Goodbye misery farming, hello crop rotation.
Uwe Rosenberg is one of the biggest names in hobby board games. By my calculation, he has the most games of any designer in the BGG top 100 with 7 (and 13 in the top 500). Perhaps his most famous genre is medieval farming simulation, typified by Agricola. He has ploughed this particular furrow (I know, sorry) many times. Agricola is also blamed for introducing the notion of 'feeding your people'; a task so onerous it led some to label his games 'misery farming'. Hallertau is his most recent big-box farming-style game. So upon its release, the worlds' Rosenberg fans were girding their loins for some medieval food-based torture. Those fans can relax and safely un-gird those loins. Hallertau reclaims that exhausted pasture for some fresh bouts of crop rotation, boulder pushing, and lots of card play.
Worker Placement For The 19th Century
You'll take turns deploying your workers to a board with 20 different locations. These range from acquiring fields, crops, clay and sheep, to selling fields for jewellery and acquiring new achievement cards. Each spot can be visited up to 3 times, but each time it costs more workers. So you won't often be muscled out of a space entirely by other players - the spot just becomes more expensive. Once everyone has used all their workers, the most expensive occupied slots are cleared for the next round (with some variants for lower player counts). So every turn you have a wide array of options at your disposal, but the hottest competition is for the temporarily cheaper spots.
Your personal boards in Hallertau are many and varied. You have a pasture that can hold multiple fields in various degrees of fertility, a sheep board that acts as both a pasture and a timer for the game, a jewellery board to track fine goods you've acquired, and a large board with a giant house on it known as the community centre.
Farm Or Fallow? Finessing The Flux Of Flax
The core gameplay of Hallertau is resource management and card play. There are many resources your farm generates. You're balancing the production and spending of 10 different resources from flax, barley and hops to wool, hides and milk. Luckily you don't need ten different piles of resources but instead, use a handy dandy track on one of your player boards. This resource tracker is connected to an elegant pasture mechanism of multiple individual fields. You can add and remove fields as well as moving them up and down according to their fertility level. When you sow a field of level 4, a harvest produces 4 corresponding crops. Exhaust a field after a harvest by moving it down to a lower level, or raise it up due to fertilising or after leaving fallow for the season. This little machine is deeply fun.
Heave-Ho! Table Real Estate That's On The Move
After you've spent your workers in the round, harvested your fields and milked the sheep, you're ready for the head-scratcher called 'progress'. You want to develop your Hallertau community centre - the big building on your other player board. If you look through its window, you can see how many workers you get each round - 6 to start with. If you can slide the building to the right, the window exposes ever-growing numbers of workers signifying the development of your community. Keep sliding the building over and eventually, you expose up to 12 workers and huge victory point bonuses. But your burgeoning community centre faces some…. obstacles.
The Cost Of Progress - Farm Smart, Not Hard.
Standing literally in the way of your community centre are the 5 craftsmen of the apocalypse. These are tiles for the Brewhouse, Bakehouse etc. You need to supply these craftsmen with the resources they need to grow their businesses. If you succeed, you can slide them to the right. Slide all five, and you can slide the community centre, gaining more workers and later, victory points. But this is no easy feat. You need enough of all the resources in some combination to satisfy each industry.
And every round it gets harder as the craftsmen demand more goods of each type. Luckily you get discounts by using a diversity of goods. And then there're the boulders. If you want to be a monoculture monomaniac and fill Hallertau with a single crop to get that Brewhouse chappy out of your hair for the rest of the game, there's a problem. To push your craftsmen more than one space out of the way requires that you use tools to push boulders from their path. But every tool costs you a worker during the action phase. If you plan very carefully, you might be able to pull it off. A bit like a bad rash, the boulders reset next round. Ok, that's an odd analogy but I'm sticking to it.
A Surprising Twist - Play Cards Any Time And All The Time.
Hallertau is full of rich Euro-style mechanisms - enough for any mid-weight game. Like Agricola before it, it also comes with a huge stack of 10 (!) separate decks of cards. I, like several other reviewers, assumed these would play their hitherto standard role where you draft a few for some special powers at the beginning of the game and that would be the end of it. But not so in Hallertau. Every game you'll be playing with four separate decks (there are 3 further levels of advanced decks for experienced players). Surprisingly, you're allowed to play cards at almost any time. And playing cards often comes with a bonus of drawing yet more cards. For me at least, this is a novel mix of worker placement, resource management and copious card play.
Embrace The Cards For Agricultural Nirvana
Despite all the mechanistic goodness going on with the rest of the game, cards are critical for ramping up your engine fast. Ignore them at your peril. They either involve paying some cost in resources for a reward or getting a reward simply for meeting some condition. Some are expensive and aimed at big end game points, whilst others are geared towards getting an engine going. Many allow you an ongoing bonus every round of the game. But more often than not, you want to satisfy a card simply to draw another, increasing your chance of that perfect combo.
Cards - A Double-Edged Plough
Although Hallertau looks like a sprawling worker placement game, this is deceptive. The 'anytime' card play, often rewarded by more cards, can lead to flurries of card fulfilment, even out of turn. This can be seen as both a strength and a weakness. If the card draws go well, it's extremely satisfying to pile on the points and grow the engine. However, sometimes the card you draw is more of a damp squib. So there is certainly some luck here.
Components, Manual And Complexity.
After six rounds and a couple of hours, your personal Hallertau is complete. A combination of community centre points and your hopefully copious pile of played cards comprise most of your final score. Although the size of the box and manual may at first seem intimidating (it even says 'Expert Level' on the box), Hallertau is surprisingly smooth, easy to play and teach. It's not a gateway game, but firmly a mid-weight Euro. The manual is very clear and contains a large appendix describing every card in the game should you need clarification. The components are all nicely made, though nothing to knock your socks off. Wooden bits for all the resources are certainly nice. Artwork is your standard Klemenz Franz fare, which at this point is a tradition.
Hallertau is very much multiplayer solitaire. There is some mild interaction in the communal use of the worker placement spots. But usually, this will just nudge the cost up a bit. And there are so many spots to visit that you can almost always find an alternative. The 'progress' phase where you work out how to pay to move the craftsmen tiles can be a real brain-burner. Luckily this is done simultaneously by all players, so downtime isn't too much of a problem. Although you need to trust everyone is doing it right!
A corollary to this is the solo game. Hallertau is now my favourite game to play solo - by far! There are literally no changes to the rules of the game for solo. This game is a puzzle of optimising the timing and production of many different resources. It succeeds brilliantly at that. Overall, this is a worthy addition to the big box Rosenberg game library. This is not a re-tread of Agricola or Ora et Labora or Fields of Arle. It is a different beast. If you can embrace the potential luck of the card play, the smooth puzzle of Hallertau will provide deeply satisfying gameplay for a long time to come.