It’s not every day you get a game unannounced in the mail. OK, I never have gotten a game in the mail that I did not already order. So, it was quite the surprise when a small media envelope showed up one day, and out poured a colorful handful of those little wooden cubes we all love, along with some brightly decorated cards and other paper parts.
Needless to say, whatever I had been doing when the mail arrived got pushed to the back burner for some time while I examined my game. A letter from Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games explained the purpose of the delightfully unexpected delivery.
The bits I had spread out across the kitchen table was a pre-production copy of Harbour, a new micro game that TMG is putting out on kickstarter June 15th. I had seen the Print and Play files floating around the Board Game Geek (BGG) website for a little while ago, downloaded them, but had not printed it out. After a play or two with my new copy, I could see that I had been missing out on a good micro game.
Micro games are certainly becoming more popular as of late. Typically, they have minimal cards and bits and are played in 30 minutes or less. I for one find the concept intriguing. I have played several from Good Little Games (http://www.goodlittlegames.co.uk/), and found them to be enjoyable, short games. There are others as well, with various definitions of a “micro” game. Some draw the line at 18 cards, some at no more than 50. Regardless,the best ones, in my humble opinion, tend to boil down the best mechanics and concepts from the bigger, weightier games to a short and sweet gaming experience. That, in my mind, is the hallmark of a micro game, and Harbour nicely fulfills it.
Harbour is, in essence, a worker-placement game, albeit lighter than the standard fair (such as Caylus, Le Havre, Agricola, etc). You have one worker whom you send to various buildings throughout a whimsical fantasy port city, buying, trading, and selling goods to gain victory points. Basically, it follows the typical game-play formula of a good worker-placement game. You gain goods to sell to buy buildings to get points, as well as bonuses and extra benefits. While the bigger games would add more fluff to this bare bones, Harbour takes this formula, and condenses it into a simple to play experience.
One might think that this would make the game too simple/ not involved enough to intrigue those of us who enjoy heavier games, I found that Harbour nicely fills a niche in my gaming collection. While simple and relatively easy to explain and play, there is strategy involved. Your best laid plans will invariably go astray, especially in a 4 player game, so it is good to plan ahead, and think at least 2 turns out. Granted, you can choose not do to this, and play just for the fun of it, have a good experience, and perform decently. But, for those of us who enjoy finding ways to combo abilities, tweak the market to fit our plans for the next turn, etc; there is plenty to enjoy here.
Each player gets a player board with their starter building (gain 2 resources or buy a building). There are variety of ones to choose from with various abilities. The sheer amount of starter boards available (my copy came with 11, the base game will likely come with 7) while not necessary, is a nice touch, and should make for a variety of combinations for each game. On your board is your resource tracker, an inventive way to keep the number of bits down to a minimum, and a special ability unique to your player board/character. There are also symbols that give special abilities (Anchor, Coin, Top Hat, and Warehouse). These with the exception of the top hat are stackable, meaning the more you collect of those symbols (each building you buy has a symbol or two), the more powerful the symbol becomes. (For example, the more coin symbols you have in your possession, the more of a discount you get when buying a building. )
In front of you is the harbour, with various building cards available to use. While there are many choices for you to consider, your task is somewhat easier because of a few key rules: you can use only one building per turn (You move your pawn to the building to perform it’s action- that is the extent of your turn), you cannot use the same building twice in a row, and you cannot use a building someone else is occupying. These simple constraints work well and turns go by quickly.
Your main objective at this point is to gain resources, either through trades or production. Some buildings help you more than others, and so it is beneficial to buy up the more profitable buildings, because then the other players will have to pay “rent” to use your building. Once you have gained enough resources, then you can buy a building. You sell the goods to the market, and buy a building based on the value of goods you sold. I like how this keeps things simple for the game play by combining the two distinct actions into one.
Of special note too is the market mechanic. I dabble in game design myself, and one thing I have worked on is a variable market that is based on supply and demand. Fulfill the demand, and the value of the good goes down. Harbour’s mechanic, while simple, does the job beautifully. What ever resources you sell in the market fall to the bottom, and the resources that were in bottom slots get bumped to the top. It can definitely throw off people though, as they expect to be able to sell cattle for $5 next turn, only to see it drop to $2 the next turn! I found especially in the 4 player game, the market can be quite volatile. It seemed that it was better to focus on the resources at the bottom of the market rather than the top, because invariably, when it would come time to buy a building, those resources would be at the high spot.
This process continues until someone buys a total of 4 buildings and all other players take a last turn. The most points at the end wins! While often the one who triggers the end wins, it does not seem that is always the case, especially in 3-4 player games. In the 2 player games I have played, focusing on the cheap buildings, and rushing to the end quickly can often get you the win. However, once there are more players, especially in a 4 player game, it is more difficult to rush to the end, in part to the fluctuating market, or because someone cuts you off from a building you really want to use so it is advantageous to focus on the larger buildings.
Harbour definitely captures the essence of the worker-placement genre. While certainly lighter, I feel it preserves much of the fun elements that make many of these games so enjoyable. So far, I have had 4 plays under my belt (and I hope for more). It would seem, however that while it is lighter, and a little more prone to luck, more experienced gamers will likely excel easier at this game than others (I won 3 out of the 4 games) The fantasy theme is definitely fun as is the “flavour” text, and I would imagine those who enjoy that kind of art and genre would really get a kick out of it. Personally, fantasy is not my favorite when it comes to themes, but the art is pulled off well, and is attractive, for the most part. I did not care for the art of the Bookkeeper, and may just remove that player board. Others will no doubt be fine with it, but I really don’t care for skeletons. Sorry.
The “flavour text” with the player boards is fun to read for the most part, however there were a few I found a little crude for my tastes. Again, not a big deal for most players. I just tend to tolerate less of that kind of content. With the sheer volume of player boards available, though, this is not an insurmountable problem in the least.
The game itself, in regards to game-play is fairly accessible. I had the opportunity to play it with some non-gamers (my parents), some casual gamers (my wife and her sister) and a more hard-core gamer (A friend of mine). While those unfamiliar with the more “Eurogame” mechanics of a worker-placement game will face more of a learning curve, the more casual gamers will pick this up easily. For either group, the curve is not insurmountable, and after a few rounds, most everyone had a good idea of what was going on and how to play.
It would seem micro games are a trend here to stay, for the moment at least, and Harbour certainly captures the best elements of a good micro-game. While it could definitely be a good filler game for those longer game nights, for those like me who have limited time in the evenings, it certainly gives you a good gaming experience for the 30 minutes (give or take) you put into it. If you want to try Harbour, check out the kickstarter campaign when it goes live, or download the Print and Play files