Heart of Africa involves conducting expeditions and trading in Africa in the late 19th Century. At least that's what it says on the box. It's not really an exploration game because the board is open and visible to everyone right from the start and the only reference to trading is that pieces are called Traders where as they could just as easily be military units. In fact if it wasn't for the fabulous map of Africa being the centre stage of the board then the game could be set anywhere with any theme.
At the start of the game, neutral traders and resources (of which there are 4 different types) are placed on designated areas of Africa and each player starts with five traders in one coastal area. Traders are move around the board using an action point system and the main source of victory points is through occupying resource rich areas with your traders.
The core of the game revolves around a set of action chits which determine how many action points a player has and also allow some special actions. Two action chits are auctioned off each turn with the player who bids the most influence markers becoming the active player. This is important because only the active player can use the action chits and score victory points each turn. Everyone else has to sit out until they win an auction. I guess this does actually fit with the theme of the game where explorers such as Livingstone would spend long periods of time without actually doing anything useful.
Any influence markers that are used to win the auction or used during a players turn are redistributed evenly amongst the remaining players at the end of the time. Thus the number of markers in play remains constant throughout and it's only their allocation amongst the players that differs (if anyone has played TraumFabrik this works in exactly the same way). This creates an automatic self-balancing mechanism and usually results in players getting a roughly equal number of turns over the course of the game although not necessarily in a strict order.
Neutral and opposing traders reduce the victory points scored from an area so it's important to kick them out if possible and there are two different mechanisms for achieving this. Neutral traders can always be beaten by an equal force although the cost of this will usually depend upon how many additional traders a player has. Combat between players is determined by the amount of influence markers and action chits a player is prepared to spend as well as the number and reputation of the Traders they have committed. In all combats the victorious player retreats losing Traders to a nearby area and this can have a significant impact as other players suddenly find they have additional traders competing for the resources in their areas.
There are a few other rules around Wholesale traders and Trading Posts that add options to the game but they are all driven by the action chits. A successful bid will reduce the number of influence markers you have and increase your opponents so that makes it difficult to get repeated turns particularly with five players. Action chits for the following 4 turns are always visible so it is possible to plan ahead to a degree and bidding for the right chits at the right time and for the right price is the key to success.
There are a few anomalies and ambiguities in the rules but nothing that is critical or that could not be resolved amongst the players. The components are very appealing but a few of the action chits have some simple errors on them that make them unclear and / or misleading and this is poor quality assurance from Phalanx.
There is sufficient number and variety of action chits to prevent games becoming repetitive and the game reminded me of Vinci with the action chits fulfilling a similar role to the civilisation counters. However, it has similar problems to Vinci - potential for over-analysis, too much downtime between turns (exacerbated by the fact that you can’t say for certain when your next turn will be) and ‘Kingmaking’ issues. Vinci faded rapidly in my estimation after an initial period of thinking it was really good. Heart of Africa has a bit more meat to it but it remains to be seen whether this is sufficient to keep it on our gaming table for much longer.
Gina, Escher gang leader (Necromunda). Don't mess with her or she'll kick your ass.. actually, she's gonna do it anyway!
In all combats the victorious player retreats losing Traders to a nearby area
Did I read that right?
Actually, you did. What he means by it is that the victorious player gets to decide where the losing player's Traders retreat to.. unless the other player chose to play his Retreat chit, in which case he secedes the fight, but suffers no losses (normally the losing player loses one Trader) and may retreat his Traders himself.