Heart of Africa falls into one of those special classes in life, one of those 'good but...' classes. Often this feeling is the result of unrealistic expectations. You approach something with preconceived notions and then when the actuality is different, there is disappointment or irritation. In the case of Heart of Africa, it is irritation and it is all due to the publisher, not the game. I was bit twice by this feeling with Heart of Africa.
When I first played Heart of Africa there was something very familiar, very comfortable about the game. Each time we played there was something nagging me about the game but I simply could not place it. Ah, a eureka moment. This game fits well within the Vinci family of games. (I suggest this as being on the order of the Risk type games such as Magnifico, Attack, BloodFeud in New York, etc. Though they are not Risk games, their parentage is obvious.) Though not designed by Philippe Keyaerts, there are many similarities to the general system used in Vinci and the Small World games. If you are familiar with either Vinci or either of the Small World games then you will recognize the basic systems employed but there are twists to Heart of Africa's implementation.
Before proceeding I must address one of the first irritations encountered with Heart of Africa. I can understand that games are supposed to be entertainment and that offering offense would limit the sales potential for a game but c'mon guys; 'traders' fighting with 'traders', building 'trading posts' rather than forts. Heart of Africa is a successful cross between a war game and a Eurogame. Why alter the theme to something that is unrealistic? Why pretend that the armies are groups of traders that enter conflict? These changes may be politically correct but anyone who is fooled by them is probably too ignorant to play the game anyway. This is reminiscent of the hack job that was imposed on Wongar. Originally Wongar was a battle of warlords in Japan. For some reason the publisher changed the theme to be that of an aboriginal dream! It was a good game with an unrealistic, if confusing theme. (I will step down from my soapbox now and return to the game.)
As mentioned above Heart of Africa is a variation of the Vinci system. In Vinci (and Small World) there are double chits that allot specific benefits to a player. With Heart of Africa two chits are up for bid each turn. The two chits indicate how many actions a player can take and, usually, provide special benefits. In addition to this, the chits can be used in combat (sorry, trader conflict). Only the winner of the bid receives the chits and only the winner takes a turn! It may appear that this would lead to a rich-get-richer problem but it does not. Players bid with influence (money) and it is a closed system. The amount bid is split among the losing players beginning with the player lowest in victory points. Bid too much and you may be out of the bidding for the next couple of rounds. Every bid is tough. There is a significant amount to consider depending on the value of the chits and what the player's strategy is. I first felt uncomfortable with the concept of an auction during a conflict game but was pleased with the implementation. It works well and does ratchet up the decisions required of the player. How important is winning this bid? Should I wait and bid on the next set of chits? As the next three sets of chits are visible, it is possible to plan ahead.
The object of the game is to score the most points and as in Vinci and Small World this is accomplished by controlling areas. In the Keyaerts' games, each area may have different values based on the terrain and the specific attribute of the conquering army. Heart of Africa raises the bar in this mechanism by allowing players to adjust the values of areas as the game progresses. The chits mentioned above offer the players special abilities and adjusting the value of a resource is one of these abilities. The resources are distributed in many of the territories. Areas without a resource marker have a value also. The value of all of the resource-less territories are set by an additional marker on the resource track and this too can be adjusted. This mechanism allows players to attempt to control areas that score the most points based on their position on the map however, they cannot ignore the value of other resources to their opponents. For example: a given area may be worth three points to me but a different area may be worth four points to an opponent. Do I go for the easy three points or attempt to prevent my opponent from gaining even more? Or, if I have the opportunity to adjust a resource on the track and I realize that the scoring leader has control of a particular type of resource then it may be wiser to reduce the value of that resource (and therefore the value of every territory that has the resource) than to raise the value of any other resource. Though the rules are simple, the in-game decisions can become very complex.
Steding (the designer of Heart of Africa), has added a twist to conflict between traders. There are two types of conflict resolution (combat) in the game. When opposing 'neutral' traders (natives) the player must have as many armies (sorry, traders) as there are neutrals and then draw a conflict chip. The chip simply determines what the attacker has lost in the battle. It is possible that the attacker suffers no losses. Following the combat, one of the neutral traders is removed and the remainder are retreated by the attacker. At first this may appear very standard having appeared in other games however, Steding makes the retreats a type of weapon. When scoring an area, the value of the area is reduced by the number of neutral traders in the area so retreating neutral units can effectually be an additional attack. Due to the retreat parameters it is possible to attack one player and retreat the neutral units into an area controlled by a different opponent. For those that enjoy a bit of backstabbing in their games,this mechanism provides enough to keep you happy. (Note: in Vinci and Small World the losing player removes one unit and the rest are available for placement on the next turn. Retreating in Heart of Africa expands this concept.)
The second type of conflict is between two or more players in an area. The value of a player's armies depends on his reputation (similar to resources but on a separate track), the amount of influence the player wants to include and any of the chits the player still holds. In a strange way the combat here reminds me of that from Dune with all of the possible combinations. What to include in your arsenal and what to save for future use is critical. Once again the player is forced into some delicious decisions. For example, any influence that the attacker spends is passed to the other players and this can be used for bidding. In addition to this, either player may play a 'retreat' tile. When a player plays the retreat tile he loses the combat but gains all of the items his opponent used in battle. It makes for some very interesting decisions. If my opponent appears to be very strong, should I surrender immediately and gain his attack items or go 'all in' and try to beat him? As with the neutral combat, the winner will retreat the opponent's units.
The game is meaty; very enjoyable, very challenging. If you enjoy Vinci or Small World but want a bit of variety or crave something much deeper then Heart of Africa is the answer. Unlike Vinci and Small World, in Heart of Africa your civilization never enters into decline. There is no time where you can simply abandon your armies and begin again with a new set in a different area. From start to finish what you have is what you develop. It is a successful cross between a war game and a Euro.
Now to the problems. Where do I begin? It is not that the game is flawed; it is in the production that the errors pop up. There are misprints everywhere. There are errors in the rule book. References in the rule book do not necessarily match the illustrations. The chits, which are critical to the game, have significant errors in the printing. For example: one of the combat chits indicates that the attacker should lose a resource! (The attacker does not have resources, areas have resources. Players have reputation.) Occasionally the wording is so unusual it reads as if produced on Google Translate. This total lack of quality control is inexcusable. I could understand some color misprint on occasion but this is well beyond anything that is acceptable. What increases the absurdity of this situation is that the game was published by Phalanx games and then distributed by Mayfair with the same damn errors! Did Mayfair just blindly accept this without having at least read the rules and examined the components? Ah but I am not done. Was any thought given to how human beings interpret increasing and decreasing events? Why would someone develop a table where a player moves a marker down to increase value and up on the table to decrease a value. Unfortunately this makes the rules extremely convoluted. As an example I will quote from the rule book ( this is describing a result of a neutral trader battle): "The player's reputation is moved up a number of boxes according to the number on the conflict marker." Moving up boxes is not good - up is down in value!
One final example. This is the description for three of the special victory point markers (these are beneficial to a player). "In addition, his reputation is lowered by one level on the Reputation Table." Lowering on the Reputation Table is positive, it actually increases the value of each of your armies (traders). If the intent was to be different then they should revel in their success. For my part, when someone states that X is increasing, I would not look down.
So with all of that, is this a good game? Absolutely. If you are willing to straighten out the gross errors and decipher the rules, you will be rewarded with a very good game. This is a very deep game. If you consider it part of the Vinci family then I suggest it is the most complex of the group. I enjoy it but it still bugs me that a publisher did to bother to perform a simple quality check prior to printing. (If this were a print and play or a prototype then I could understand errors but from (not one but two) professional publishers, this is simply unacceptable. That said, we continue to play the game on a regular basis.
One final note: the official rule is that the game is played to 42 points. Unfortunately this is too low a point value for real development. It is fine for learning the game but and subsequent plays should be to 60 point minimum or 80 as in the official variant.
Great write-up. I agree with most of your points but I have to disagree slightly when you say the game isn't flawed: I think it's primary flaw is the win condition. The other major flaw, which might be considered related to the win condition if you think about it a certain way, is that players reap no benefits when it is not their turn.
Let me first address the win condition. It's too easy for the winning player to simply be the one who can win the final bid when everyone is close to the end, since they are the only person who scores. You may not think this, but I consider this inherently flawed.
When I've played this I've observed that turns tend to be distributed more or less evenly because of the influence redistribution, also because players tend to back off if they have had a turn recently (or simply can't afford to bid). This leads to 2 or 3 (or more) players being within one turn of winning, it just depends on who has enough influence left to win the bid, plus the player who is closest has the most excess VP to bid with.
Ok, so the second complaint I have is that you don't gain anything when it isn't your turn, and this really affects how the game feels. I don't know how to fix it, but players tend to drift and I've seen someone take a turn and then leave the table (after not bidding) to come back in a few minutes because they didn't have anything else to do at the table at that moment.
I also happen to think that the trading posts are too powerful and it is easy for someone to get a trading post early and place it on "their" coastal area where it is difficult for anyone else to get to and challenge their control over it. That player then gains the points for a trading post plus the bonus for having more trading posts than any other player.
I keep wanting to try this game because I feel with a group that knows the game well it could be very good, but there are some strange and ugly things that I think bring the game down in their current state. There are so many excellent games out there, it makes HoA hard to justify keeping and playing, except that I really think some of the ideas are interesting and I love the theme.