Written by Briony, Bob and Lizzy.
Brutus scale: 4/10 slippery fish-gutting daggers in the back.
Pairs well with: Salty tears. Port.
Le Havre is a game that has been languishing on Briony’s game shelf for far, far too long. It was bought more or less because it was made by Uwe Rosenburg, the same chap who made Agricola and Glass Road (you may know him from our other posts as the King of European gaming and farming misery). Le Havre, named after the French port city, demands that players generate and sell goods from the docks over a shipping line. Although similar to Agricola in many ways, for example in needing you to generate enough food per round, it also brings in other mechanics from trade-based board games. The trading and shipping of goods is extremely similar to Puerto Rico, whereas the buying of transportation for your goods is similar to Gluck Auf.
As it’s taken us so long to play this game, and as we haven’t found anyone else who has actually played it before, Briony, Pat and Pete (generic gaming buddies 1 and 2) have decided to dedicate an entire evening to the misery of learning complex rules for the selfless benefit of humanity. They strongly suspect some of the emotional traits of Agricola will have crossed over to this game, but are willing to lay down their lives, or at least good mood, to break some new ground and report back on their findings. Unfortunately, reading the entire rules has taken Pete so long that he’s had to tag out and get a beer while Pat takes over. Briony suggested simply watching a YouTube video on setup and gameplay, but they got less than three minutes in and the YouTubers’ immaculate setup and condescending encouragement to buy extra plastic trays and inserts in the name of personal organisation became too irritating to bear. Today’s misery team were going to have to do it the hard way.
Fortunately the set-up of the game is relatively simple, including the docks, resources, the town building firms, and the range of buildings on offer. Resources are generated by sailing through the port, meaning that there is a timing critical element to selecting and claiming resources you need. Your ship (the HMS Cardboard Puck) sails to the next available space which restocks the particular item you land on. You may then perform an action: this can be taking all of an available resource, using a building, or constructing a building. And so off we sail down the port, excitement in our hearts at beginning our new journey as a shipping company. (Note: If you really want to feel the joy first hand watch the opening 20 minutes of Muppet Treasure Island before beginning for full effect).
Early game: the excitement is short-lived. What a surprise. As we generate resources by sailing through the port, it has quickly become apparent that there is not enough food in the early stages. At the end of most rounds there is a harvest, (Much confusion, are your ships farmers? Can you harvest the actual sea?) and then you must pay the amount of food on the round card to sustain your workers. This is only assumed, as there is no explanation as to where this food actually goes. We might just be throwing it in the sea as tribute to Poseidon, who knows. The first few rounds seem to mainly be about generating enough food to last you a few more rounds, so that later on you can invest in building or luxury resources that you may use to build or ship later. This is Briony’s method so far as she believes a massive stockpile of fish and cattle will be worth it later on, and may even look intimidating to the other players forcing them to make errors in awe. Pat and Pete have gone for the opposite: wildly claiming resources and constructing buildings straight off of the bat, cranking up their early game points and constructing some sort of giant building that incorporates all buildings. Who knows what goes on behind those closed doors.
Mid game: The demand for food is ramping up each round, making snack-generation a pressing concern almost constantly. Poseidon is a demanding deity indeed, and doesn’t seem to take the suggestion of going for a sneaky kebab very well. No sir, this man is hangry, and no grease-laden snack shall suffice. This leads to the diversification of strategies, which is a great part of this game, as there are many methods and possibilities to get the resources that you might need. The simplest is to just take them from the offers at the docks, and the more complex using of specialist buildings that allow conversion, purchase, or generation of resources.
As the game is progressing each of us has constructed a wide range of buildings (primarily for victory points as we had little idea about which would be the most beneficial) so almost by accident we opened up a bounty of opportunities for ourselves. Pat has set his heart on buying a fleet of wooden ships more or less because they were there and they were new and pretty. Briony has generated enough meat to last a lifetime and has now begun investing in any buildings she can get her hands on. Literally.
Late game: Shit is going down. Prices, food costs, victory points, everything is now higher than Snoop Dogg at an alpine resort party. Pat and Pete’s wooden armadas provide a set amount of food per round, meaning that they need fewer resources. Briony’s sprawling industrial metropolis continues to grow, which serves to both help generate victory points and convert basic resources into luxury ones. As a result she’s now the first to use the shipping line to sell these goods and make a ton of cash. Unfortunately she spent an awful lot of planning and effort into collecting coal, a resource which was listed on the card as being worth 5 francs, when in fact it turns out there is a printing error. It turns out coal is listed twice, once at 3 francs, and second at 5 francs, which should actually list coke (converted coal) as 5 francs. Briony is a very sad, sooty fisherman. ‘Have mercy, great Poseidon!’ is what should have been called, but by this stage it was more like ‘fuck you, Poseidon. I don’t need to prove shit to you. Get off my back already.’
Endgame: A noticeable effect of constructing literally all of the building cards available is that the port is now brimming with massive piles of resources, including money. Pete has opted to claim huge stockpiles of free wood (feel free to insert* all generic ‘got wood’ jokes here) and clay and is rapidly transforming them into brick to ship, and selling wood in the joinery building. Both are racking him in some big hits of money. Unfortunately there is only one building card that can be used to ship goods (‘the shipping line’), so this is easily the most contended-for card throughout the latter stages of the game. Pat is muscling in on it, and has been shipping cow and coke (that classic combination). As the number of rounds left is ticking down we’re all beginning to hawk everything we can in order to scrape in as many victory points as possible.
If you’ve played Agricola before, you’ll now that scoring can potentially be the most depressing part of the ordeal, with dizzying heights of 11 or 12 winning the game. Now, take that and throw it out of the window. Le Havre has been designed to work in the exact opposite way, with all players scoring well over 100 points. This is probably because resources can be sold for money, as well as receiving money for shipping goods, and counting the cost of your buildings contributing to your final score. Make it rain. Briony has wiped the floor with the others with a closing, and first time playing, score of 271. Fuck you, Poseidon.
In conclusion, our brave reporter and Uwe Rosenberg connoisseur Briony enjoyed this game far more than Agricola for a number of reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates that designers listen to their target audience and feedback, as Uwe has addressed the issue of misery-scoring apparent in Agricola. Despite this, scoring in Le Havre is a little extreme, as it patronisingly cheers you on like an overly-competitive mum at a school football match. ‘LOOK HOW GOOD YOU ARE AT FISHING. GO YOU. SHIP THAT FISH. WOO!’ But you know, that’s okay. It feels quite supportive. Secondly, there is a really wide variety of strategies available that allow you to be very flexible. This consequently means it’s a lot harder to drastically fuck up your turn by miscalculating or not paying enough attention, because chances are there is another free card or action that could have roughly the same benefits. Thirdly, the designs and iconography of the cards, resources and board are really well thought out and themed. And finally, the game is very well balanced and offers more mechanisms, such as selling resources, converting resources to money, and breeding cattle or grain that aren’t available in similar shipping games like Puerto Rico. Definitely check this game out, but be prepared for some intense rule reading and playing a couples of rounds to get the feel of it before diving in to the full version (a shortened one is available too). Or just have a better set of friends who have already played the game before.
*Feel free to insert all generic ‘insertion’ jokes here.
Top image courtesy of Z-Man Games