Haithabu

Board Game Gumbo is pleased to present another post from our friend, Jason Dinger, a board game designer from Morgan City, Louisiana. He is the designer of the upcoming Spielworxx release for Essen 2018, Captains of the Gulf. He previously blogged about his trip to HeavyCon here.   

It can be disappointing to buy a game that had so much buzz, only to find out that it doesn’t deliver once you get to play it. The excitement is quickly diminished when all the bling and hype aren’t matched by the experience on the table.

By contrast, it’s a shame that good games sometimes get overlooked simply because of assumptions made in haste. Haithabu is one such game. Published in 2015 by Spielworxx, Haithabu is a medium-heavy economic game about Viking traders working to acquire goods, transport them, and cash in on lucrative contracts as the seasons progress.

When the initial press releases of the game were sent out, several reviewers and many gamers focused on a single aspect: event dice – and wrote the game off from the start without ever giving it a chance. “Random event dice in a heavy economic game?!”, they scoffed.

The truth is that the dice and the events they *might* bring about are minor and are not often experienced in the game. The truth is that Haithabu is a fun, challenging game that rewards proper planning and strategic adjustments. It provides a wonderful experience for those who actually give it a chance without any preconceived biases.

There are a few primary complaints made about the game that I have heard and I will explore them here – explaining why I feel they are unfounded and simply not true.

The misconceptions about the dice seem to be the biggest cloud of negativity that surrounds this game. There several reasons why this is not a problem, but in fact adds a layer of enjoyment to the game.

The main action selection wheel is divided into 8 spaces. At any point in the game, 4 of these spaces are on the “day” (safe) side and the other 4 of them are on the “night” (dangerous) side. Thematically, it makes sense. Performing a task at night with less light / low visibility is going to be risky.

The thing is you don’t ever have to perform a task at night. Haithabu, much like Lignum, is a game that is all about proper planning. You know the things you need to get and tasks you need to complete in order to be able to deliver your goods. You can see what actions are in the night side and you know the timing and pace of when those actions will rotate to the day side.

In all of our plays at 2-player, we average no more than two to three rolls of the dice TOTAL between both players in the entire game. This is a negligible amount and hardly enough to warrant the fears that “random event dice rolls” will have such an impact on a strategic, economic game. So, you will only HAVE to roll the dice if you’ve failed to plan properly. In that case, it makes sense that you’d have to take a risk.

Next, you have to consider the impact of the penalties themselves. There is a 1 in 6 chance that nothing will happen. There is a 2 in 6 chance that your opponents will be affected and a 3 in 6 chance that you will be affected. Taking those numbers into account, you can look at the actual penalties themselves to see that they are minor: lose one good, lose one point, discard a transport, discard a character, pay the cost of mead (usually a few dollars).

Characters are a nice addition to the game, but hardly the heart and soul. Having to discard one is not a big deal. I don’t believe I need to explain that losing a single point is not a major problem. Losing a good can wreak havoc on you if you have just enough to fulfill your order cards. Again, this is where proper planning comes into place. Simply buy a few extra mead for $2 (or whatever the current price is at that point) to have as insurance against this penalty. Losing a transport could be painful, but again careful planning ensures that you only have a transport long enough to use it and then it’s gone – minimizing this risk.

You can also claim a character that allows you to roll two dice and choose the one event you want from what is rolled. If that character isn’t available, you can pay $20 to roll a second die.

Clearly, all of the early reviews that put so much emphasis on the event dice did not truly explore the game nor dig into the details of their frequency, use, and penalties. The dice are not used often, the penalties are not game changers, and they are easy to mitigate or avoid.

One last statement that I’ve heard about the dice is the idea that “what if you’re playing with someone who purposely uses lots of night actions to roll the dice a lot and increase the chances of them negatively affecting you”. To that I say, don’t play games with people like that.

Seriously though, if someone chooses to try to ruin the experience and try to tank the game with bad dice rolls, there is a much greater chance that they will be hurting themselves with the rolls. Also, that likely means they aren’t taking optimal actions, but picking whatever is available on the night side. I see this as a “player problem” and not a “game problem”.

The other main complaint that I’ve heard about Haithabu is that “you aren’t building an engine” – which is something you typically see in economic games. To this I’d argue that you are in fact building an engine, just not one that is laid out in your tableau so easily recognizable.

Instead, you are building an economic engine the same way that you do in a game like Lignum. You invest money in goods and transports to fulfill order cards. The money you get from fulfilling the orders allows you to further invest in even more goods, higher quality goods, larger transports, and in turn, fulfill larger more profitable orders.

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With all that out of the way, what is there to like about Haithabu? Quite a bit actually. The action selection wheel (not exactly a rondel) with half the actions on a risky side that rotates is a nice feature that really emphasizes the need for good planning. In my opinion, that is the heart of this game: proper planning, both short term and long term.

This is a game that gets better with repeated plays. Each time it hits the table, I am trying to optimize my moves and plan better than last time. Can I use one transport to bring over enough goods to fulfill two order cards at once? How can I better make use of a certain character’s special ability this time? Lots of great challenges and lots of fun. Each new play opens me up to more refined play and the rewards that come from it.

I love games that require planning. This is a big plus and one of the things that I enjoy the most when playing Haithabu. In our last play, I was twice able to transport enough goods to fulfill two order cards simultaneously. That level of efficiency gave me nice, big payouts in fewer actions and gave me a nice lead towards the end of the game.

One of the key elements of the game is that the transport do not exactly line up perfectly with the order cards. You are never stuck without the ability to move your goods to the trading post, but the challenge comes in doing so as efficiently as possible. Each transport allows for a certain combination of types and quantities of goods to be shipped – along with an additional amount of goods limited by quantity but not type.

Being able to secure order multiple order cards that line up with a single transport can reap big rewards as you cash in for a nice score from only a handful of actions. Alternatively, poor planning will mean wasted space on transports when you ship only what you need and neglect the chance to complete multiple orders at once.

Haithabu is a game that features a unique action selection wheel, a nice “live” market of goods, characters with special abilities, financial management, and just enough risk to add some spice. It’s the kind of game that leaves me wanting just one more turn and I love that. Plus, it’s got art from the amazing Harald Lieske – one of my favorite artists in all of the board game world. His illustrations and color choices make it a beautiful game to behold on the table.

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Spielworxx is a company that has published so many games that have provided me with hours upon hours of enjoyment. Haithabu is without a doubt one such game.

— Jason

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