Harbour

Scott Almes

Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games

Harbour is designed by Scott Almes, a game designer mostly associated with Tasty Minstrel Games and Gamelyn Games and is best-known for his Tiny-Epic series. I have not played any of his Tiny-Epic series, but Harbour certainly falls in this “tiny-epic” category even though it is not part of the series. The game is deceptively small in size but carries a lot of weight with just a simple deck of cards. I have played the game once way before and played it again recently. In both instances, the game left a similar impression.

Harbour is a basic economic game that features the typical resource collection, manipulation and finally conversion into victory points. There is a small engine building component that you get to tinker with, but the game is short and so the engine is only a small part of the equation. In each game, players get to manipulate 4 resources: fish, stone, livestock and wood. The goal is to hoard resources until you can sell them at a maximum price in the open market which then allows purchase of a building from the common pool. Each round, players get to place a meeple on a building to trigger an action. The buildings can come from a common pool, individual player wharf or buildings that have previously been purchased and now belong to an individual tableau. As to be expected from a resource conversion Euros, these buildings generally allow you trade, swap, exchange, top up, manipulate or steal resources from one type to another or between players. A resource tile is used to track the quantities for each resource type on a common track printed on the individual wharf. When one is ready to purchase a building, the resources are converted to cash and used in its entirety to buy a building. Apart from the actions that you trigger from buildings, most buildings also have additional icons. The coin icon makes each subsequent building cheaper, the anchor icon has special properties when triggered from a certain chargrge

I suppose the most unique and probably the most frustrating mechanism is the conveyor belt resource market which dictates the price of each resource. As you accumulate resources of each type, the amount of money you get for trading in all the resources goes up. However if someone trades in the resource to purchase a building, the spent resource tile is pushed all the way to the start of the track in a cyclical fashion and the remaining resource tiles are shuffled forward, thus increasing in value. To purchase high value buildings, multiple resources tiles have to be cashed in simultaneously to reach the minimum threshold. You don’t get any change if the amount exceeds the purchase price. In this way, the market simulates supply and demand and the longer the resource remains unused, the more valuable it becomes.

Timing the resource market is of course very critical since you need to reach the minimum price point to purchase buildings. This of course lends itself to some frustration since the market shifts too rapidly to predict. You can certainly try to look around the player boards to figure out when the prices can change, but a single move by an opponent can really ruin your plans. Moreover, there are some building actions when triggered, allows you to swap market positions for the resources which adds to the chaos and unpredictability. Turns that appear simple becomes bogged down as you constantly try to manipulate the market rates to purchase building all the while keeping tabs on other players and trying to predict when they will pull the trigger. It is not uncommon to change plans on the fly as the prices fluctuate.

All of this chaos makes Harbour extremely tactical and I think the game should be approached as such. The game ends on the round when someone purchases the 4th building. That being the case, I think a building rush is a strong strategy. I feel there is no point in timing the markets to pay for an expensive building or target buildings with specific icons or special actions. I just go for the cheapest and fastest build by ignoring everything else and often times willing to overspend just to purchase a building. I find that the tactical nature of the game favors quantity or quality. I can score more points by buying more buildings without waiting for the perfect market to materialize or spend turns to manipulate the markets. Thus far, this strategy has proven quite formidable.

It is possible to counter the building rush if all players are aware of the tactical advantage and snap up the cheap buildings as they appear. Then most players will end up with a hybrid strategy and luck of the draw becomes more important as you wait for the appearance of the lower priced buildings. I feel this shoehorns players into particular play styles. To be fair, there might be other ways to counter this issue, but if everyone ignores the cheap buildings and allow one person to grab all of them, then the game will end with the likely winner. One way to remedy the building rush is to play the game until a specific dollar amount of buildings is constructed rather than just the number of buildings. If you make it a fixed amount like say $40, then players who rush will just have to build more while the players looking to get high-value buildings won’t have to slog through to reach the end game.

I recognize that Harbour packs a punch for a relatively tiny game. With a group of players that know the game well, perhaps the building rush scenario wouldn’t be that easy to accomplish. I do enjoy the tension of waiting for your turn to execute a play or to perform an action, but don’t feel enamored with the market pricing mechanism which frequently frustrates. It is not fun to see your plans fall apart at the last minute for something so out of your control. Ultimately, the game falls into the average category.

Initial impressions: Average

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