Le Havre is a bustling harbour city, and a growing one, at that. A constant stream of food, materials and livestock arrive into the jetties, ripe for the taking. Manufacturing businesses lie in wait for those who want to expand the city’s rate of productivity – as well as lining their own pockets.
In this worker placement game by Uwe Rosenberg, you’re going to try and grow your own little empire of warehouses, factories and local businesses within the city. You’ll also be aiming to ship goods out of the harbour for a glorious profit. It’s all about the French Francs, here. The player with the most wealth, as well as the most valuable business assets after a predetermined number of rounds, will win the game.
So, have you got what it takes to run your own lucrative, nautical corporation? Let’s learn a bit more about how Le Havre actually plays…
Gameplay and Rules
At its heart, Le Havre is an economic worker placement, city-building game. In theory, it’s fairly straightforward to grasp. On your turn, your ship chugs its way to the next available supply tile spot, left-to-right across the board. The stated goods on the supply tile – ranging from a combination of fish to steel to clay to cattle, among others – are added to their corresponding jetties.
The player then has a choice: Either take all of the goods from any one of the seven jetties, or perform a worker placement move, by relocating their solitary worker to a vacant, yet constructed, building and benefiting from the associated action.
Three city-built public buildings are there to get the players started – two building firms and a construction firm – which, as their names suggest, allow you to visit them and construct other buildings for a cost. Want to build the Charcoal Kiln, which, when visited, converts wood into the more valuable and fuel-efficient charcoal? Well, to build it, that’s going to cost you one clay token. Prefer to acquire the Joinery, which lets you cash in wood for precious Francs? You’ll have to cough up three wood tokens to build that.
Other buildings require you to burn ‘energy’ to convert say, clay into bricks. From this point of view it’s all rather thematic, and satisfyingly so. The city you’re building and the businesses you’re visiting begins to come to life.
Rounds end after the players have taken seven turns between them. Now, all players have to feed their workforce ever-increasing amounts of food (or spend Francs to do so). Insufficient supplies? You’ll need to take out a loan to cover the cost. You’ll have to pay back interest on it each round, but loans can be paid off at any point, and there’s no limit as to how many you can take out. But failure to settle your debts by the end of the game will cost you a hefty amount of hard-earned points.
As Le Havre cruises along, ship cards are introduced. Naturally, you’d expect ships to take precedence in a harbour-themed game, and boy howdy, they don’t let you down. Once built (or bought), as well as being able to ship off goods for a tidy financial gain, they bring you regular food each round for free. This will help you no end with the feeding process!
There is a lot more going on under Le Havre’s hood than just plodding along to collect goods. These buildings are more than just straight-up victory points. They’re game-long investments and create superb player interaction. Like a real-life business, once it’s up and running, you’re more than welcome to profit from their service – but it’s going to cost you. Well, as the owner of said business, you can use it for free. But the other players will have to pay you, the business owner, the right to visit.
At first it’s no big deal when you have to shell out two food tokens here, a couple of Francs there. But suddenly it’s the end of the round and you’ve got a workforce to feed and – hey, where’s all your fish and bread gone? Ah, that’s right, you just gave it all to Alex to use his Colliery. Now you’re going to have to take out a loan…
Before you know it, there will be a glut of buildings constructed and suddenly a bucket-load of choices at your fingertips. The building you need to use is vacant and available… But hang on, the fish jetty has also accumulated an eye-watering number of tokens. If you don’t grab all 12 fish now, Jenny is sure to take them on her next turn. 12 fish! Can you afford to turn down such an opportunity?
Le Havre is all about being torn between the great option, and the oh-so-tempting option. (You’ve heard the one about giving a man a fish versus giving him a fishing net, right?) There’s always something brilliant to acquire, thanks to the ever-stockpiling jetty offerings. It’s also about spinning plates to meet those constantly creeping deadlines.
What starts out as a simple grab-or-place quickly becomes a calculating affair and a surprisingly blocky one, given the increasing variety of options at hand…
Components and Artwork
You may well recognise the familiar art style of Klemens Franz, artist of other popular titles such as Isle of Skye, Orléans, and other Uwe Rosenberg games such as Agricola and Caverna. It’s cartoony in nature, which might lure some to thinking the game is a lighter fare. But believe us, this is a mid-heavy Euro.
However, if the game had a more gritty, realistic look to it – such as the moody yet fantastic updated artwork for Brass: Lancashire by Martin Wallace – some of the fun might get zapped out of it. Le Havre is, ultimately, an economic game; there’s no hiding that. It’s not a short one, either. Perhaps it requires a brighter colour palette and tone in attempt to appeal to a wider spectrum of gamers. Yes, there are plenty of cold blues, smog-laden greys and purple hues, all of which are necessary characteristics for a game set in an breezy, busy, industrial port in Normandy. But there are also vibrant orange rooftops, which offer a subtle warmer ambience to proceedings.
The board itself is labelled in a clear manner for game set-up. There are allocated spaces for each of the eight resources, but this can soon become an obliterating mess once tokens are exchanged and returned. We’d recommend acquiring separate pots to place these tokens in, to keep the board clear enough to parse at a glance.
Talking of the little square tokens… There are eight different types of basic resources to be exact, and every one of them can be upgraded (by visiting the appropriate building). Cattle, for example, is a basic resource that you can claim on one of the jetties. One visit to the abattoir later, however, and you’ve converted it into both meat and animal hides (the latter of which can then be converted to the more valuable leather). Once done, you simply flip the tile(s) over, with the superior resource on the reverse. Every single one of them is doubled-sided.
The guts of Le Havre lies in the Building cards. They come in a classic ‘playing cards’ size, and there are a lot of them (up to 30 Standard Buildings for you to build, each with their own unique ability). We haven’t even mentioned the Special Buildings (82 of these! Again, all different), and you’ll play with a randomly drawn six of these each game. The Standard Buildings come out in a different order each time too, providing oodles of replay-ability. This drives the game in various directions with every play.
Iconography is sometimes the sacrifice games make to be language independent. It’s present on each of the buildings, describing their action. It’s logical enough to digest; you can always refer to the rule book if you’re unsure. Chances are you’ll need to do this on occasion – especially if you encounter unfamiliar Special Buildings you’ve yet to experience in a previous play. The rule book is practical, but in general it’s wordy and a tad visually uninspiring for our liking.
Final Thoughts on Le Havre
You’ll often find when people begin describing Le Havre, they’ll open with something along the lines of, ‘This is an Uwe Rosenberg game…’
This description alone, unfairly, is sometimes enough for people to predetermine whether or not they are going to like Le Havre. It’s true, a number of Rosenberg’s games have similar mechanics. If you’ve played the likes of Agricola and Caverna, then you’ll understand the accumulation spaces’ appeal.
You also might grimace at the ‘Now it’s time to feed your workers!’ line. However, this feels less punishing than in Agricola. Engines are gradually introduced that allow you to convert goods into a pantry-load of food. You’ll still get that nagging klaxon in the latter part of the game that there are now only a limited number of rounds left for you to achieve everything. It’s not there throughout, though, not to the point where it’s constantly prodding you, like in Agricola. Rosenberg’s farming classic is more a case of damage limitation (collect everything… or else!). In Le Havre, meanwhile, it feels like you have a little room to breathe, build, progress and, ultimately, sell.
The downside of this is that for some, Le Havre goes on for a smidgen too long. You’ll need a good two or three hours to complete it. There are ‘shortened’ versions you can play, which involve thinning the Standard Buildings deck, fewer rounds, and players start with more initial goods to hit the ground running. However, even this could take you a minimum of 90 minutes.
This can accommodate one to five players. We’d recommend for your first few plays of Le Havre to go with a three-player count. There are only ever seven turns per round before ‘feeding’ occurs, so in a three-player game, two players will get two actions, and one player will get three (turn order rotates, so this all balances out over the game, of course). In a five-player game, for example, three players will only get one action per round, while two players will get two actions. This is where we feel things could become punishing, and, understandably, frustrating.
Le Havre could perhaps be summarised as ‘reverse-Caverna’. To begin with, there are barely any choices at all, but come the end, players might have the best part of 30+ buildings to pick between. As a result, the game has the potential to decelerate, particularly as first-timers’ eyes flick across the barrage of options that lay before them. However, at least said options are drip-fed to them at a gradual pace (unlike Caverna, where everything is laid out from the first round; where the overwhelmed player can go down any manner of paths from the word ‘go’).
We said earlier that Le Havre is fairly straightforward to grasp. It is, but the marvellous thing is that it’s also difficult to master. This makes it one you’ll want to play again on your next games night. But next time, you’ll try a different approach…
This 2008 worker placement game might well now be seen as a ‘classic’ in among the barrage of board games released in the 10 years since it first hit our tables. It’s aged well though, like a fine wine. Or maybe more like a magnificent ship, still afloat after the storm, hull as strong as ever, sitting proud on the horizon.