers. A building market is set up by dealing out cards from the building deck until there are three more than the number of players. Finally the resource market is set up, randomly distributing each good to set their initial prices. You’re all trying to build your supply of goods so that you can sell them and use the money to purchase buildings.

Once you play through a turn or two of Harbour, you’ll start to see how this game can scratch several gaming itches at once. The core of the game is a very simple worker placement, as you’re putting your pawn on a building each turn, then taking the action listed. Now, if this was the sole aspect of the game, I wouldn’t waste your time with this review.

Right from the setup you’ll see one of my favorite things in any game: variable player powers. Each player board has a different character on it, and each one has a different starting building and special power. This adds a nice degree of variability to the game as the powers tend to interact with each other and dictate strategies throughout.

Player boards aside, where things get really interesting is when you start trying to buy the buildings. As your various building actions build up your supply of goods, you’ll be keeping an eye on the market board to see what the demand is for each good. This demand is not only the amount of money you’ll receive for selling that good, but also the minimum number of goods that you’ll need to be able to ship.

HarbourWhen you decide to buy a building, you’ll move the goods you’re using down on the lower part of the market board, and zero out your goods of that type. It’s all or nothing when it comes to shipping goods (mostly…but we’ll get to that). Then you purchase your building and reset the market. Suddenly a good that was worth $5 is now worth $2. You’ve just tanked the demand on a good that most people were working towards.

This market manipulation takes a very basic worker placement game and gives it some teeth and depth. Not only are you working towards getting your goods to the point where you can sell them, but you have to keep an eye on your opponents to see if someone will have the chance to buy before you, thereby dropping the bottom out of your economy.

There are a few other small things that add to this game as well. Each player board and building has icons on them which will help alter the game a bit. There are four icons, anchors, warehouses, coins, and top hats. Anchors will grant you extra benefits, warehouses allow you to keep one of a good you’ve just shipped, coins reduce the purchase price of buildings, and top hats allow you to use other players’ buildings for free.

Perhaps my only quibble with the game is with the top hats. Normally, if you’d like to use a building which another player has purchased, you have to pay a one good tariff to them. A top hat will will allow you to avoid that, which wouldn’t be bad except that those top hats occur on almost half of the cards. It seems like this makes paying to use another player’s building a rarity. Apparently each icon has a relative “power” and the buildings are balanced by price to reflect this, but it was an odd thing to notice.

All in all, Harbour is an excellent game. It squeezes worker placement, resource management, variable player powers, and an economic engine into a game which you can play in a half hour. The art is fun and quite well done, the box is compact, and you’ll be able to teach this to anyone in a few minutes.

So if you’re looking for a game to give you that “big game” feeling without having to invest two hours into a game, Harbour is for you!