You are not ready for Le Havre

, | Game reviews

Do you see that Le Havre screenshot up there and think, “Gah, who could ever make sense of that jumble?” If so, this hard-to-learn/hard-to-master brain bender about not getting what you want might be a bit much for you. Because if you think that screenshot is daunting, wait until you get to the game itself.

After the jump, do you have what it takes to be harbor master?

If you’ve played the boardgame Agricola, also by Le Havre designer Uwe Rosenberg, you know what to expect here. Frustration. Deprivation. Careful plans ruined for want of a cord of wood or a hunk of stone. Economic death spirals. Oh, sure, you could dispassionately describe Le Havre as a worker placement game with resource management. That’s a bit like describing World War II as a bunch of people getting very cross with each other.

Agricola and Le Havre have a lot in common beyond being designed by the same dude and each having a foreign word for a title. They have similar gameplay mechanics (i.e. worker placement and resource management). Both games are about balancing long term goals with the constant nag of having to feed people. Which is so exasperating. Always with the eating. I’m trying to build a boat here and I have to keep taking breaks to smoke fish, bake bread, or slaughter cattle.

But Le Havre’s real identity is in its differences from Agrigola. The theme of Agricola is quaint and pastoral. The theme of Le Havre is quaint and industrial. You’re developing a harbor town with the longer term goal of building up a fleet of ships. Real manly stuff, unlike all that sissy Agricola stuff about vegetable seeds and cooking stew and duck ponds and piglets and sheep.

Agricola adds a lot of sprawl with occupation cards and resource cards, most of which sit at each player’s end of the table. Agricola is a typical solitaire style game where each player is tending his own garden. Literally. Le Havre’s sprawl is wonderfully interactive, focused entirely on the variety of buildings and how they interact with the various resources. Different buildings will come into play during different games, but all players have access to those buildings at all times. There is no common playing area, because the entire playing area is common, even if it’s putatively yours. Oh, did you want to use the wharf you built to make a new ship? Sorry, I’m using it. Wait, don’t park on the black market! I was going to use that.

For a Euro game, the atmosphere and theme are wonderfully realized. In one game, you’re commanding an imposing fleet. In another, you’re a cattle baron. In another, you find yourself sitting on a vast supply of bricks waiting for the stars to align so you can sell them off and get rich. In another, you’re the proud owner of factories no one needs. In another, it’s all you can do to bake enough bread to feed your workers. In yet another game, you’re constantly cash poor. In that one game, you managed to win by building a luxury liner at the last moment.

The pace is snappy once you get over the analysis paralysis that comes from so many buildings and resources interacting with each other. That’s going to be a while considering the sheer number of buildings. You can play against AIs and, even better, against other humans, randomly or handily plucked from your Gamecenter friends list. Mix and match AIs and human players as you like.

On the iPhone, Le Havre is undeniably cramped. I mean, just look at that screenshot up there. But it’s efficient. There is hardly a wasted pixel on that screen. Even then, you have to go down a layer or two for features like contextual help, an undo option, a turn log, a thorough catalog of buildings and ships, a helpful FAQ, and the complete rules. There will be a lot of ducking in and out of cards to see what they do. But unlike the Caylus port, where the board is spread out for no reason other than that’s what the actual real-world board looks like, Le Havre is tightly pieced together, efficient, muscular if not nimble. This isn’t just how you do a boardgame port. It’s how you do a boardgame port of a complex, intricate, and demanding boardgame.

4 stars