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Review: Havana

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 Havana.  “The Paris of the Antilles.”  A rich history of over 400 years and a luxurious diamond of recent memory.  Now it lay in squalor.  Years of economic hardship wrought by corrupt governance, depression, and the Revolution of ‘59 have left this once proud, exotic, and thriving port a mere shell of its former beauty.  Your task is to restore this Caribbean gem.  Will you emerge as Cuba’s greatest builder?  To do so, you will collect building materials, acquire workers, recruit friends, and even engage in some shady shenanigans.  At least one thing is in your favor – thankfully, Castro and his iron-handed regime are nowhere to be found. 

How it Works

La Habana is a game of hidden, role selection and resource management.  First, each round you will choose two roles from among thirteen (everyone has the same set of roles) which determines turn order and what actions you can perform.  The role cards are numbered from 0 to 9.  After each player secretly chooses their roles, they are revealed.  The lower number of each pair is placed before the higher one to create a two-digit number.  These then are compared among players, with turn order proceeding lowest to highest.  Significantly, at the beginning of your next turn, you will discard one of these two roles.  Discarded roles cannot be used again until you play the role Refreshment [1], which retrieves a previously discarded role.  After discarding, you then choose a new role to pair with the one you kept from the preceding round.  So in addition to considering actions and turn order, role selection must also take into account repetition and availability.

Nice, solid components.

The second phase of Havana consists of using your roles to collect resources and build.  Resources are represented by building materials (colored cubes), pesos, and workers (meeples).  City improvements are represented by tiles that require various combinations of resources – each improvement is worth more points the greater amount of resources it needs.  Twelve city tiles are available to begin – two rows of six – but you can only build an improvement on either end of both rows.  If you want to buy an interior improvement, then you have to wait for another player to pick an end tile or choose the role Conservation [3], which allows you to discard an outside one.  When only two tiles remain in a row, you move them to the outside and refill the four interior slots with new ones from the stack.

Lower numbered roles net less swag, but can secure early turn order.

Roles allow you to collect resources from either a central pool or the out-of-game stock, can give you a special ability, or as in the case of Architect [4], allow construction of specific improvements.  The one exception is Siesta [0], which grants no actions but can be important in securing first in turn order since your two-digit role number will start with the ‘0.’  There are roles to steal from other players and one that protects you from theft.  After completing your actions, you can build as many improvements as you are able, so long as you can pay the required combination of resources indicated on the tiles.  As players purchase improvement tiles, they lay them down in a tableau.  When one player reaches a certain point threshold, he/she wins immediately – the round is not finished, the game is over.  In a two-player game, the victor is the first to 25 points, while 20 points are needed in a three-player game and 15 for four.

¡Viva la Revolución!…?

Let me just start by getting Havana’s one main issue out of the way: do not play this game for its theme.  If you’re looking for a post-revolutionary, city building and development game set within the framework of socialist economics or Caribbean culture, well, you won’t find it in this little title.  For that matter, if you’re looking for a well integrated, economic, city development game of any sort, you won’t find it here, either.  It could have been titled Hamburg, Hiroshima, or Hoboken for all of the themed elements it contains.  Building materials are just colored cubes.  (The colors actually represent specific resources, but it doesn’t matter and you’d have to look up what’s what in the rulebook.)  On top of that, you’re allowed to use 5 gray cubes, called “debris,” in place of any one other colored cube.  How, exactly, you can turn random rubble into wood, or glass, or steel, is anyone’s guess – beyond the use of an alchemist which, alas, is not one of the game’s roles.  Speaking of roles, their actions make sense for the most part, although they’re all quite un-inspired.  And just why ‘Mama’ allows you to take half the materials and debris from the center pool is another of the city’s exotic mysteries.  There is no logical rhyme or reason as to why certain buildings require materials, as opposed to workers, as opposed to pesos, as opposed to a combination thereof.  For that matter, the building tiles are not even labeled and are all so generic that they almost flaunt the concept of theme.  It seems like the only reason Staupe and/or Eggertspiele chose Havana as the game’s subject city was because artist Michael Menzel also worked on the company’s 2007 release, Cuba.

Available tiles, materials, and pesos.

Normally, theme is too important a consideration for me and my boys.  It doesn’t have to be dripping, but we still like our games with a strong flavor.  So why does Havana rise above the five cent cigars?

This is one simple, smooth, and quick design.  Role selection is simultaneous, resolving actions is brief, and buying improvement tiles is straightforward.  There is not a great deal of long-term planning involved, as you never know which tiles will be available beyond those already on the table.  Downtime is nearly non-existent, although there is potential for minor analysis paralysis in role selection.  Game play generally moves along at a nice, easy clip.

Despite that simplicity, or perhaps because of it, there is a nice amount of tension.  First, with only two roles to play, you rarely get to do everything you want in a turn.  You’re never sure which order you will fall in a given round, nor how going first, last, or in between will affect not only your plans, but also those of your opponents’.  Second, role selection in Havana requires a delicate balance.  It’s tempting to pick actions that net a lot of swag, but there is a chance that you will miss opportunities if you are last in turn order – or even just second, for that matter!  At any time before you, another might buy the tile you were planning to take.  And in the case of some roles, the rewards dwindle further down in turn order.  For example, the role Pesos [8] allows you to take half of the pesos in the center pool – so if another player took that action before you, your share just got cut significantly.  The third tension building component is the endgame – it can come rather more abruptly than anticipated, even if you think you’ve been paying attention.  The low point total necessary for victory, coupled with the fact that you can buy as many tiles in a turn as you’re able, can create some surprising finishes.

Above and below: The middling roles.

With its smooth, theme-less, mechanically efficient game play of acquiring and trading colored cubes for generic building tiles, many readers might jump to the conclusion that Havana is a nice, representative Eurogame.  Those readers would be right.  However, this title brings one element to the table that many in its genre typically eschew: spite.  While each game will vary in its amount, interaction plays an influential part.  Some roles let you steal resources from one or more players.  Furthermore, once roles are revealed, all information is open.  You can see which tile(s) each player can buy and mess up those opportunities accordingly, providing you go before them and have the appropriate role and/or resources to do so.
Rio Grande’s components are solid and of good quality, although nothing special aesthetically.  The card art is amusing, while the tile art is as generic as the buildings they’re supposed to represent.  Also of note, there is a slight amount of randomness in drawing building materials from a bag and in the availability of tiles – but as it affects all players, it is rarely more than a minor nuisance.

Arguably the two best roles; hence the high numbers.

Two-player sessions are not as tense in role interaction, and a fourth player adds little more than extra time.  But with three, Havana really hits its stride.  At any scale it is a fun, slick, tense, and tight game with a good amount of interaction and offering tough, yet not overly taxing, decisions.  The rules are easy to learn and game play is simple.  This title is a nice fit for families, newcomers, and gamers looking to scratch that 30-minute itch.  And in my opinion, with an average rating of 6.98 at Board Game Geek, Havana is one of the more under-rated titles of the last few years.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • Smooth, accessible design
  • Quick, tense game play
  • Nice beginner
9.0 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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