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Our Favourites : Le Havre

Brian Wilson of Beach Boy’s fame went mad shortly after hearing ‘Sgt Pepper’ by the Beatles he felt that the pop music bar had been raised and he had to respond but before he could finish, his masterpiece, ‘Smile’ he lost his sanity. The album was locked away for forty years only to be re-recorded and released in 2004. This work was met by bewilderment and disappointment by fans forty years for this? It was as if the lost Library of Alexandria was found only to contain a shopping list for sandals and pomegranates. The reason ‘Smile’ was a non-event was it lacked context, maybe if it come out forty years ago it would etched itself in to our musical consciousness.

Now Le Havre on the other hand has context coming out of its ears the context is Agricola. We only had a year between these two games and for most of us it was a mere six months. In my gaming groups we have stopped playing Agricola because Le Havre just seems to do it better - or so it seems. I find it impossible to think of playing Agricola without reaching for Le Havre, and every time I play Le Havre I make a mental note to play Agricola again. The games are intertwined and I am not sure if Le Havre is a great game in it’s own right or great because of Agricola. Maybe if we had to wait forty years for Le Havre it would be another ‘Smile’ a non event.

My first impressions of Le Havre were that it was a re-mixed Agricola; the designer acknowledges this and his debt to Caylus. However with more plays I believe Le Havre is much more than a re-mix and I suspect it deserves to stand on its own two feet as another work of genius from Uwe Rosenberg.

Le Havre has 300 or so less cards than Agricola and simpler game mechanics, but the choices seem far more bewildering first time you play. This is because, though the number of cards in the game is smaller, they are all going to be on the table at some point (with the exception of the special buildings). Compared to Agricola, where you only have to worry about your own cards, this can seem at mind blowing the first time you play, and I know has put some off the game from an initial outing. But persevere to your second game and the building functions and their relationships become less intimidating.

Thematically it’s spot on again. Whereas in Agricola, you come out of your hovel faced with weeds and mud you know is going to be back breaking labour to turn it into a farm, in Le Havre, you are coming out of your town house, puffing on a Gauloise and sniffing prosperity carried on the Manche air. Starvation is not on your mind it’s all about deciding the best way to turn a few Francs; is it exporting the finest agricultural produce in the world, or sending it to Paris or shall I become an industrialist? Choices choices.

How does it play?

The board (it’s almost unnecessary) is pretty simple. It’s a repository for basic materials (Francs, Fish, Wood, Clay, Iron, Cole, Grain and Cows). These materials also have their own offer spaces from which players can pick up accumulated goods (ala Agricola). There are also seven turn markers that players in turn place their ship markers on. There is space for the different ships that become available as the game progresses, a space for building proposals and for special buildings.

The basics of game play are very simple too. On your turn you place your ship maker on the next available space, fill the ‘for offer’ spaces with the basic materials listed on the turn order tile (these are placed randomly on the seven turn circles at the beginning of the game). You then do one of two things – take one pile of goods from an on offer space or use a building by putting your marker on the building and taking the action listed on the building. You can also buy or sell buildings at any point of your turn.

The buildings come in three types, the starting buildings have already been built by the town and be using them you can build new buildings from the available proposal section. The too build section is three rows of cards which have been shuffled in to three columns then sorted (lowest number first) by number order. The first three cards in each column are available to be built (or bought) the rest are visible for all players to plan ahead. You can also buy and sell buildings. After a player has taken the seventh turn of a round then everyone has to feed (Agricola again).The food cost increase through out the game and a player can substitute Francs for food. Each round card doubles as a ship that becomes available to be built in the following round. The round card tells you how much each player has to feed, whether there is a harvest or not (if there is you gain another cow if you had two and another grain if you have one), the card also tells you if the town is building a special building and or the town may build the lowest numbered building proposal. If a player has built any ships they provide a permanent source of food. If he is still short he has to take a loan of five francs. For each loan a player has he loses seven victory points at the end of the game. He has to find one Franc in interest each round, no matter how many loans he has. Loans can be repaid at par at any time and can even be cancelled by using the local Court building. Coming to Le Havre for the first time from Agricola I tended to avoid loans, because as we know from Agricola not feeding is a very bad thing.

However, in Le Havre failing to feed is not disastrous and can be a good short term tactic. I imagine credit was in short supply in 17th century Germany, not so in Le Havre. You might be short of the readies at turn end but you take those excess Francs you borrowed to the butcher on the next turn and slaughter that fine herd of Charolais, live off steak for the next few rounds and visit the tannery to turn the hides into leather and cash and pay off that loan. In Le Havre not having a ready supply of cash is a bigger sin than not feeding.

Why do you need the cash? Well for it gives you victory points at the end of the game, but more immediately the buildings of the town and those built by other players have an entrance fee. The fee is either cash or food, with cash being able to be substituted for food.

All of the basic goods in Le Havre have on their flip side the developed equivalent for fish its smoked fish, cows its meat, Clay its brick To develop these basic goods you will need to use buildings such as the bakery to turn your grain into fine baguettes. To use a building it has to have been built by a player of the town. If you built it it’s free to use, if it’s some one else you have to pay them an entrance fee. To convert basic goods to their developed flip side there is also an energy cost energy comes from wood, its developed side Charcoal, Cole and its developed side Coke.

The early buildings either give you additional resources or convert these resources into there developed side very necessary to help you get a food engine going. Later in the game the buildings help you turn your goods into money and thus victory points. I mentioned earlier that on some round ends the town builds ‘Special buildings’. At the beginning of the game the deck of 42 special buildings is shuffled and the top six are used in the game. These, unlike the building proposals, are not visible to the players until they are built. These buildings can be very powerful and change a player’s strategy when they come out. The ‘Wharf’ building(s) is usually built about of a third of a way through the game. This moves the game into a new phase as it allows the buildings of ships. The first ships available to be built are wooden, then iron, then steel and at the end of the game luxury liners. Ships provide a permanent food source, victory points and the ability to export your goods for cash. The luxury liners only provide victory points. Ships abilities get better the further up the tech tree they are. Shipping goods require the ‘Shipping Line’ building to have been built and it allows players to spend energy (three per ship) to export goods on the ships they own thus turning them into cash, the more advanced the ship the more goods can be sold. With the exception of cows, the developed goods sell for a lot more than undeveloped goods. Players are usually trying to find a strategy that will let them make one or two visits to the shipping line at the end of the game for large points. Goods can also be sent to Paris for sale but it’s a less profitable activity than selling abroad.

When the last round is finished all players get one last action, and for the only time in the game players can simultaneously use the same building. Handy if you have timed things to perfection for one last lucrative shipping action. Unlike Agricola, where family members, come back to the farm at the end of a turn, in Le Havre your marker stays on the last building you used until you move it to another building or the building is sold to the town. This can rather frustrating if someone is sitting on a building you really want to use, however denial is not too important in Le Havre. If the building you want to use is blocked there are going to be some good choices elsewhere, and if the building is in demand from other players then shift your strategy elsewhere.

Victory points at the end of the game are totted up from a player’s francs, victory point values of buildings and ships, some building provide extra victory points for owning buildings of a particular type. Seven points per loan outstanding is deducted from this total - the highest total is the winner.

The semi-random way the buildings come in to play can cause quite different game experiences, and that’s one of the things I like about the game after spending so much time playing Agricola. Agricola has a prescribed order of play sometimes it can feel stifling. The ability to do things in Le Havre depends on the buildings draw; it’s a little more random, a bit Gallic. Some Anglo-Saxon players have found it a difficult to adjust to a more free form game after the strictures of farming in Germany.

Another plus point for Le Havre is that all the buildings are available to all the players there’s no complaining that some one got a ninja hand draws.

I don’t think Le Havre scales as well as Agricola the solo game is not as much fun and the game allows for five players but is not a great experience. I think the sweet spot is three players, for a more open game two players is great and feels tougher and tighter with four. Another criticism levelled at Le Havre is that it is longer than Agricola which is true however it does not feel as is time is dragging when you play.

I have yet to meet anyone who has played Le Havre who has not played Agricola first, some prefer it others are not as keen. I think any one who has played Agricola should give Le Havre a try and if you love great development games but were put off by the theme of Agricola then this might be the ticket, after all sea air is preferable to wading through mud.

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