We’re Saxons invading Britain! It’s time to raid and pillage and loot!
Wait. What do you mean you lost the map? Well, how are we supposed to know where these roads lead without a completed map? Do you know how expensive explorers are? And if we send explorers, our boat will leave without us!
A fine mess you’ve put us in, Hengist. A fine mess.
How It Works
Hengist is a two-player hand management game. Players are Saxons who are raiding the British countryside for treasure. The player with the most points when the boat sails off the final board is the winner.
To begin, each player chooses a color and places all three of their raiding parties in the keelboat. The three double-sided map boards are placed randomly in a row, and a map tile is placed face-down on each board. (Three more are set in reserve.) The treasure tiles are shuffled, four are drawn for each map tile, and the treasure tiles are arranged in descending order. Each player is dealt a hand of three cards.
On a turn, each of a player’s raiding parties may take one action. Actions include moving from the boat to the beach or the beach to the boat, moving from the beach to the hinterlands, raiding a village, or moving to another board. Aside from movement involving the boat, all of these actions cost matching terrain cards. Raiding a village is the only way to get treasure tiles, and players must play all the cards for a path before looking at the map tile to see which treasure tile they claim.
In addition to these actions, a player may use black explorer cards, which offer additional actions such as looking at a face-down map tile or placing a lost raiding party back on the boat. Explorer cards may also be used in place of any other card as a wild.
Whenever an explorer card is played, the boat moves to the next bay on the map boards. Once the boat moves off the final map board, the board farthest from the boat flips over and becomes the next board. (Any raiding parties on this board are lost.) One of the set-aside map tiles is placed on the new board. Once the boat moves off the final board (there are no map tiles left), the game is over. The player with the most treasure wins.
The Time Has Come to Shine, or Troubled Water?
When I was in high school, I endured four theater viewings of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Yes, the objectively worst movie in the franchise I saw FOUR. TIMES. Everyone wanted to see it with the Star Wars fan. Worse still, I was a completionist at the time, and when it was released on DVD, I bought a copy. But all was not lost. While the movie was still terrible, the consolation prize was the audio commentary.
Listening to the commentary on a terrible movie is sometimes more instructive than listening to the commentary on a great film. Instead of “This is how we decided on Rosebud” or something, you get a window into how the travesty happened. The commentators talk about something obviously D-level as if it were high art and staunchly defend their craft. In one segment, the commentators talk about the great care they spent in painting out the bugs in every frame of a scene on Naboo because the bugs were mobbing the actors the day they filmed. Hours of effort spent painting out gnats when in these very same scenes Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman are delivering wooden performances of lines like “I don’t like sand.”
Hengist reminds me of Attack of the Clones. No, it’s not anywhere near as bad a game as Attack of the Clones is a film, but it is similarly a case of misplaced priorities.
The best thing I can say about Hengist is that the components are incredible. The art is wonderful (and has a Legends of Zelda: Wind Waker vibe to it), and the cardboard keelboat is well constructed and looks great. The illustrations on the cards and boards are excellent, and even though flipping boards and tiles can be fiddly, it’s not too much of a hassle. It is sometimes difficult to remember which pawns took actions (you don’t mark them), but usually between the two players you can reconstruct the last turn. As a physical product, the package is very good.
So it’s somewhat baffling that the game itself is lackluster, especially given the publisher (Lookout Games, who so recently made the fabulous Isle of Skye) and designer (Uwe Rosenberg–yes, that Uwe Rosenberg) pedigree.
I’ll preface my comments about the gameplay by saying that Hengist works. That is, mechanically, the game makes sense–it functions, it isn’t broken, and while the rulebook leaves some ambiguities, you can certainly cobble together what you’re supposed to do. But despite the game’s functionality, it just isn’t much fun.
The main reason Hengist isn’t much fun is that there is so much luck involved. Embarking/disembarking from the boat are the only actions that don’t require a specific card. Any movement in the game requires playing cards of matching terrain. But cards are drawn blindly, and there’s no way to guarantee that you can draw what you want or to mitigate the luck of the draw, for example, by playing multiple off-cards as the card you need. In my games, there were several turns where I or my opponent (or both) could do nothing with the cards in our hands. We had to resign our turn and pray to the fickle gods of luck that we would draw what we needed so our next turn wouldn’t likewise be worthless. Such frivolous turns weren’t fun to play and certainly detracted from our enjoyment of the game. They also worked against the promise of a compelling hand management game–there’s not much to manage when you simply haven’t drawn any cards you can use.
Bad draws are compounded by Hengist’s drawing mechanism that rewards players who are in the hinterlands. Being in the hinterlands is already a boon–it’s the only way to score points–but players must play matching cards to advance there. So if a player cannot play the required card or is boxed out from entering the hinterlands in another way, it is very hard to catch up because players draw one additional card each turn for each raiding party they have in the hinterlands. Effectively, what this means is that if you draw the right cards, you have a greater probability of continuing to draw the right cards and browbeating your opponent. Some of this, admittedly, can be due to the players. If you hadn’t gotten off the boat here, maybe you would have reached the hinterlands on another board. But the power of luck is strong enough in the game to be a deterrent.
The map tiles are an interesting idea. They keep each board from playing out the same way, and they offer players a dilemma: they can spend their scant resources to raid blindly (and maybe take lower-scoring tiles), or they can spend an even scanter resource to know what they’re doing beforehand. If luck were less prevalent in the rest of the game, this dilemma would be more pronounced. As it is, most of the time the decision comes down to what cards you happen to have in hand at the time.
Hengist’s rules are simple, although as I mentioned earlier, there are some ambiguities. (For example, it’s not clear in the rules whether using explorer cards to spy or bring a raiding party back requires an action–they do–or what raiding party takes this action.) The game box says the game takes around twenty minutes, and that seems accurate. I was able to teach a coworker how to play, play two games, and discuss it afterward within a firm lunch hour.
Hengist, for the reasons listed above, suffers the same problem that many other two-player-only games do: it’s simply not as compelling as what’s already out there. The way I determine whether a two-player game stays in my collection is if it fits a different niche or does something better than a game I already have. There is stiff competition in the two-player field already, with Lost Cities, Parade, Ticket to Ride, and newcomer 7 Wonders: Duel being favorites in my house. Viewed against this backdrop, Hengist does pretty poorly. Lost Cities and Parade are both much better hand management games than Hengist. Hengist is perhaps most similar to Ticket to Ride in the bunch, but while Ticket to Ride is a game that similarly has luck in it (you have to draw the right cards), there are multiple ways to mitigate the luck in the game that (rightfully) won the Spiel des Jahres. If nothing else, players are on equal drawing footing the whole game, and one player isn’t rewarded for having drawn the right cards earlier. While Hengist technically “works,” even the novel and outstanding components can’t rescue weak and uninteresting gameplay.
There is one fascinating mechanism in Hengist, and this is the germ of a good idea that I wish would have been developed further. Namely, there is (or could be) a great deal of tension in when to play explorer cards. Explorer cards in the game are super powerful: they function as wild terrain cards, they let you avoid wasting precious resources by spying on map tiles, and they let you bring dead raiding parties back to life. In exchange for these benefits, they advance the boat (and thus the game). This doesn’t seem very tense at the beginning of the game, but as the boat moves farther and farther away from your raiding parties, you realize that time is running out, especially for your raiding parties toward the far side of the map. You have limited actions to bring them to safety, so you have to balance greed with survival. The game basically lets you know if you’ve been too greedy by having the boat sail away without you. Trade-offs are what make games compelling, and had Hengist been built more keenly around this one (or, rather, had there been more opportunity for decision in playing these explorer cards), I would be more likely to want to play Hengist again.
But the truth is, the overwhelming luck in drawing important resources (the cards you need to move) keeps Hengist from being exciting. I mistakenly explained this game as having a Viking theme, and my coworker quipped, “It does leave you with a sense of futility, which is a Viking theme.” And that’s a good way to put it. If you want to feel the futility of struggling against an icy fate, your ship has come in with Hengist. For the rest of us, I recommend letting this one sail on by. There are just too many other boats in the ocean.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing us with a review copy of Hengist.