The board game Le Havre is one of the best complex strategy games I’ve tried, although the emphasis is on complex, involving a lengthy setup, more pieces than I can remember in any other game (mostly tiles representing resources that need to be sorted into piles), and a lot of long-range planning with great potential for other players to inadvertently trip you up. It’s very balanced, nearly luck-free, and rewards patience and attention. But the time to set it up and the time to play it are both major obstacles unless you’re quite hardcore about your boardgaming – and you don’t have to get up early the next morning.
All of that makes it a perfect game for adaptation into electronic form, and Le Havre, released on Wednesday night by Codito, is excellent, playing easily with plenty of instructions and offering sufficient challenges from the AI opponents to allow for many repeat plays.
In Le Havre, a game by the designer of Agricola and heavily inspired by Caylus, players compete to acquire the most total value in buildings and ships while filling growing requirements to feed workers each turn, a balancing act that is far more difficult than it sounds because of the competition for scarce resources and the limited number of ways to obtain food, a problem exacerbated in games of more than two players. On each turn, a player may choose to take resources from any of the seven available stocks; to take the available supply of money (francs); to build one of three buildings visible on the stacks of building cards; or to use a building that is already built, even if it was built by another player. A player may also buy certain buildings outright in addition to that main action.
Each player has to have enough food or francs on hand at the end of every round to feed his workers, and the rounds are short – seven moves in total, so in each round of a four-player game, one player will get only a single move. Yet to acquire points from resources, players have to first acquire the right mix of resources, sometimes converting them to other kinds of resources, sometimes acquiring energy sources as well, and then build the building or the ship in question. It takes patience, and requires a lot of quick decisions about when to move for the short term (food) and when to move for the long (points).
There are multiple ways to win Le Havre, one of the key features in a game that is this complex (and my main criticism of Puerto Rico). Shipbuilding is the best way to beat the AI players in my experience with the app, but there are several different paths to high point totals through buildings, including several buildings that stack up point bonuses depending on what else you’ve already built. There are also several different paths to ensuring a regular food supply, and ships can provide a fixed quantity of food on each turn once they’re built. When a player can’t feed his workers, he can take out a loan – annoying, but sometimes the right strategic move, and sometimes the path to digging a hole you can’t quite escape.
Game play within the app is very straightforward, and one of the benefits of an app version is the fact that you are protected from rules mistakes, which, given the complexity of Le Havre, is a significant advantage. Each card replicates the graphics from the physical game, including symbols that indicate the card’s price in resources, fee to use if it’s not yours, value in points, and resources or gains from usage. Clicking on the question mark in the upper right once the card is expanded gets the full text explaining the card and all of its costs and benefits. Learning the lay of the board took me two or three games, but all of the critical information is either visible or is a click away. The game also gives players the ability to undo a move while the turn is in progress, and confirms the ‘end turn’ request as well (an option that can be turned off). There’s a solid tutorial, although it is no substitute for playing the game a few times against easy AI opponents.
Those AIs are good enough to continue to challenge me, a relative rookie in Le Havre, because they offer multiple levels of difficulty. I do find them a little predictable, and they often race out to early points leads because they plan more for the short term than the long; the first two settings are like training wheels, but in a 4- or 5-player game against all AI opponents, the hardest AI setting is a good enough challenge to allow for repeated gameplay. The app now offers turn-based online multiplayer through GameCenter, which I haven’t tried yet.
My criticisms of the app are minor – the graphics could be brighter, and the font isn’t as clear as it could be, so some of the text is tough to read without expanding it from the background. The hint feature, suggesting the next move to make, can be a little too focused on the short term, although the point of the hints is to help you learn the game, not help you beat the AI players that are running on the same software. I ran into some very minor graphics glitches that should be addressed in the first update. Also, the music made my wife want to strangle me after about two minutes, so I muted it for my own safety.
If you like Agricola and/or Caylus, I strongly recommend Le Havre. It is as elegant an adaptation as I can imagine for a game with this many elements. I’m also impressed by how Codito’s boardgame apps improve each time out – the leap from Puerto Rico, another complex game with a lot of elements, to Le Havre is outstanding – showing an internal commitment to improving the player experience (and, I presume, increasing revenues). That said, if you aren’t a fan of boardgames with a lot of rules or a relatively steep learning curve, you might find this game frustrating, particularly the physical game given all its pieces. (It took me the better part of an hour to break apart and sort all of the little cardboard resource tiles.) It’s very fair to jump off the boardgame bandwagon before Le Havre or Agricola – but at least the app lets you try it out for $5 first.
Recent ESPN content, if you made it this far: My quick reaction to this year’s Futures Game rosters; an early look at Mike Trout’s MVP case; this week’s Klawchat; and some fun podcasts from Thursday with Dave Schoenfield and from Wednesday with Chris Sprow.