I stumbled into Le Havre thanks to the iPad. Before that I had seen the game but I did not play it because it seemed a little daunting, even though I had played Agricola. But Le Havre, with so many cards, and fish, iron, ships, buildings and everything, seemed even a little excessive. But even if sometimes less is more, then sometimes you learn that too much can also be good.
Le Havre is the second installment of Uwe Rosenberg's Harvest Trilogy. If Agricola represented a small farm in XVII century Central Europe, Le Havre represents a busy French port more or less in current times. The game board represents a big harbor with many spaces where all kinds of goods arrive and a big display where dozens of buildings are put in display and are available to be build or bought. There's also a space to show the available ships and finally a center line where the players' tokens, wooden ships, move to represent the turn.
The players' ships take turns in being the first in the line. The first ship in the line marks who is the active player. The active player can use a single action to pick up raw goods or enter a building to use its action, and there's also a free action to buy a building before or after the other action. You cannot enter a bulding if somebody else is inside. After a fixed number of rounds (which is the same whatever the number of player is), the turn ends and each player must pay an amount of food that increases each turn, much like in Agricola. Food can be substitued by money, though you'll usually want to save money for further buying. If you don't have enough food, instead of losing points you get a loan. So Le Havre starts where Agricola stopped and adds another dimension: money.
And does money change the play a lot? I think that yes, it does. The final tally is based on the money each player has and the best way to earn money is by constructing buildings and ships using the goods. You can always buy them if you need their special effects, but you'll be losing money. And the smart increase of goods and money each turns makes only profitable to choose certain buildings in certain moments of the game. But constructing a building is not always that easy: some of the goods are raw (fish, wood, coal, clay...) and some other are manufactured (bricks, coke, steel...). You need some factory buildings to manufacture raw goods into manufactured ones that in turn will allow you to build further buildings. Or you can ship your manufactured goods to earn a good amount of money. Or even use the side effects of some buildings to get that money.
Owning buildings is important because if another player uses one of your buildings they must pay you a fee (which can be goods or money), in the style of Caylus, and you can use it for free. So sometimes you'll want to build or buy a building not because it's central to your strategy but because you know that the other players will need it and you want to earn the fees.
Getting goods and constructing buildings is not the only thing a player must do: they must get food each turn or else pay! The number of needed turn will increase each turn depending on the number of players, and some of the goods (fish, bread, meat...) provide differents amounts of food, with the processed food being more nutritive (and more expensive to obtain). Also, each ship you build will provide a base number of food that it's not expended and will be available each turn. Having ships then is quite important as they provide you with food and will allow for shipping goods later in the game.
So in Le Havre we have to grab some goods, process them into manufactured goods, build some ships and send the goods away to earn money. Like in Puerto Rico? Well, not quite. This is not a carousel, it's a roller coaster. First because food will be really scarce and maybe for a few turns you'll get away with loans but sooner or later you'll have to have a plan to get enough food to stop losing money. And then there are the buildings themselves. There are dozens of buildings in Le Havre and only some of them are used in every game. The rest will only appear at random. This gives a lot of variety in the games. And the effects the buildings have can provide some nice combos that will only be available from time to time, as not all the precise buildings will be always in play. Maybe you smoked some fish to eat it but then a fish restaurant building appears to offer you a nice sum of money for your fish. Or a clothing industry makes hides and leather much more profitable. Or the guildhouse will increase the value of some specific buildings.
Slowly with each play new possibilities will show themselves and you'll want to try them. But the game will be different and there will be slight variations in the new game that will make you doubt: was this other building so significant that changed the value of my strategy? Should I have changed priorities? My mid game has been well developed? The mechanics of the game will smoothly blend and you'll find yourself not thinking on rules but on global strategies segmented in early, mid and late strategies, like in other great strategy games, and on the short term tactics necessary to achive your strategies. After about 40 plays of Le Havre, what once seemed to me a daunting task has now evolved into a fantastic strategy game with many choices to make and many variants in each game to make all of them a different but fantastic gaming experience.