Hello Dear Reader, I hope today finds you well. I’m writing this to you from the comfort of my cubicle in sunny north Texas where outside it is currently a balmy 73 degrees Fahrenheit. As I wind down near the end of my work day I find my mind drifting as it often does to boardgames. I find myself thinking mostly of Uwe Rosenberg’s games lately as this year I have had my own personal voyage through Mr. Rosenberg’s catalog of games. One of my main objectives was to play Uwe’s “harvest trilogy”. Many people refer to At the Gates of Loyang, Agricola, and Le Havre as his “harvest trilogy” because each game has aspects of harvesting that are important to the game. I have covered At the Gates of Loyang and Agricola previously. The game that I want to discuss today is Le Havre.
I was lucky enough to find the at that time out of print Le Havre at a local game store in mid 2016. In addition to finding the original copy in shrink it was marked 50% off allowing me to pick up the title for a little over $35. I was absolutely thrilled to be able to find the game because I wanted to learn each title in Rosenberg’s “harvest trilogy” and thanks to reprints, I had two of the three. What I felt the more and more as I played Le Havre was that it might be the most accessible and appealing of the three.
Le Havre is named after the game’s setting of Le Havre, France. Le Havre is an area in France’s Normandy region where the Seine river meets the English channel. Each player is vying to become the preeminent shipping magnate of the region by managing, converting and upgrading resources to build ships and buildings to become the most wealthy player. The theme of the game once again does what all other themes of Uwe Rosenberg games do for me. The theme seems rather uninteresting at first (maritime industrial growth? Not my first thought when looking at games). What I find however is that similar to all Rosenberg games, the more I play it the more beauty I see in the mundanity of some of his themes. The artwork is beautiful and engaging, the colors are quaint and appealing and the setting is light and whimsical while still maintaining a strategic relevance.
Theme aside there is much to love about the mechanics of Le Havre. The sequence of your turn is very simple. You move your ship meeple and perform the Suppy Action (which just means you put some goods on the board based on what the tile you landed on says), you then take a main action (either take one type of good, or use a building), and then you can optionally take additional bonus actions. The bonus actions are selling buildings you own, buying buildings the town owns, or repaying a loan you might have been forced to withdraw during a harvest or interest payment. After this the next player takes their turn and this continues until one player reaches the end of the seven space track, which begins the process over again after feeding and a possible harvest takes place.
Now looking at the basic turn structure one might think that the game is a bit too simplistic. I would argue that the game is not dumbed down but rather streamlined and I think there is a huge difference. If you are playing one of Rosenberg’s other titles, A Feast for Odin for instance; your turns and the sequence of the game is much more involved and complex. The simple elegance of the turn structure in this game is a beauty of design. The fact that the game is streamlined doesn’t take away from the strategic depth however, it just allows the depth and strategy to be more easily revealed and utilized. You won’t get bogged down in the step by step complexities that some games present, which leaves you able to focus on the pure resource management, action selection/worker placement, and shipping that makes this game so enjoyable.
At its heart, Le Havre is a worker placement game that allows players to focus on synergies and strategies provided by the large selection of buildings available in the game, and upgrade resources to maximize the potential shipping value of goods, or create more valuable resources to build ships and buildings. There are chains of abilities that you can take in Le Havre to make one resource into another and continue to upgrade until you have completely different resources than what you started with. You could take cows from the offer, and then turn those cows into meat and hide, and then upgrade the hide to leather and coins, and then sell that leather on a ship for far more points than what the cow was worth initially. This process can be extremely satisfying to puzzle out.
In addition to the puzzly nature of Le Havre, the special buildings that are included in the game (in addition to the free Le Grand Hameau expansion that comes in the box) provide scores of replayability to the game. Each game a number of special buildings will be placed on the board that will come out throughout the game and provide new options for players and fun strategies that will differ from game to game.
One thing that I really like about Le Havre in comparison to Agricola and other Rosenberg games, is that the feeding requirements in this game feel much less punishing. If you can’t come up with food or money to meet the food requirements you have to take a loan of four Francs to be able to pay (and you may have to take more than one loan). The difference between the loans and the begging tokens in other games is the loans can be paid back before the game is over. While taking loans is not optimal by any stretch of the imagination, it doesn’t instantly mean that you will likely lose like the begging tokens in Agricola. This makes a huge difference in the play experience of Le Havre. I personally love Agricola and don’t mind the feeding phase but I can see how it stresses some players out, which is why I feel Le Havre’s feeding structure would be a friendlier point of entry for players that feel stressed by Agricola.
The other major component to this game is the purchasing or building of ships. Ships can do a number of things for you. First of all, ships provide a victory point bonus which can add up to a nice little sum in scoring. Ships also reduce your food requirements fairly significantly depending on the number of players. This ability by ships can be absolutely game changing, because so many of the actions that you would normally have to spend gathering food can instead be used to gather goods or earn points. Once again the early planning and engine building of a Uwe Rosenberg game is one of my favorite parts. The last thing that ships do for you, is allow you to ship goods for money (i.e. points). This can become an incredibly satisfying strategy to pursue throughout the game. Buying buildings that allow you to upgrade goods that are valuable and then shipping those goods for coins is very powerful.
One other interesting thing about this game is the way the worker placement happens. If a player places their worker disc on a location, they are not required to move their worker at all. This means that if a player goes to a location and then doesn’t move that location is blocked until either that player moves or the building is bought or sold. This can be very frustrating for the player who wants to take the action but it can also turn into a fun game of cat and mouse. For instance if a player A owns a building and player B knows that building is very valuable to player A; player B can go to that location and then stay there, forcing player A to sell that building and lose potential points, or find a workaround. Now if a player owns a building and that player’s opponent is camping the building, a player can sell the building and force an opponent off. The problem with this is that the player who is forced to sell loses control of the building temporarily and is then forced to repurchase the building.
When I think about this game from the standpoint of accessibility, I think this one may be the best of the Harvest Trilogy. My favorite of the three is still Agricola but I think I may be in the minority in that opinion. I love the engine building and challenge of Agricola but I think for a broader audience Le Havre will be the winner. I keep thinking of the analogy of Goldilocks and the bowls of porridge. At the Gates of Loyang is too cold, not quite as much depth and less choices to make but still fun to play. Agricola is too hot, tight feeding requirements and a narrow framework that will punish players for mistakes. Le Havre is just right, fun engine building and just enough depth to make your brain happy without the constant worry for feeding your people. Is the requirement there? Yes, you need to be aware of the feeding required but if you miss one or two harvests you can easily recover.
Overall I feel that Le Havre is a winner and one that feels different from other Rosenberg games. I recently listened to a podcast that illustrated the fact that Rosenberg games don’t all feel different enough to purchase each one. You can pick and choose and get a similar experience was essentially the point. I agree with this to an extent. For instance if you own Caverna, you may not need to buy Agricola because the game feels very similar. I personally prefer the theme of Agricola to Caverna but fully respect the opinion of those that prefer Caverna to Agricola. If you own Agricola and Caverna though, buying Le Havre will give you a much different feel and that’s a good thing. The other good bit of news for people wanting to pick this game up is that Mayfair games will be reprinting this game later this year so it’s going to be back in stock.
I hope that the article was helpful. I made a how to play video and posted it below so you can see how the game looks on the table and works. Until next time I’ll see you at the table!
If your local game store doesn’t have the game
you can buy Le Havre here!