26 November 2016

Board Game Review: Harbour

Two players contemplating their next move at Harbour. Both are sitting at a table looking at the components of Harbour, which are spread out before them.
Are you ready for a surprisingly great find? A friend introduced me to Harbour a couple of weeks ago. It's a game about owners of shipping companies building structures on the harbour to increase the amount of goods you can purchase and sell. That sounds really lame, doesn't it? And yet, between the humorous artwork and card text, the innovative mechanics, and the robust, competitive game play, this game turns out to be extremely enjoyable.

Don't believe me? Just look at the ratings:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Gameplay: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

Harbour consist primarily of five items:

  • A central play mat - This has spaces to represent the current market value of each good (meat, stone, wood, and fish)
  • Individual play mats - Each one has a basic building and a commodity track to monitor how many of each good the player has.
  • Two decks of cards - one of various buildings, one of four cards showing bonus point conditions
  • Wooden blocks to represent commodities - there's one for each good per player, as well as one additional per good to go on the central play mat.
  • Meeples to represent each player - These resemble orcish sailors.
This does not include things like player aids or the 'Harbour Master' card.

The central play mat, as well as the deck of building cards, are placed in the centre. The starting value of each commodity is determined randomly by placing a block for each good at random on the commodity track. Five buildings are dealt face up in the centre. Players choose a colour and place their meeple next to their play mat. In the advanced game, each play mat represents a different character with a special ability, but in the basic game, all play mats are turned to the basic side, which are all identical. They choose three goods to start the game, and arrange their commodity blocks accordingly.

I'm going to pause here to describe the commodity blocks, because they're really kind of ingenious. Rather than having a bunch of tokens or other game components to represent the various goods, each player is given one block for each good, and moves it up and down along the track on his player mat to indicate how many of that item he possesses. Thus, in the image below, we see that the red player has two each of wood, stone, and fish, and currently has no meat.

A player mat. This one represents the 'Travel Agent' character. Most of the mat, which measures about 3 inches by 6 inches, is taken up with the character's quote and special ability. The upper left corner has the art, a portrait of the character, which resembles a female orc in standard witch's clothing. Along the bottom are six spaces, each with a different number of crates marked on them, from one crate in the space on the left to six crates on the space to the right. A red meeple sits on the character portrait. Three square wooden tokens sit on the 'two crates' space: a blue, a grey, and a brown. The brown one, on top, has a sticker to indicate that it represents wood. A red token with a sticker showing a cow and a pig, sits beside the board.

This limits the amount of components needed to play the game, as well as keeping costs down. Furthermore, the central play mat has a similar track, but instead of showing how many of each commodity there are, it shows the current market value for each one.

A track of eight spaces in a sideways U shape. The top four have arrows indicating that pieces move from left to right. The top left spaces is marked with 2+, the next with 3+, then 4+, and the top right space is marked with 5+. All four spaces on the bottom are marked with a ship, and have arrows indicating that pieces move from right to left. The bottom left is labelled $2, the next one is $3, then $4, and the bottom right is marked $5. An arrow on the left indicates that a piece on the bottom left moves to the space on the top left. Currently, the 2+ space has the grey stone token, the 3+ space has the brown wood token, the 4+ space has the red cow and pig token, and the 5+ space has the blue fish token.

When a player sells goods, he moves the token on this central play mat down to the ship space below it. This grants that player the appropriate amount of money. For example, in the photo above, selling fish would grant that player $5, whereas selling stone would only grant him $2. Goods are not sold on a cost-per-unit basis; that is, selling two stone does not grant you $2 per unit of stone sold. Instead, you gain that amount of money for your entire supply of stone. You must have at least the amount indicated on the play mat to sell that item. In other words, in the photo above, you have to have at least two stone to sell it at all. Having more does not grant you any benefit; if you currently have six stone and you choose to sell it, you lose all of your stone and still only get $2.

Once a player has finished selling his goods and spent the money he gains from it, all tokens are moved along the track, following the sideways U path indicated by the arrows on the mat. All tokens are move as far along the track as possible. This means that any time a good is sold, it decreases in value, and when two or more goods are sold at once, they are reversed in worth.

So, using the photo above, let's imagine that a player is selling all of his fish, meat, and stone at once. He moves those three tokens straight down onto the ship space beneath them. This grants him a total of eleven dollars ($5 for the fish, $4 for the meat, and $2 for the stone). Then, because the wood is the only one still on the top, it is moved all the way to the right, now occupying the 5+ space. The stone is the next furthest along the track, so is moved up to the 4+ space. Then the meat is moved to the 3+ space, and finally, the fish is moved into the 2+ space. Thus, the wood, which was not sold, has now jumped in price. What was formerly the most expensive item is now the cheapest. And so on.

So, now that we understand that aspect of the game, let's look at how the game is actually played. On a player's turn, he moves his meeple to any unoccupied building. This can be one of the cards in the centre of the play area (these being unowned buildings), one of the cards in any player's play area, either his own or an opponent's (these being the buildings owned by individual players), or the building represented on a player's play mat (again, his own or another player). 

Three cards: the Lumber Yard with a picture of a treefolk fighting three other characters, with icons indicating that the card lets you gain one wood for each anchor you possess; the Trader's guild, with art showing a cloaked figure holding a chicken trying to trade with a goblin leading a giant chicken, and icons indicating that it lets you gain one wood and swap the places of two goods on the market on the central play mat; and Golem Crafters, with art showing a wizard and a stonemason building a large statue, with icons indicating that it allows you to convert three meat into five stone.
After moving your meeple to a building, you may take the action described on that building. The two most common actions include purchasing a building and gaining commodities. Usually, you simply gain a commodity (or multiple commodities). For example, in the cards shown to the right, the Traders Guild grants you a single wood in addition to swapping the places of two items in the market on the central play mat. 

The purchase icon (which resembles a building next to two dollar signs) allows you to sell your goods as described above, and use the income to purchase one of the cards available in the central play area. This does not prevent other players from using that card, but unless a player has a card with a top hat icon (as seen for example on the Lumber Yard card at right), he must pay you any one good of his choice as a toll for using your building. But the important thing is that you gain victory points for each building you purchase.

The game continues until one player has purchased four buildings. Each other player gets one final turn, and then the player with the most victory points takes a selfie with the Harbour Master card and is declared the winner.

This game is surprisingly robust, with a lot of careful consideration being given to every action. Yet it's still quick and easy, with a lot of humour (look at the artwork in the cards shown above to see what I mean). I really enjoyed this game, and even though I've only played it twice, I'm impatient to own a copy so I can share it with others!

Anyway, that's it for this week. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!

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