Some recent Insider content: my post-deadline column on the teams that did nothing this week, plus breakdowns of the Ian Kennedy trade, the Bud Norris trade, and the Jake Peavy trade. Also, my Klawchat transcript from earlier today. And finally, this week’s Behind the Dish podcast features former big leaguer Gabe Kapler, who talked to me about using advanced statistics in player development and about why I’m wrong to dislike the Notorious B.I.G.
I picked up the iPad app version of Hacienda last summer, played it once or twice, then never went back to it after a handful of other titles hit the market and I got caught up doing … well, not doing what I was supposed to do, which was at least play the game enough to write a review of it. I just returned to it this week and it’s better than I remembered, a simple tile-placement game reminiscent of Through the Desert with different scoring mechanics and a tile-placement scheme that makes it easier to block opponents.
In Hacienda, two to five players players compete to rack up points through placement on a board filled with hexes that represent different terrains. Players may purchase cards that allow them to place land tiles or animal tokens, or purchase haciendas or lakes that allow them to accumulate more points. The majority of the board’s hexes contain pampas (open fields), but there are only a handful of pampas cards, so nearly all player tiles will go on the strips of non-pampas tiles around the board. (The app comes with a basic board and a more difficult “challenge” map.)
Placing at least three land tiles together forms a chain that earns the player two points per tile in the chain; placing a hacienda on the chain adds another point per tile. Animal chains, called “herds,” aren’t worth points on their own, but add points and money when they connect to the various market tiles on the board: 1 point for the first market a player reaches, 2 for the second, 3 for the third, and so on, plus $1 for each animal tile in the herd and another $1 for each land tile in the land chain adjacent to the herd. A player also earns a point for each of his tiles adjacent to any water hole on the board, whether he placed it or another player did. Finally, a player may purchase and place a harvest token to earn $3 per land tile in that chain, although in practice the AI players rarely use this and I haven’t at all. Each turn comprises three moves, which can include purchasing a card, placing a tile or token, or buying and placing a building or lake.
The game contains two phases, but the scoring contains a hitch – the score at the end of phase one is doubled and added to the score from phase two to give the final totals. The first phase ends when the supply of animal cards is exhausted; it’s reshuffled for the second phase, while the supply of land tile cards doesn’t appear to be exhaustible. (I may have that bit wrong.) That means an early deficit can be hard to overcome, even with near-perfect play in phase two, especially if you are split by your opponents or are running short of cash. It also puts huge importance on early moves and at least a little bit of strategy, because you have to think about what the board might look like several turns down the road and try to minimize the chances of your opponents screwing you over.
And screwing your opponents over is quite possible in Hacienda. The hard AI players will block you, although sometimes they’ll do so in slightly odd ways. Because the best way to rack up points is to create a long, contiguous chain of land tiles, placing a single tile directly in your opponent’s path forces him to either leave the trail of non-pampas hexes or to pick up a few pampas cards so he can go around you. In the first phase of the game, it may be easier to just pick up and start a new chain elsewhere on the board, but in the second phase, you’re probably stuck with what you’ve got, which means that long-range planning is complicated by the possibility that your opponents will sabotage you.
The main drawback of Hacienda is that the scoring is not entirely obvious from looking at the board because of all of the multipliers that apply to various types of chains. The interactive component is a plus, but the inclusion of money adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t significantly improve the game; Through the Desert covers similar ground (pun intended) more elegantly.
The implementation here boasts outstanding graphics and quick AI players, although the lack of online multiplayer is a major drawback. The app also doesn’t allow for a random start player, which seems like an essential element for solo or pass-and-play games. Finally, tile/token placement isn’t that precise, although the developers say they improved that in the most recent update. The tutorial was clear and concise, and it’s easy to see what other players have done when it’s your turn.
I’d still recommend Through the Desert first if you like the sound of hex-based tile-placement games; in that game, you’re also trying to create long chains and connect them to specific landmarks on the board, but that’s just about it, with blocking opponents the only wrinkle in a game that stands out for its simplicity. Hacienda makes the core mechanic 50% more complicated but the resulting game is maybe 5% more interesting.