Heaven and Ale

Michael Kiesling and Andreas Schmidt

Publisher: Eggertspiele

I actually don’t ever see any beer in the game… just barrels (Photo credits: Philippe Schmit@BGG)

Michael Kiesling and co. is on the roll! Hot off the heals of award-winning Azul and its spin-offs, Kiesling is publishing award-winning Euros and the ball hasn’t really stopped rolling for him. It’s not like Kiesling is an unknown quantity: in the past two decades, he has published numerous games, often with Wolfgang Kramer and together, their ludography is the envy of all. At my count, I have played or owned at least 15 of his top 20 designs as per BoardGameGeek (Pueblo oh where art thou?). For the most part, I have enjoyed all his games, including all three games in the Mask Trilogy, Coal Baron, Asara, Maharaja, Palaces of Carrara, etc. The list is truly extensive. Paris, his most recent collaboration with Kramer is currently on Kickstarter and I look forward to trying it out someday.

Heaven and Ale sees Kiesling team up with Andreas Schmidt, to come out with a really solid Euro. In Heaven and ale, up to 4 players are invited to harvest materials to brew beer. By planting ingredients necessary for brewing beer, players will try and balance income with resource gathering and also recruiting the best monks to brew the beer. Ultimately, the best brewery with the most victory points will be crowned…… the winner. OK, who am I kidding here, the theme is really non-existent and apart from the delightful title, Heaven and Ale, there is nothing about the game that screams beer…..at all. Then again, a Euro is rarely judged by its theme and I think there is no reason to make this an exception.

Luckily, what this game lacks in theme is made up by the excellent game play. The main mechanism for Heaven and Ale is the competition for action selection in a circular track. Players each have a meeple which goes around an action-filled track. First person to lands on an action gets to take the action and if that action is exhausted, then other lagging players will miss out. Rinse and repeat for 3-6 rounds with new resources added to the track each round. The game really boils down to this: “should I move ahead to claim this action or take the risk hoping it is available next round?” This essentially captures one half the angst in Heaven and Ale. I think of Egizia when I think about this mechanism. Both of these games spot a similar mechanism of action selection.

So what of the actions? Even though there are 2 dozen spots on the track, there are only 4 types of actions in the circular track. 1) Purchase tiles to plant on your field for making beer. There are 5 ingredients or types of tiles (yeast, hops, water, wood and barley) to purchase, each with values ranging from 1-5. The higher the value, the more valuable the token but the more expensive to purchase and place on your field. That’s the trade off; 2) Recruit monks to do…. something. There are 4 types of monks to recruit and each monk you place on the field allows you to trigger benefits from adjacent tiles in your field; 3) Pick up scoring tokens. There are three types of scoring and each scoring token allows you to score a particular category just once; 4) Pick up bonus points for fulfilling requirements: these are end game bonus tokens that are picked up on a first come first serve basis. Between these 4 action types, one decides when to pick up tiles, what type of tiles and where to place the tiles on your own fields.

So, what about the other one-half of the angst I mentioned earlier? Well, apart from deciding which tiles to purchase, where to place the tiles on the field is brain burning. It’s brain burning because placing tiles in one half of the field will yield movement on the score track while the other half of the field will yield income. You need income to buy tiles and so, whatever tiles you place on one side of the field has an opportunity cost attached to it. To makes things worse, it is twice as expensive to place tiles in the side of the field which score points. To trigger either scoring track movement or get income, one needs to pick up scoring tokens on the main board and trigger scoring only ONCE per category. That means you can’t really build up an income engine per se because they are one time use for the most part. Sure, triggering monk scoring or enclosing a shed also allows you to rescore selected tiles, but by and large, a lot of tiles will see only one-time action. So while you are busy collecting hop tiles for points and income, you have to decide when is the right time to trigger scoring. Critically, you can score both points and income at the same time depending on tile placement. So, if you trigger hop scoring, hop tiles on one half of the board will score points and the other half will score income. In case it’s not clear, money is really really really tight in this game.

There is one part of the game I did not like and that’s scoring. It is overly complicated in a very fiddly sort of way. I know because trying to think of a way to describe it is already annoying. The idea is one has to advance all 5 ingredient tokens at roughly the same pace. At the end of the game, the score is basically points for the token on the last position multiplied by the position of the brewmaster. That’s right, there are 6 tokens that must be moved on the score track. If your lowest ingredient is 10 points but your brewmaster sits at zero….then your score is Zero. Likewise, if you brewmaster has a 10x multiplier but your hops is at zero….well, you get the idea. This in itself is fine, but the position of the brewmaster also determines a “compensatory” ratio which allows you to equalize the final location for all your ingredient tokens on the track. Say your hops is at 20 points and your yeast at 12 and your brew master sits on a 3:1 ratio, then you can essentially reduce your hops by 6 spaces and increase your yeast by 2 and they will then both be at 14. You then do that for all your tokens until they are clustered together before scoring the multiplier. If you think that was complicated, well then so did I. I can see the potential for strategies for this scoring methodology, but I am not quite sure it is necessary. The game is already pretty good if you drop the ratio adjustment but also reduce the number of token movement. I suppose one could try to push one token along with the brewmaster to stratospheric scores and see if you can bring up the rest of the tokens by means of an efficient ratio. 1:1 is the best ratio on the score board. However, since there are 5 ingredient tokens to move, I highly doubt you will get far, collectively. this is something worth exploring in repeated plays but with 2 plays in, I still am not a fan of this particular scoring mechanism.

Despite the scoring, Heaven and Ale is an excellent Euro with a lot of tough decisions. The game is simple, straightforward and really plays well in an hour or so. There is very little down time but be forewarned, the hard choices can really slow you down even for efficient, non-AP players. Yes, there usually is a hook and gimmick that is required for a game to shine these days and I think Heaven and Ale sort of lacks that part which is just fine since this game is a great showcase for what a simple yet tight Euro would look like under the masterful design of Kiesling and Schmidt.

Initial impressions: Great!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s