I’ve sort of become the ‘Dragon’s de facto two-player game reviewer. It’s my most common player count, that’s for sure. I’m always on the lookout for great two-player experiences that offer decent decisions and strategy. Bonus points if they’re fast-playing, lovely to look at, and relatively easy to learn. Double bonus points if there’s some degree of asymmetry in the game play, or special roles for players to take. It’s not a combination that’s easy to find. Some of my all-time favorite two-player experiences are Raptor, Claustrophobia, Summoner Wars and, from Alf Seegert the designer of Haven, Fantastiqa: Rival Realms.
Haven seemed to have all that I look for in great two-player games, but looks are sometimes deceiving. Did Haven deliver for me, or did it fall flat? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
Haven is an area control/tug of war card game in which two players are trying to win control of a mystical forest. There is a slight asymmetrical aspect to the game, as one player plays the forest and its creatures trying to protect itself, and the other plays the city which is trying to take over the forest. There differences between the sides are very subtle, amounting to only a couple of different cards and tiebreaker rules, which is why I say it’s “slightly” asymmetrical. It’s definitely not as asymmetrical as a game like Raptor where each player has distinct abilities and goals.
You can perform two of three actions on your turn: You can add a Seeker card to your tableau, remove a Seeker card from your tableau, or play a Lore Power card. These actions all drive the heart of the game, which is a card-based competition for Lore Tokens.
At the beginning of the game, three piles of Lore Tokens are placed in a line in the center of the table. There is a pile showing leaves, a pile showing water, and a pile showing stone. The top tile of each is revealed so you can see the point value on the tile. Players will be placing cards on their respective side of the tiles, trying to win them by getting as close to that point value as possible without going over. (As tiles are resolved/won, the cards are discarded, the tile below is revealed, and competition begins anew for the newly revealed tile.)
Seekers are the cards played to win these tokens. Each Seeker has a point value. You will play Seeker cards either from your hand or from your deck onto your side of the Lore Token of your choice. The trick is that if you draw from the deck, you cannot look at the card before declaring which Lore Token you will place it under. You’ll place it face up on your side of the Lore Token so everyone can see its value. If you choose a Seeker from your hand, you’ll see it first, but you’ll play it face down so that only you know its value. You also have the option to remove Seeker cards on your turn if you need to adjust your value.
The resolution of the Lore Tokens is triggered when there are three Offerings present on a Lore Token. Each player has a deck of Offering cards and must play one during the appropriate phase of the game. Offering cards match the elements of the Lore Tokens and must be played under their matching element. So an Offering card showing water must be played under the water drop, etc. Some Offering cards show more than one element, meaning you can choose which element to play it under. While you’ll play your offerings on your side of the token, the resolution of the Lore Token is triggered when three Offerings are in play, no matter which side of the line they are on. So if you’ve placed two and your opponent has placed one, the resolution is triggered.
To resolve a Lore Token, the values of each player’s Seeker cards are tallied (any face down cards are revealed and added to the total) and the player with the highest total wins the Lore Token, provided they do not go over the value shown on the token. If that happens, they lose all their cards played on that token and cannot win the tile, or compete in combat. If you win the Lore Token, take it and keep it in your play area face up for end game scoring.
In addition the battle for Lore Tokens, another battle is raging for control of the havens on the board. Your Seeker cards do double duty here. Seeker cards have weapons on them, in addition to their point value. When the Lore Token resolution is triggered, you’ll also resolve combat for that token. The player with the higher number of weapons wins the combat and places one of their Shrine Tokens on the board space occupied by the Elemental Standee matching the Lore Token’s element. So, for example, if you’re resolving a stone token and you win the combat, you place your Shrine token on the board space occupied by the Stone Standee. The player who lost the combat then moves that Standee to any unoccupied Shrine on the board.
These shrines form a ring around the forest havens depicted on the board. When you control the majority of the shrines surrounding a haven, you get to claim that haven by placing one of your wooden tokens inside the ring. (It’s a leaf for the forest player, and a gear for the city player.) The player who controls the most havens gets a bonus at the end of the game.
There is another kind of card you can play on your turn and that is the Lore Power card. These cards can only be played once per turn and allow you to bend the rules of the game in your favor. The power of the card is implemented immediately when you play it as one of the actions on your turn.
The end of the game is triggered either when an Elemental Standee cannot be moved because there are no more empty shrines on the board, or if all the Lore Tokens of one type have been claimed.
Each player then add up their points. Using the number depicted on each Lore Token in your play area, add up how many Stone, Leaf, or Water points you have. The player with the most of each type wins the matching victory point card and its associated points. The Haven Guardian card and its points are awarded to the player who controls the most havens on the board. Finally, each Lore Token you won and each Shrine you have on the board are worth one point each. (Note that Lore Tokens are worth one point apiece, regardless of the points depicted on the token. Those points are only invoked to determine who wins the victory point cards.) The player with the most points wins.
Haven: A Gaming Sanctuary for Two, or a Threat to Fun?
Like Seegert’s last release, Fantastiqa: Rival Realms (FRR), Haven takes the simple mechanisms of earlier games and builds on them, combining them into a new and interesting gaming stew. In FRR, he built on the basics of Musee, adding traveling and helpful creatures to the basic idea of building a museum/realm with cards. In Haven, he takes an old favorite, the “tug of war” card game (think games like Battle Line/Schotten Totten, Lost Cities, or Hanamikoji, where players are battling with cards to win points or other scoring items) and combines it with area control to create a deeper and more thinky experience than basic tug of war games offer.
Now, I have to admit that I flinched a bit when I saw the words “area control.” Area control is not a mechanism that usually works well with two players. Usually players just stay out of each other’s way, or it devolves into, “You put a token on that area, so I have to, as well.” Either way, it’s usually unsatisfying.
And yet… Haven manages to pull it off. I think it works for a couple of reasons. First, if you win combat, you don’t get to just place your shrine anywhere you like. You must place it where the matching Elemental Standee is located. This may or may not be to your benefit. You may end up having to place a Shrine on a haven that your opponent has already won, meaning your cards might have been better spent on another token. On the other hand, losing combat can be fortuitous because the loser gets to place that standee on any empty shrine she wants. You might be able to move it to a haven you can seize control over if you win the next combat for that Standee.
Unlike many area control games played with two, this moving of the Standee means that I can’t simply place a token into an area just because you did. Depending on who moves the standees where, I may not get a chance to place a token in your area. Conversely, just because you’re first to an area doesn’t mean you’ll automatically win that area. If I can skillfully manage to win the right Lore Tokens and combat, then I might take the other spaces.
Second, the way the areas are laid out means that placing a Shrine token on one shrine will often give you a leg up on more than one haven. It’s not a game like Ethnos where it’s simply number of tokens present in an area that “gives” you control. Yes, majority wins in Haven, but because you’re placing tokens along the edges of the havens rather than the interior, where you place matters, especially when considering ways to gain control of multiple havens. The havens share sides, so placing a Shrine token on a space that shares a side with more than one haven gives you an advantage going forward. It’s not insurmountable, however. An astute opponent will try to counter that by perhaps claiming a Shrine on the opposite side of the haven that gives them a piece of the haven you both share, as well as a piece of a different haven, forcing you to consider where to go next.
The whole game creates this mind-bending thing where deciding which Lore Tokens to compete for is only the first part of the equation. Where do you focus your energy? Which tokens are getting close to resolution, and what will you do if you win it? Winning the Lore Token itself is great and you’ll get points at the end of the game for it. But can you also win the combat? If you do win the combat, is the Standee in a useful place for you to place a shrine, or are you better off placing your armed Seekers on another Lore Token? Sometimes you’ll slack off on combat only to see as the token is closing in on resolution that winning the combat will give your opponent control of a haven. Then you might want to try to win that combat after all to stop them.
But can you? What do you have in your hand? Since you can choose which cards to draw each turn (provided you keep one Offering card in hand at all times), and you can only draw two per turn, you may not have any Seekers if you recently drew Lower Power and Offering cards. Even if you have a Seeker, it might not be of a value to help you. It might push you over the token’s total, or fail to give you enough to take it away from your opponent. Luck of the draw plays a role, but it’s also on you to draw cards wisely.
And while you’re figuring out which Lore Tokens you want, you’ve got to figure out when’s the best time to trigger their resolution. If there are two Offerings down already on a token, the next Offering will trigger the resolution. Do you want to rush it, hoping your opponent isn’t ready, or hold off hoping you can be more ready before your opponent triggers it? Since some Seeker cards will likely be face down, you can trigger the resolution and hope to catch your opponent with too many points, forcing him to bust. But he may have a card that gives him a number you cannot beat, as well. This is where some of the card counting and memory elements can come into play. If you’ve kept track during the game of what’s been played and discarded, you have a better chance of figuring out what the face down card might be.
As if all of this isn’t enough, you must carefully manage your Lore Power cards. They let you break the rules, but only once per turn. And unlike Seeker and Offering cards which get reshuffled if the supply runs out, Lore Cards are one and done. Once you use the ability, that’s it for the rest of the game. You want to time your card usage for optimal benefit. As with the other cards, though, you can never be entirely certain which ones will come out when. Again, familiarity with the decks helps here because if you remember what you’ve already played, you can better gauge what’s coming up.
All in all, it’s a delicious brain burner that plays in around thirty minutes. As it’s hard to find thinky games that set up and play so quickly, this one automatically becomes a gem in my collection. It doesn’t hurt that it’s gorgeous, too. I’ll confess to never having played one of Ryan Laukat’s games before, but they do look gorgeous. And even though he wasn’t the designer of Haven, he is the artist and the misty green, lush forest art is calming. (Which is nice because it helps cool your brain down from the fire that is the actual gameplay.)
I don’t see Haven getting old any time soon. The base game is thinky enough to turn my brain inside out, but there are also advanced variants included. The main one centers around some extra, secret cards called Hidden Artifacts. These encourage you to deploy matching Seeker cards at different Lore Tokens. If you do, you take the Hidden Artifact card from the board space which matches the value of your Seekers. So if you played three Seekers, each with a value of two, you’d take the Hidden Artifact card from the #2 space on the board. Artifacts give you end game bonuses, and are also worth one point each. So it’s not enough to just figure out all of the strategy of the base game. Oh, no. Now you can try to get fancy and deploy matching Seekers. Yikes, but in a good way. There are two other advanced variants, as well, and you can play with them all at once, but don’t blame me if your head explodes.
There aren’t too many negatives to Haven, at least not for me. The biggest is that for a game that’s not super difficult, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the rules on the first read-through. This is largely because the terminology, while trying to be thematic, hampers understanding and makes it seem more complicated than it is. It’s one of those games where you really need to lay everything out and go through the book page by page and play a few sample turns before it clicks. Once it clicks it’s smooth sailing, but I think the rulebook could have been better worded and relied less on jargon.
Next, Haven is the sort of game that really needs to be played between two dedicated players. There is an element of card counting/deck familiarity in the game that means players who know the decks and what’s come out will have an advantage over first timers. If players begin together and learn the decks together, you’ll have many tight, tense battles in your future. But if you bring this out with every new player you meet, you’re never going to unravel all of its depth. The more experienced play will likely always win and you’ll never get to the really satisfying head to head mind games that Haven can create.
And finally, the last negative of the game is personal for me and probably won’t even register on anyone else’s radar. But here it is: I really, really dislike playing as the city. Not for any gameplay or balance reasons, but simply because I don’t like thinking of destroying a lovely forest and the creatures within. Yep, you guessed it: I’m one of those crunchy, hippy, whatever name you want throw at me, environmentalists. Playing the city just makes me feel bad and I find myself throwing the game to my opponent so the forest can win. So there you go. The biggest negative is that I’m a bunny hugger who wants the forest to win every game. (Related: I also want the dinos to win every game of Raptor because I don’t like the idea of the scientists capturing them.)
Seriously, though, Haven is a wonderful addition to our two-player collection, bunny-hugging notwithstanding. It provides everything I look for in a two-player game: A strong, challenging, head-to-head matchup in a quick playing, easy to set up package that’s perfect for weeknights. Alf’s done it again and this one will remain in my collection, right next to his other hits.