Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Agricola, but different (Le Havre, Chicago Express)

JayWowzer paid us a surprise visit this week, and when he visits, we often get to play new games!

This time, he brought along Le Havre, the successor to Uwe Rosenberg's hit Agricola. Le Havre is exactly the kind of game that I would hope JayWowzer would bring, because it's a game that is getting good ratings but it's reputation for being a little too long and a little too complex have caused me to decide to skip it as a potential purchase. I felt exactly the same way about Caylus, though I haven't had a chance to play that one yet.

Le Havre

Le Havre feels like it is made up of a number of rules the designer set aside or changed over the course of designing Agricola... There was a definite feeling that you are playing an alternate version of the same game. The theme is about trading and building at the city and docks of Le Havre, but the gameplay is otherwise very similar. Like Agricola, it's a worker placement game where your options grow over the course of the game. On a player's turn, they must choose between taking an action to collect one type of resource or using the action of a building that is currently available (some from a common pool, others built by the players). Like Agricola, the basic resources accumulate over time, but in this case the process is a little less homogenous (not every good increases every round... there is an order to their appearance but it is staggered over the course of several rounds). Like Agricola, the goods are accumulated to purchase cards and feed the workers. Unlike Agricola, there are no personal cards that can be played to give an advantage to the player playing it... all the new cards brought into play are buildings, and once built they are available to everyone (though to use another player's building a cost must be paid to the owning player). There is also a lot more granularity to the goods: advanced versions of many materials can be created, such as converting cows to leather, clay to bricks, fish to smoked fish, etc (as in Agricola, there is a grain resource and it can be converted to bread). Le Havre's scoring doesn't promote having a little bit of everything in the way that Agricola does... here points are scored through accumulating money, constructing buildings and by shipping goods, and likely specializing in a particular strategy is the most effective route to victory.

It's as though the designer found himself at a crossroads on several occasions during the design process of Agricola: allow development of goods or not?, new cards brought into the game are personal or available to all players?, scoring encourages diversification or specialization?, etc. Le Havre seems like his opportunity to group all those discarded options into a new game.

The sum total of the design is certainly good, despite the tangible feeling of playing Agricola's longer and more complex twin. I liked that the single point of interaction available in Agricola, the accidental screwage caused by taking an action someone else wanted, has been expanded to include building buildings you feel others might want to use (forcing them to pay you when they want to use it). I prefer the option to adopt a balanced strategy or a specialized one. I like that the common pool of cards reduces the potential lack of balance inherent in the hands of cards dealt out in Agricola. I also like that the available options at least begins at a manageable level (I personally find the number of options available in the first rounds of Agricola a little daunting, particularly as the 14 cards need to be read and internalized before the game begins).

Predictably, there are things I liked less. The game is way too long. We played the "short" version, and it took 3 hours. It did not feel like a short version, and it certainly didn't feel like a longer version would be desirable. It's an engine building game, so a longer game probably leads to a more developed production engine, but I doubt it could justify it's length (JayWowzer, who has played the long version a few times, tells me the long game is worth it. I'll have to take his word for that). Also, until you know the game, having your options spread out all over the table in each player's tableau is not user friendly, even when the cards are turned to face the middle. I ended up only tracking the buildings of the players on my right and left, just for the sake of convenience. Lastly, it seemed that there were a whole lot of options that were less desirable than other, and in some cases severe chokepoints on options lots of players would want to play. Since players don't always move their worker every round, if a particularly important action is already taken it can hold up a lot of players by the time it's available. I don't mind this sort of thing generally, but here it seems too critical (shipping is a good example: only one card allows it, yet all players are accumulating goods to potentially ship all game... in a five player game I fear it could take way too many rounds before it became available).

In this session, I went after buildings aggressively because I couldn't wrap my head around all the steps needed to efficiently produce and ship goods. In the first half of the game, I looked like I was running away with the win. However, as others saw their production engine mature I started falling behind. I needed to take loan after loan to feed my workers and eroded my lead (as an aside, JayWowzer had mentioned early in the game that the penalty for taking loans in this game weren't very harsh because the interest was only paid once regardless of the number of loans. "Soft Loans", he called them. Apparently, I took him too literally!!!). Kozure and Luch had shipping empires going (I kept eyeing Kozure's impressive stock of leather), and although JayWowzer appeared to have less going on I think he just was more focussed in producing the goods he needed for big points. In the end, I didn't do too badly. Luch won, I think JayWowzer came second and I was a close third.

Anyway, I enjoyed playing it. I won't be buying it, but I'd be happy to play again. I think I prefer Agricola slightly, due to the shorter play length in large part, and the enjoyment of seeing how new cards interact with the basic system from game to game, despite the potential for lack of balance. Of course, I'd rather play El Grande than either of them, but that's just me.

Chicago Express

In our second play for the game, I was curious if we'd make it to Chicago since we didn't the first time.

I again found myself with yellow, and had the distinction of being the only such owner for the entire game. Yellow wasn't developed once, however, so that might explain that. JayWowzer took red north and Luch and Kozure took red and blue due west. As the game progressed, I found myself as the only player locked out of red, so I was happy when blue emerged as the company heading towards Chicago (though Luch had two shares, and I only had one). When blue hit Chicago, I purchased the share in Wabash, and went north to connect Detroit... I figured if I went to Chicago someone would want the second share so I kept the business low profit. On the next to last turn, I bought the second share in Wabash myself and expanded it to Chicago, giving me a handsome "Chicago Phase" payout just in the nick of time. Between that, the reliable 5$ I was getting every turn for yellow and the cash I garnered from my share in blue, I won the game.

Chicago Express is quite a conundrum. From what I can tell, winning has little to do with how you play on the board. Much like Modern Art, the impact of how the other players act in the game determines who will win, and so success seems to be based on trying to manipulate the perception of other players into believing that the things that help you helps them (or, conversely, that the things that harm you are unattractive). Putting up shares for auction when the player that needs it has no cash, expanding unwisely a track in a line you are a minority stakeholder, etc, are all things you can do but they seem less important than some of the intangibles regarding shares : how do you prevent YOUR line's shares from getting diluted before the other player's? How do you make it so that the lines you have interest in get developed before the others? There isn't really any way to do it mechanically, but somehow you have to make it happen to win.

I don't know. Hard to say. Interesting, though.

Good to see you again JayWowzer, hope you'll be back!

1 comment:

  1. Dave Wilson7:55 PM

    "How do you make it so that the lines you have interest in get developed before the others?"You need to torque the incentive grid. :-)