Harry Potter House Cup Competition (HPHCC as nobody calls it) is a worker placement game in which players control students from one of the four Hogwarts school houses. Students learn spells and complete challenges to gain points for their house. The player with the most house points at the end of seven rounds wins the House Cup and the game.
Before I move on to talking about the game itself I want to take a moment to discuss theming in board games. In my experience games based on big franchises often rely on the strength of their brand to sell copies, rather than on the quality of the game itself. Yes, I’m looking at you, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (Although now I think about it, most of the other Tolkien-themed games I’ve played have been remarkably good in this respect. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.) Games like these are usually passable. But they're often deliberately simple to appeal to non-hobbyists, and the theme is just an excuse to put images from the film on everything. Lots of franchises do this and Harry Potter is no exception, although some games are worse offenders than others. Overall I think this game does better than most. Let’s discuss why.
The Sorting Hat’s New Song
Play has two phases. First, players take turns to place one of their students on a space on the board to gain knowledge and magic tokens, lessons, or challenges. Students can also gain skill in one of three subjects: Charms, Potions or Defence against the Dark Arts. Optionally you can play a lesson card from your hand either before or after placing a student. These lesson cards give you some extra benefits but the student you place with it needs to have a certain level of skill in one or more subjects. Then, in the second phase, players use their students’ skills to play challenges. Completed challenges also earn the player rewards, usually house points. Points are tracked by filling House ‘hourglasses’ with coloured gems. After seven rounds, players earn bonus points for each skill track at the highest value of 7, and for each pair of knowledge and magic tokens they have. The player with the most points wins.
There’s a good amount I like about what this game is doing. In most worker placement games all your workers are completely interchangeable. Here though, they’re individuals who can gain proficiency in different things. Those skills impact your available choices, since lessons and challenges require a minimum level in one or more classes. This rewards you for improving your students as much as you can throughout the game. Doing this while also earning points from challenges is a fun resource management challenge. Each game you also draw random extra locations, so each game is a little bit different. These are revealed throughout the game, giving you powerful late-game options when you might otherwise be running out of things to do.
The main area where the gameplay misses the mark for me is the challenges. There isn’t really a huge distinction between the challenges and the lessons, which makes it feel like they could have been combined into one thing. More frustrating is that the number of possible plays and outcomes is just slightly too big to be easily manageable. You can play up to two challenges each round. Any number of your students can contribute to a challenge, adding their skill levels together to reach the indicated amount. But each student can only work on one challenge. And you can also spend a magic token in place of one skill level in any subject, any number of times per challenge. All this sounds fine on paper. But in practice you spend a lot of time looking at the challenges and thinking through all possible combinations of your students' skills. So if you’re the kind of player who likes to exhaustively think through your possible strategies, don’t believe the 75 minute play time claim on the box. At least for your first few games, allow at least two hours.
The Flaw In The Plan
Now let’s look at the theme and how it works with the game. There are a few things that work well. The overall premise that you’re vying for House Points is a good bit of theming. It doesn’t change the fact that the win condition is a standard Euro-style “get as many points as you can”. And the game could just as easily have tokens or a track round the board as many other games do. But having the House hourglasses takes that otherwise mundane scoring system and gives it a Harry Potter feel. And as I noted above, there’s a consistent incentive to increase your students’ skills, which fits nicely with the school-based setting.
The theme is pretty thin past that though, unfortunately. Your workers may have pictures of characters on the tokens, but since they all start at the same skill levels these are no more than a way to tell them apart. Likewise it makes no in-game difference which house you choose to play as. The design of the board gives only the lightest nod to the idea that action spaces might represent different locations. The randomly drawn locations are at least named, but their benefits bear no obvious relation to the names (why can any student visit Malfoy Manor? And why does it earn them house points?). Similarly, the required skills for challenges have no relation to the card names (why do I need four levels in potions to receive owl post?).
The biggest problem is a case where the theme actually interferes with understanding the rules. The rulebook refers to lessons as being ‘chosen’ and then ‘learned’. I don’t think it states anywhere that this means drawing them into your hand and then playing them from your hand. One player in my first game reasonably assumed ‘learning’ a lesson meant you could then cast it at will to gain the benefits many times, which isn’t the case. These issues are easy enough to solve with a rules check, but they’re an unnecessary hurdle to learning the game.
The game components don’t do much to add to the theme either, except for the house ‘hourglasses’ and gems, which are delightful. The rest of the visuals are a bit bland. Apart from a few film stills and the house emblems in a couple of places, none of the art screams Harry Potter to me.
Owl Post Again
This game is an interesting case of the mass-market franchise game I described earlier. It’s a strange mix. It does a few things which are mechanically quite interesting despite the theme not really fitting. But there are also places where the theme elevates lacklustre mechanics. And some where theme and mechanics fit perfectly together. Overall, if you are a Harry Potter fan as I am, it may not appeal to you based on the theme alone, because there is very little Harry Potter in it. Personally, I found myself in the unusual position of thinking I would probably enjoy it more if it was a game about something else. Once you can get past that, House Cup Competition is an engaging resource-management puzzle, and if you like worker placement games it’s definitely worth a try.