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Joe Huber

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This review originally appeared - including the Card By Card review posted here - in the Winter 2009 issue of Gamers Alliance Report. It has received minor editing for BGG.

Also - please note that the pictures included are from BGG; my photography skills can't generate such nice pictures.


Le Havre


Designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published by Lookout Games

The Game

Having seen Agricola rise to the top of the BoardGameGeek rankings soon after its English release, Uwe Rosenberg returned with another big, weighty board game in Le Havre. Le Havre didn’t shoot through the rankings quite so quickly in spite of having an English edition available from the get-go. But it has been well received, breaking into the BoardGameGeek top 10, and while not the breakout hit of 2008 (that title going to Dominion) has still received significant praise.


Named after the port city in Northwest France, Le Havre is themed around city development. Being another worker placement game, it is frequently compared to Agricola and Caylus. But it is definitely a different game; the objective here is purely cash – though all buildings have a cash value.


The twist here, compared to Agricola or Caylus, is that each player has a single worker - and unlike those games, a basic turn doesn’t consist of simply using a worker. In Le Havre, each turn starts by adding two goods to the dock. The current player then either takes all the goods of one type from the dock, or moves his worker to one of the available buildings. Initially, the only buildings available are those that allow players to build more buildings; a deck of thirty standard buildings are available, with some removed when playing with fewer than four players. As buildings are built, they become available to use; many of the buildings offer ways to earn cash. Most of these involve processing the goods – there are eight basic goods, each of which can be processed to become more valuable or more useful in some way. Once a wharf is built, players may build ships, which allow goods to be shipped for cash as soon as the shipping line becomes available. But any building which is currently occupied can not be used – even by the player currently there, who must go to some other building first before returning.




To add tension to this mix, and similarly to Agricola, at the end of every seventh turn players must feed their people an ever-increasing amount of food. While building and using spiffy buildings is interesting, most of them don’t provide food (the exceptions being the bakehouse, abattoir [slaughterhouse], and grocery store). Food can be purchased with cash, but if even that’s not enough players must take loans, which must later be repaid or cost dearly at the end of the game. After players feed their people, there is usually a harvest (in which an additional cow and/or grain go to players who meet the requirement), and in some rounds the town builds a building. The game continues through a fixed number of rounds, and then players get one last chance to use a building without the options being restricted by who is currently there. The player with the most points – in cash, ships, and buildings, plus end of game bonuses some buildings offer – is the winner.

Reactions

After my experience with Agricola – after my first couple of plays, I expected to see it grow to become a favorite, but instead the game faded for me – I was cautious with Le Havre. I didn’t purchase it in advance, waiting until I’d tried the game to make a choice. And I was very reluctant to move my rating up, as I had a number of concerns that could have broken the game for me; I waited to see how those would play out. But those concerns have generally played out in a way that leaves the game enjoyable for me; I still have some concerns, but they’re smaller and less critical ones. At the same time, I’ve found a number of aspects to the game which I enjoy, but which weren’t at first apparent – always a good sign for my enjoyment of a game.


The first concern I had was the ability to block the wharf, particularly in a two player game where there is only a single wharf. Three things have caused me to be less concerned. The first is the ability to purchase a ship, thus avoiding any need for a wharf. The second is the fact that there’s really little incentive to sit – players tend to wait on a space for a few turns at most while collecting goods from the wharf. Finally, a player who builds the wharf has an extra out, of choosing to sell the wharf so as to free it up.


The second concern I had was that a single path would prove superior. With a game as complex as Le Havre, it’s difficult to keep multiple paths balanced, but so far the game is holding up well to diverse strategies. Even more importantly, from my point of view, experience matters – I’ve generally seen the game won by the more experienced player – while a new player can generally do well enough to maintain interest in the game.

Having said that, I've seen a lot of reports of the superiority of a Coke strategy, and I'm not at all convinced that there isn't a problem. Balancing the concern is the fact that it's a path available to everyone, and in a game with everyone aware of the tactic I've seen other strategies win because of the pile-up around Coal/Coke.


I also had concern about the replayability of Le Havre; among other things, I learned the game with the shortened version, and played that a number of times before trying the full game. Fortunately, the full game adds some needed additional variability; with just 36 special buildings, there are 376,992 different combinations of 5 possible (the number relevant in a two or three player game). More importantly, the special buildings add enough variety to the game to make each play feel different.


There are still some concerns I have about the game. The biggest remains the flat interest of 1 Franc, regardless of the number of loans. I missed this rule for far too long, and found that even at a cost of 1 Franc/loan, some loans could be taken advantageously. I’m hopeful that as the play style shifts towards more emphasis on loans that this will make collecting food more advantageous. I do think it will – I just haven’t seen this play out yet. I’m also am concerned about one of the special buildings, the Wind Farm. Most of the special buildings are available to anyone who wishes to use them, but the Wind Farm is only useful for the purchaser. And the power it provides – cutting the energy bill by 3 energy per building used - is very significant. As a result, I’ve simply removed it from the game. I’m also not fond of the bonus special buildings, but it's easy enough to play without them.


Balancing some of these concerns, Le Havre has proven to be a game with a lot of depth to explore. In my fourth play of the game, my younger son purchased the four cost building firm – something I hadn’t seen done before, opening up a whole new line of possibilities. As I’ve played more, we’re explored selling buildings, we've tested the limits of the use of loans, and we've slowly worked our way through the majority of the special buildings. For a complex game, one of the most important positive characteristics it can have is something new to do through many games, and Le Havre does just this.


There are still limitations to the game. The most important, in my mind, is that for me it’s only a game for 2 or 3 players. I’m not a big fan of solitaire games anyway, and unlike Agricola, Le Havre doesn’t offer a strong solitaire scenario. Further, for me Le Havre is what:
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has termed a “fixed fun” game – a game where the amount of fun is set, and is divided evenly among however many players are in the game. With 2 players, each player gets 49 actions. With 3, this drops to 42 actions, which is still plenty. With 4, it’s down to 35 actions – and each round one player will get only a single action. With 5, each player receives a mere 28 actions, and most players have to live with a single action per round. This has the advantage that a 5 player game shouldn’t be much longer than a 3 player game – but at the cost of not having nearly as much to do. Further, with more players, blockage becomes a real issue – a building will sometimes be used by one player, blocked for a couple of turns, used by another player, blocked again, and so on before a given player will have any opportunity to use it. Since turns are further apart, this means that it can take 4 rounds or more before a player will have the opportunity to use a building – which is about as much fun as it sounds. Adding it all up, I find Le Havre a very good game with 2 or 3, but not good enough to tempt me with 4 and not even worth considering with 5. That’s a small range – but, to be fair, a useful one. Le Havre is also complex enough that it’s very much a game for gamers – as contrasted with the positive reception Agricola has received as a family game.

It’s also worth noting that the shortened game is a reasonable option for learning the game – but I can not recommend it as a method for playing a shorter game. The lack of special building is a minor but important issue, as there isn’t sufficient variance in the ordering of the buildings alone. A bigger issue is that the engine is too easy to get going, because of the number of goods players start the game with; this makes the game less interesting. But what really limits the game is the difficulty in getting the later buildings meaningfully utilized, as there just isn’t enough time. While learning the game, none of these is a problem – but once there, getting to the full game is called for, and there is no reason to go back. If you need a shorter game, just play with two players.

Strategy - Early Discoveries

As I’ve played Le Havre more and more, I’ve discovered the importance of a number of simple factors in the game. I rather enjoyed the process of discovering this information; those who prefer to find out such matters for themselves should likely skip this section.

Nearly every building and ship can be purchased – including the starting buildings.

Every building and ship can be sold. While I’ve never seen reason to sell a ship, there are a number of reasons to sell a building:
- To be able to use a building with an entrance fee
- To be able to purchase a building that is blocking buildings one wishes to build
- To be able to purchase an unbuilt building one wants to use
- To be able to purchase a building one believes will bring in significant income
- To send home the person occupying the building so that it’s available to be used
- To be able to purchase a building that is occupied so as to send home the person occupying it, so that it’s available to be used
- To save the entrance fee on a building one is about to use
- (Rarely) to pay off loans earlier
- To have the cash necessary to use the Furniture Factory or Brick Manufacturer

There is no reason to partially pay off loans. The interest payment is the same regardless of the number of loans held, so a player should either pay them all off – or pay none.

Because food (and cash) on hand must be used in preference to taking a loan at the end of a round, fish that are intended to be smoked should not be taken late in the round unless another method of covering the food bill is available.

A total of 4 wood, 3 fish, 2 clay, 2 Francs, 1 cattle, 1 grain, and 1 iron are added to the offers each round. After the first round, the timing for each of these additions is known, and can be used (combined with knowledge of what is needed) to time collection of the various goods.

More Strategy Thoughts

The biggest question one must answer, in terms of forming a strategy for a game of Le Havre, is how you are going to convert your goods into cash. While there are a number of building that generate cash, that tends to be a secondary source. There are four primary sources – buildings, ships, shipping goods (via the Shipping Line), or delivering goods (via the Bridge over the Seine). There is often – but not always – a fifth option provided by one or more of the special buildings.


Building ships is typically the least effective way to convert goods into victory points, and applies to a limited set of goods. However, they are necessary to ship goods, and they also contribute food, allowing for either fewer loans or for fewer actions to be spent generating food. Given this, ships might not be absolutely necessary – but I’ve yet to see a player succeed without them.


The Bridge over the Seine actually challenges building ships for inefficiency – save for the fact that it’s only necessary once. Further, there are a couple of nearly ideal paths for taking advantage of the Bridge – bricks and bread. Both can be generated in unlimited quantities, and they’re worth 1 Franc each using the Bridge, in addition to ½ Franc for each one created. If there is a path that doesn’t require ships, it certainly requires either or both of these goods.


Shipping goods is a fine way to generate victory points – but is inherently limited by the number of goods a player has ships for. This can be balanced by shipping the most valuable good – steel – but steel takes a lot of energy to generate, and the raw material, iron, has limited availability. I’ve therefore taken to concentrating on coke, rather than steel, as a good to ship; coal is also limited, but the transformation into coke requires no energy and in fact generates cash, not to mention the energy required to run up to three ships at the shipping line. The other good I frequently ship is cattle. Cattle are easily the most valuable of the basic goods, and further they reproduce. Among the other goods, leather is also a reasonable choice, though the limitation of the tannery often seems to leave me without enough actions to effectively ship leather.


This leaves buildings, the most efficient way to convert goods into victory points. Dividing the buildings into groups of 10, there are a few key buildings to look at for creating victory points. Of the early buildings (01-10), the Sawmill and Charcoal Kiln are worth a lot of victory points relative to the goods required. The Abattoir isn’t worth as many Francs directly – but generates a lot through its use, as to a lesser extent does the Marketplace. In the middle group (11-20), the Local Court and Tannery are worth the most points relative to the goods required, while the Colliery, Shipping Line, and Wharfs have the greatest potential for bringing in business. Unfortunately, they can be paid with food – but it’s still early enough in the game for this to be useful. Personally, I’m also fond of the Brickworks. In the final group, the Steel Mill is a particular favorite – it’s expensive to build, but worth a lot, and it frequently generates good income. The Cokery is similarly valuable. But if following a building strategy, the Bank and Town Hall are almost necessary; I’ve seen the Bank score as many as 40 points in the end game.

Beyond the question of where the victory points are coming from, there’s the matter of how to feed people. Initially, the only option is fish or cash – but cash is invaluable for selective purchase of key buildings, or even ships. If there are a lot of fish available, it’s worth taking them – but in general, early loans aren’t particularly troublesome. The difficulty is the question of how many loans to allow oneself; I’ve won with as many as thirteen, even though I couldn't pay them all off. I suspect that approximately eight is best. The easiest path I see to this is to not worry about feeding people early in the game – but to mix the building or purchase of ships in the mid-game with gathering enough food to avoid additional loans for a few rounds. I should note that I've only rarely seen this managed, but it’s definitely what I tend to aim for.

Conclusions

I’m not certain as yet just where Le Havre will fit for me in the long run. It’s my favorite game published in 2008 of those I’ve played, and only Planet Steam has given Le Havre any type of run. The special buildings and the order in which the standard buildings come out adds enough variability to keep the game interesting from play to play. Further, there is a lot of space to explore in the game, offering plenty of options to play with. But unlike Agricola, there is enough commonality between games as to make reasonable comparisons of plays – and to concentrate on exploring features rather than on dealing with the cards one has been dealt.


Le Havre is well produced, and has enough heft as to feel reasonably priced even at $60. I've played the game 23 times, and I'm still looking forward to increasing that number. I would strongly recommend to anyone considering purchase of the game that they pickup ten small containers for the goods as well; being able to simply place out the containers and not have to worry about keeping the goods neatly sorted can save as much as a half hour in play time. Adding everything up, I would strongly recommend Le Havre, even to those who aren’t fans of Agricola or Caylus – it is well worth seeking out the opportunity to play.

(In the course of editing this for BGG, I discovered one of the more unintentionally amusing captions I've run across on a picture:


Just what would you be willing to offer for France?)
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Kurt R
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Thanks for the concise review. I was able to digest what the play would be like without feeling like I was reading the rules. The pictures support the text nicely.

For some reason, I was turned off by this game when it came out. Only now has it come on to my radar and is #1 on my trade-for list. Perhaps b/c I also took a shine to Agricola only to watch it fade after 20+ plays. The Farmers of the Moor seems to have reignited my interest in the game, and this sounds like something I would definitely like. If I can get 20+ plays out of it, it'll be well worth it.
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Jennifer Schlickbernd
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Thanks for the review. In another thread, Uwe has reportedly recommended that interest for loans be 1 until your loans equal or exceed the number of players, then the interest becomes 2. We have played this way in our last few plays and the loan situation becomes much more interesting this way.

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Joe Huber

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jschlickbernd wrote:
Thanks for the review. In another thread, Uwe has reportedly recommended that interest for loans be 1 until your loans equal or exceed the number of players, then the interest becomes 2. We have played this way in our last few plays and the loan situation becomes much more interesting this way.


Oh, yes - I've seen that. FWIW, I think it's still too forgiving - but as with coke, it can work because the table can balance things out.
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Jim Ferguson
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Thanks! A fine review of one of my favorite games.

One comment regarding the number of players: I do not seem to be in with the sizable crowd who seem to only want to play 2 or 3 player games of Le Havre. I've played and enjoyed several 4 and even a couple of 5 player games. As you mention above, each player's "slice of fun", in the form of actions, is smaller in the 4/5 player games, but the fore-planning (while others are taking their turns) is much more intense to me. Each player needs to plan more alternate courses of action which may be necessary because of buildings being blocked--not just "Plan B" but plans C and D need to warming up as well. I enjoy this planning as much as taking more actual actions that you get in the 2-3 player versions.
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An excellent and detailed review, thanks.

Also I'll agree with jwferg. It is indeed a great game and the fact that it has been step-by-step planned according to the number of players makes it even better! Plays well as 2-player game and is enjoyable, but it's a real "kill" and anxious with 4, but still leaves a nice feeling afterwards!

Anyway, keep up the good reviews!
 
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Brian McCormick
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Great review. I love Le Havre and I wish it would hit the table more often. I enjoy the player interaction so - so far - I haven't really cared to play it solo, but when I do get to play the game it is always a treat.
 
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Steve Duff
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Nice review.

I don't understand why you remove special buildings from the game (Wind Farm), but at the same time worry about certain strategies being dominant.

If you want other strategies in the game, don't take cards out that could be used to form alternate strategies.
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Joe Huber

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UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
I don't understand why you remove special buildings from the game (Wind Farm), but at the same time worry about certain strategies being dominant.

If you want other strategies in the game, don't take cards out that could be used to form alternate strategies.


Because, IMHO, an early Wind Farm is a win, randomly assigned to whoever gets the first shot at it. It's just too powerful, and dominates the game, rather than balancing it. It's also about the only can that provides an ongoing benefit to only the person who built it; the other cards that benefit only their builder are end-game cards. Replacing one borderline-dominate strategy that everyone can try with a more-dominate strategy that only one person gets to do and which only helps them in competing to complete the borderline-dominate strategy is not a win in my book.

Wind Farm is really the only special building - other than some from the Essen promotional set, which I don't believe fit in well - which I object to.
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jschlickbernd wrote:
In another thread, Uwe has reportedly recommended that interest for loans be 1 until your loans equal or exceed the number of players, then the interest becomes 2. We have played this way in our last few plays and the loan situation becomes much more interesting this way.

Thanks for the info! First I'd heard of, so I hunted down the thread.

I prefer "exceeds" to "equals or exceeds" because it creates a special case where in the solo game, you can never have the option for interest of only one. Plus it gives a little more leeway/options wrt loans.
 
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huber wrote:
UnknownParkerBrother wrote:
I don't understand why you remove special buildings from the game (Wind Farm), but at the same time worry about certain strategies being dominant.

If you want other strategies in the game, don't take cards out that could be used to form alternate strategies.


Because, IMHO, an early Wind Farm is a win, randomly assigned to whoever gets the first shot at it. It's just too powerful, and dominates the game, rather than balancing it. It's also about the only can that provides an ongoing benefit to only the person who built it; the other cards that benefit only their builder are end-game cards. Replacing one borderline-dominate strategy that everyone can try with a more-dominate strategy that only one person gets to do and which only helps them in competing to complete the borderline-dominate strategy is not a win in my book.

Wind Farm is really the only special building - other than some from the Essen promotional set, which I don't believe fit in well - which I object to.


Why don't you take an action at Marketplace and influence the special building cards if you are concerned by its early appearance TO OTHERS?
 
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Joe Huber

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tonyfung1205 wrote:
Why don't you take an action at Marketplace and influence the special building cards if you are concerned by its early appearance TO OTHERS?


Because I'm not concerned by its early appearance TO OTHERS. I don't believed it's balanced; I have no more desire to have the card myself than I do for someone else to grab it.

I will occasionally take a Marketplace action to manipulate the special building, but unless I'm willing to park there (rarely correct), it's only of limited value...
 
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we don't really think that bridge over the seine so be a viable strategy in multilayer games (3+). in our game group we give it a nickname the suicide bridge - telling the fact that no players using this building will be close to win.
 
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