There are so many potentially rich subject matters that could serve as wonderful themes for games. One such subject is that of African exploration. Yes, there have been some games that have dealt with this topic, but, for me, none of them have captured the lure of the dark mysterious continent of the 19th century. Avalon Hill’s Source of the Nile certainly attempted to capture the atmosphere of exploring the unknown regions, including the many perils that faced the explorers. However, the game was mainly an “experience”, with one’s fate being determined by the turn of a card. Another game I expected to recreate the experience was Reiner Knizia’s Africa, but it was revealed to be primarily a lighter, family game.
My interest was once again aroused when I heard of Heart of Africa from Phalanx Games. Phalanx is developing a reputation of releasing games with a bit more depth, a bit more strategy. As a consequence, the game was on my “check it out” list when I departed for the Spiele Faire in Essen. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to play it, I saw enough to warrant a purchase.
Set in Africa immediately after the age of exploration, players represent colonial trading companies, sending forth their traders in attempts to gain economic control of the various regions on the continent. Resources, reputation, conflicts … all are factors in this struggle for dominance.
Designed by Andreas Steddng of Maharaja, Nero and Borgia fame, Heart of Africa contains some clever mechanisms, including an auction system that is reminiscent of Traumfabrik. Now, there are auctions on each and every turn, and this is usually a put-off for me. However, the mechanisms and consequences involved in these auctions is somewhat unique, so I didn’t grow weary of their presence.
The board depicts the continent of Africa, which is divided into over 20 regions. About one-half of the regions receive a resource marker, while the other half are void of resources. The value of these resources can fluctuate during the game, and it is even possible that the “resource-less” regions can have value. Players earn victory points by occupying these regions, with more points being earned if the resources increase in value and if the “neutral” traders are eliminated.
Players each receive a supply of influence markers, which serve multiple purposes. These markers are used as currency in the auctions, and can also be used in conflicts with opposing traders. The management of these influence markers is a major element of the game and successful play.
Players also receive a handful of traders and a secret victory point token. The starting turn order is determined randomly, with player tokens being placed in ascending order on the victory point track in the order in which they are drawn. Players in ascending order then each claim a starting area along the coast, then seed the board with a number of neutral traders. The game begins.
Four sets of two action chits are revealed, and the first two in the line are up for auction at the beginning of each turn. Players bid influence cubes in a once-around auction, beginning with the player currently in first place on the victory point track. Other than the player in first place, players may also bid victory points in the auction. This makes the bidding even more intriguing, as one cannot quite be sure how much their opponents are willing to bid. The number of victory points bid the winning offer are divided amongst the other players, with any odd amounts going to the players on the bottom of the victory point track. It can be quite frustrating to lose out on a victory point due to your victory point status, but this is clever balancing mechanism. Influence cubes will be divided in a similar fashion at the end of the round, with any remainder being carried over until the following round.
The winner of the auction places a new neutral trader into a region and takes the action chits and his turn … but the other players do not get a turn afterwards. No, you see, only the winner of the auction takes his turn. If you don’t win an auction, you don’t take a turn. That is severe, so it is imperative that you win your fair share of auctions. However, woe to the player who bids most or all of his influence cubes to win an auction, as it will likely take several turns before he re-builds his supply and is able to once again compete in the auctions.
The action chits determine how many action points a player has on his turn. Each chit depicts a number ranging from 0 – 9, as well as an icon denoting a special action the player may perform. A player uses the action points to perform a variety of possible actions, including moving his traders, introducing new traders into Africa, or altering the value of resources. Moving traders only costs 1 point per territory, while introducing new traders or altering the value of a resource up or down one level usually costs four points.
In addition to the number of action points they grant, each action chit has a special power which may be executed by the player during the current or subsequent turn. There are a wide variety of possible actions, from introducing new traders, moving or removing neutral traders, replacing neutral traders, etc. If a player opts to utilize the special power of an action chit, it is then discarded. Otherwise, it is kept and can be used on a subsequent turn, or in a future conflict with an opponent.
If a player moves his traders into an area containing neutral traders, he MAY opt to attempt to oust those traders. The combat method is quite random, with the trader drawing a conflict token at random. Conflict tokens may force the player to lose one, two or three traders, influence cubes or reputation levels. If the player has more traders in the region than neutral traders, he may continue to draw tokens one at a time, but may not draw more tokens than the excess number of traders he has in the area. A player MUST accept the results of the final token he opts to draw.
If the player can meet the required losses, he wins the conflict. A neutral trader token is removed, and any remaining tokens are retreated from the area. If the player cannot or chooses not to suffer the indicated losses, he loses a point of reputation, but his traders remain in the area.
So why would one want to eliminate the neutral traders? When victory points are earned for a region, points are lost for each neutral trader present in the area. So, there is a strong incentive to eliminate or force the evacuation of neutral traders from an area you desire to control.
When an area contains traders from two players, combat is mandatory, and it is conducted in a different fashion. First, the value of each player’s traders is determined and is based on the player’s current level on the reputation track. Reputation can be gained once per turn if the player was involved in a successful combat, but it is not without cost. The player must spend two influence markers to increase one level. Reputation can also be lost due to a conflict with neutrals.
After tallying the value of each player’s traders, players may then secretly commit influence cubes and action chits that were not used previously. Influence cubes are worth three points apiece, while those valuable action chits are worth 9 points each! Since so much power can be brought to bear in a conflict by the players, an advantage in trader strength is, in reality, illusory. Losing a conflict can be costly, as the losing player removes one token and his remaining tokens are retreated BY HIS OPPONENT! This can, and usually does, put the player at a severe disadvantage.
But there is also another potential risk. Each player possesses a “retreat” token. If a player commits this in battle, he must retreat his traders out of the contested area. However, he doesn’t lose any traders, and potentially more important, he receives ALL of the influence cubes and action chits his opponent committed to that battle. This can be a tremendous swing of fortune. Further, the retreat chit is not lost, but retained for future use. This is a very powerful tactic … perhaps a bit too powerful.
The result of these potential dangers appears to be that combat is rare. We only had three combats in our first game, and two of those resulted in the retreat marker being played. I thought about attacking into an adjacent region many times, but after weighing the potential negative costs, I usually opted against such a move. I’ll have to see if this “avoid combat” trend continues in future games. If it does, it will somewhat tarnish the game.
Before discussing victory points, one other aspect of the game warrants mention. Each player possesses a “wholesale trader”, which can be introduced if the player wins the appropriate action chit in an auction. This wholesale trader has the effect of doubling the number of friendly traders in the same area. This makes that group of traders quite powerful, but still not powerful enough due to all of the other factors that can be introduced into a combat situation.
When a player has completed all of the actions he desires to execute, he tallies his victory points. Victory points are earned for each area where he is the sole player with traders present. The victory points earned are based on the value of the area, which is indicated by the resource chart. If an area also contains neutral traders, one point is deducted for each neutral area present. If the player controls the central “heart of Africa” region, he earns an extra 3 victory points.
Players also earn 1 point for each trading post they control. Trading posts are introduced by the acquisition and play of the appropriate action chit. If a player controls the majority of trading posts present on the continent, a 3-point bonus is earned.
Finally, players may play certain action chits which grant additional victory points. These can provide substantial amounts of points when used at the proper time.
If one player reaches or exceeds 42 victory points, the game ends immediately and that player is recognized as the master trader of Africa. Players desiring a longer game can adjust this final victory point trigger as they desire.
There is a LOT to consider during this game. The auctions are vital, and players must decide whether they desire to compete for the current set of action chits, or conserve their influence cubes for an upcoming set. Victory points can also be bid, but this can be extremely dangerous. Further, since the auction is only a “once around” bid and is conducted in descending victory point order, players only have one shot at making their bid. How much do you need to bid to frighten away any competitors?
Winning an auction not only gives a player the two action chits, but also allows him to take his turn. Other players do not get to perform any actions. It warrants repeating: only the winner of an auction gets to take his turn. Thus, it is entirely possible a player may have 2 or 3 turns in quick succession, while another player may go several rounds without having a turn. This is a very interesting mechanism and forces players to consider more than just the actions offered by the chits.
Once acquired, how to use those action points can be a dilemma. If conflict weren’t so potentially dangerous, I feel the game would be a bit more fluid. As is, after a few turns of positioning, it seems a bit static. Players are fearful of engaging in conflict with opponents due to the unpredictability of the results. Further, altering the value of a resource is also often not wise as one or more of a player’s opponents will likely benefit as well. This also has the potential effect of increasing the attractiveness of areas containing the newly valuable resources, meaning your control of such areas may well be threatened. Finally, the introduction of new traders can be quite expensive – usually four action points – that this is not always a viable option. All these factors can contribute to reduce a player’s seemingly abundant options to really just a few. Numerous times during our game players were left with unused action points as none of their remaining options were desirable.
In spite of this, we all found the game intriguing. We felt that there was more to explore here, and that things could have turned out differently had we taken alternative actions or pursued different strategies. Those types of feelings usually mean that there is more to the game than we initially experienced, and it is very likely the game will hit the table again soon. So, in spite of my concerns, I am still thinking about the game and wanting to play it again. That is most certainly a good sign.
Jerry, Michael, Jim, Kurt and I sent our traders into the dark continent in hopes of securing favorable markets and extracting lucrative resources. We spent several turns moving into easy-to-grab areas and fighting the neutral traders. Michael and Jerry were concentrated in the south, Jim and I moved into the west and north, while Kurt was alone for awhile in the east. Kurt was the first to reach the center of Africa, known as the “heart”, and earned some quick extra victory points. This didn’t last long, however, as we immediately flooded the area with neutral traders.
Jim was the first to initiate conflict with an opponent, attacking Jerry in the west, and forcing him to retreat. This forced Jerry into a bit of a cocoon, as he rarely participated in the remaining auctions and refused to take any offensive actions against any of his opponents. This allowed Michael to expand unfettered up from the south, which enabled him to grab numerous areas and valuable resources.
Jim, though, was in the lead, and made a lunge for victory. He bid all of his influence cubes to secure two action chits, but fell a bit short of reaching the magic “42”. Unfortunately, he was out of influence cubes and the rules of the game now haunted him. Since he was the leader, he was unable to bid any victory points, so he was doomed to never win another auction. Jerry did manage to outbid Michael on two consecutive auctions, but when Michael won the following one, it was all over.
Finals: Michael 45, Jim 39, Greg 33, Kurt 32, Jerry 20
Ratings: Jim 7, Greg 7, Kurt 7, Michael 6.5, Jerry 6.5