Gullsbottom isn’t just a silly word that makes you giggle. It’s a hustling and bustling port city rife with economic promise for an opportunistic entrepreneur like you. Can you muscle in, stake a claim in its most lucrative businesses, and corner the market to rule the Harbour? Before the dock-loaders strike?
How it Plays
In Harbour, players collect and convert goods which they then sell to buy buildings. It is a pure resource management design in which efficiency is key. Achieving that productivity is another matter, though, as supply and demand is constantly fluctuating. The dock-master who plays this volatile market most shrewdly is likely to be king of the port.
Players begin with one building and a few resources. This is a good old, American rags-to-riches success story, despite slipping that superfluous ‘u’ into the title. Goods can be wood, stone, livestock, or fish. Everyone can start with the same generic building. However, after your first game I recommend the variant in which players have different buildings with unique abilities.
Also around the harbor (note the proper English spelling) is a row of buildings with varying benefits that are available to use – or buy, as you can afford them. A turn consists of moving your little proprietor to any unoccupied building in play – including one owned by another player, even his/her starting business. However, you must pay its owner one resource for the privilege.
When you select a building, you resolve its action. Most allow you to either collect resources or convert some of what you have into other stuff. You keep track of your inventory on a personal player board, which also denotes and explains your starting building. Some businesses, especially the ones you begin with, allow you to buy another from the central pool. Your harbor guy is now the monopoly guy – other players must pay you for the building’s benefits, if they wish to use it. It’s also worth points, which will be important later.
To purchase a building, you sell resources. The catch is that their values constantly change. There is a central market that tracks what the going rate is for each good. This track is numbered 2-5, with each resource beginning the game randomly on one of these values. When selling, you must have a number of an item equal to its value in the market. So if stone is set in the 4 spot, you must have 4 stone. Ship them all off and earn $4 towards the purchase of a building. If you only have 3 stone, you can’t sell any. If you actually have 5 stone, you must ship them all. And, well sorry, but you still only profit $4 – thanks for the donation and, “I gave at the office,” won’t get you out of it. Then things start happening. The market cycles. Whatever goods you just sold get bumped down to the lower market values, while those beneath are increased to take their place. The opponent to your left who was also sitting on 4 stone is now crying and probably wants to burn down your wharf.
Players continue in this manner – collecting and converting, not crying and setting fires – trying to take advantage of the different buildings, keeping a close eye on the market and enjoying the sunny breeze and salt air. As soon as one player purchases his/her fourth building, each opponent takes one more turn and the game ends. Whoever has the most valuable buildings becomes Harbour Master – and has to deal with the ILWU.
Dock Master or Stowaway…?
One of my favorite shows is the long-running Whose Line Is It Anyway? in which the host famously declares, “Everything’s made up and the points don’t matter!” Often times I’ll borrow and slightly twist that phrase before teaching Euro games. In that case, “Everything’s made up and the theme doesn’t matter.” In Harbour, the points actually matter. The theme? No so much.
This design is resource management pure and simple. Although not always so simple because the market constantly vacillates and the action you want at any given moment may be occupied or owned by another. Instead, it’s a puzzle-like workout that can be rather random. You’ll stumble across purchases through speculation and by chance just as often as you will via shrewd planning. You can generally foresee one purchase ahead, which is fine if you’re next up to the counter. If not? Well, it’s difficult to determine how resource values will change over the course of several turns.
Not only that, but sales aren’t the only thing that can spook the market. Some buildings’ actions let your rearrange the values of one or more goods. While I enjoy the vagaries of the market and praise it for spicing up the generally lackluster resource management mechanic, this element can actually be frustrating. Sometimes, players legitimately employ the action to create a favorable market for their inventory – hoping no one else messes it all up before they can capitalize. However, just as often they’ll use it to wreck a neighbor’s plans. Normally I welcome spiteful elements, but here it just tacks an extra layer of pain when you’re already at the whims of an ever-changing market.
There are some ways to manipulate the game’s economy. Buildings have one or more important icons that bestow various benefits. The top hat allows you to use another player’s building for free. The coin reduces the cost of future purchases and is cumulative. A warehouse allows you to retain one resource when selling and is also cumulative. Finally, an anchor symbol typically allows you to collect or convert extra resources when resolving appropriate actions. While it may not completely calm a capricious market, it at least gives some control – or an illusion of it.
Harbour’s greatest strength or asset is probably its variability. For a light to medium weight game, it has a delightfully high replay value. For one, there are several starting player boards each with a unique building and special ability. Second, there are tons of different buildings to use as actions and to purchase. You won’t come close to using them all in one session and each game will present lots of disparate options and fun synergies. If you discover any wonky combos or overpowered abilities, well, then customize the next game as you see fit.
This one hums along fairly well as actions resolve quickly. You can hit a few hiccups along the way. Really, I’d expect as much considering all the options available. That is more likely as the game develops and additional buildings come out to replace those bought. Indeed, there’s a fun ramp up as the game progresses with increasingly ever more to do. But as the end game is triggered by the purchase of a fourth building, it all sort of grinds to halt just as you’re getting oiled up. However, play finishes in an hour or less and it feels satisfyingly right given its style and nature.
Harbour shines best as a 2-3 player game for casual gamers, especially one bridging the gap to more experienced hobby players. It has some depth and requires one to assess a wide range of options. So it’s not a filler or micro game. The bull and bear market will likely frustrate serious-seeking only Euro gamers. It’s also not a gateway game because, again, that market. It can be difficult to grasp for novice gamers and takes some familiarity to really appreciate. And some of the iconography to denote building actions isn’t very intuitive. Finally, fair warning if you’re thinking about treading into a 4-player session: they’re rather chaotic and the difficulties of playing the market are increased tenfold.
The theme is not overly significant, but helps give the design some flavor. Overall, Harbour is a quaint and humorous homage to standard fantasy tropes and the cartoony artwork is wonderful. The cards are of a nice stock and quality. The tokens are stickered wooden cubes. The rule book is adequate. Most attractive of all, the price point is extremely reasonable.
Harbour is a solid “step up” for newer or casual gamers. I’ve heard it described as a filler and/or a micro game, but it really offers more meat and depth than I’d associate with those categories. And I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a gateway game simply because the market mechanic requires some familiarity, plus it and the icons are not very intuitive. However, once you’ve got a couple of games under your sailor’s hat, this design hits a sweet spot between casual play and medium complexity. Resource management games aren’t generally exciting exercises. Yet Harbour’s quick pace, variety, and quirky market put a little zip into the genre.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of Harbour.