Heaven & Ale is a rondel and tile-laying game for 2-4 players in which you are the head of a monastery trying to concoct the best brew. The thematic ties are weak, but the gameplay more than makes up for it. Heaven & Ale has a lot of familiar elements but combines them in a smart and satisfying way that makes for a unique experience with delightfully agonising decisions to make.
How it Works
Each player has their own board with a field where tiles will be placed and a track for your brewmaster and resources. Ultimately, the goal of the game is to get all your resources and your brewmaster as far up the track as possible by strategically placing and activating tiles.
The game uses a rondel mechanic to acquire new tiles. Each player has a pawn on a central board with a circular track. On your turn, you move forward to any space and take or buy whatever is on that space. You can never move backward along the track, though. This means you must gauge when to leap far ahead and when to move along the track slowly. Once your pawn has gotten around the track, you are done for the round and must wait for the other players to get around the track as well. There are four different types of spaces you can visit.
The most common space contains tiles with the five different resources you need to make your ale: wood, yeast, hops, water, and barley. Each tile also has a number between one and five. When you choose to go to a resource space, you can buy any number of the resources there that you can afford. The price depends on the number on the tile and where you want to place it in your field.
The field on your player board is divided into a sunny side and a shady side. To place a resource on your shady side, you simply pay the cost on the tile. If you want to place a resource on your sunny side, it costs twice the number shown on the tile. When you eventually activate these tiles, they will give you money if they are on your shady side, or move your resources up the track if they are on your sunny side.
Money is tight in this game, and adding tiles to your sunny side is very expensive. However, it is also the way you move your resources up the track and win the game. You have to strike the perfect balance of resources on both sides of your field, or you will run out of money quickly.
There also spaces along the central board track that contain monks. There are four monk spaces along the track that get progressively cheaper, and four different types of monks. To place a monk in your field, you pay the cost depicted on the space to place them on your shady side, or twice that to place them on your sunny side. When monks are triggered, they activate all the resources surrounding them.
Six spaces on the track contain scoring discs. When you visit these spaces, you take the scoring disc and trigger a specific tile type. Once you have used a disc to trigger a resource, monk, or number, you can no longer trigger that type. So if you use a scoring disc to trigger all your barley tiles, you will not be able to trigger your barley again for the rest of the game with a scoring disc.
Scoring discs are the crux of Heaven & Ale. The main way to trigger your monks and resources is with scoring discs. However, scoring discs are very limited, so the whole game becomes a fight to get scoring discs at the perfect time to get the most out of your tiles.
Because each tile type can only be scored once, the game is all about timing. You want to wait until you have a lot of a particular tile type before you activate it. However, if you wait too long, you risk not being able to activate them at all.
The race to scoring tiles creates really tense decisions. You must decide whether to take your time around the track to get more resources or launch ahead to the scoring tiles that make them valuable. It is unlikely that you will get enough scoring discs to trigger all your tile types, so deciding which ones you will score and when is the key to winning the game, and it is difficult.
Another interesting element of the scoring discs is the concept of privilege pairs. There are certain pairs of resources where, if you score them both, you get to play one of your privilege cards. These cards will move your various bonuses that can be very significant if timed correctly. This adds another layer to every decision you make. Do you use your precious scoring disc to trigger the water you’ve been hoarding all game, or do you use it on a less lucrative resource to play one of your privilege cards?
The last space type on the board is the barrel space. There are twelve different barrels that give you points for meeting certain criteria. When you go to the barrel space, you can take all the barrels for which you meet the requirements. For example, scoring all your resources, filling your whole sunny side, or having 6 tiles with a value of 1. If you are the first to take that barrel, it is worth 4 points, if you are the second, it is worth 2 points.
The barrels are one of the weaker points of the game. All the barrels are used in every game, so there are no variable goals. This is offset by the fact that you aren’t able to get more than a handful of barrels, so you are better off focusing on a few, but the lack of variety is a little disappointing. The other problem with barrels is that it is unlikely that you will meet the criteria for them until the final rounds of the game. Up to that point, they are essentially a dead space on the board.
The final element of the game is sheds. There are several spaces for sheds in your field, and when you surround those spaces with monks and resources, you get to place a shed. Sheds will trigger surrounding tiles and move your brewmaster up the track. The type of shed that you place is dependent on the value of the tiles surrounding it. Lower value sheds will move your brewmaster further up the track, but larger value sheds will trigger more surrounding tiles.
Sheds are vital for success in Heaven & Ale. Because scoring discs are so rare, placing sheds is a reliable way to trigger some of your tiles, and even allow you to trigger some tiles a second time. This means that you need to carefully select and place your resource tiles to get the type of shed you want.
At the end of the game, two things happen. First, depending on how far along the track your brewmaster has gotten, you exchange the resource farthest along the track to move up the resource that is furthest behind. Once you have moved all your barrels as far forward as possible, you score based on the barrel that is furthest behind. You then add the points for any barrels you earned, and whoever has the most points is the winner!
The unique combination of familiar mechanics is what makes this game special. All the systems work together perfectly to form a really tight puzzle with some excruciating decisions (in a good way). Striking a balance between your money and moving your resources forward is very difficult, and very rewarding when you pull it off. You have to consider every element of the game on every turn because everything is important and must be balanced.
This is a game where you won't be able to do everything you want to, so every decision feels meaningful and deep. Every time you choose something, you are giving up something else, and the correct choice is never obvious. The feeling of never being able to accomplish everything you want to is what draws you to play over and over until you master the puzzle.
There are a lot of opportunities to try and read your opponents in this game. There are great moments where you have to weigh whether to rush to a scoring disc or wait one more turn because you think your opponent can’t pass up a specific tile first. This also creates a push your luck element as you attempt to outplay your opponent, and it feels great.
This game scales very well. Essentially the only difference between players counts is the number of rounds in the game. It’s a small change that means no extra rules, and it makes all player counts exciting, tight, and tense.
The Not so Good
Heaven & Ale is punishing. It takes a game or two to figure out how everything works together, and it is possible to score zero points. This also means that there is room to improve in the game, which is very satisfying. However, the punishing nature can be a turn-off for some.
There is little variability in the game. The only thing that changes from game to game is that the resource tile will come out at different times. Everything else is the same. Others have said the game begins to feel stale after a handful of plays, but that has not been my experience. However, if you always play against the same opponent, this game may cease to be interesting once you have gotten good at the puzzle.