In Alf Seegert's Haven from Red Raven Games, one player takes the role of a mystical forest defending its home. The other plays as the city working to subjugate it. Over the course of the game, they fight to gain control of shrines and havens and compete to collect the most lore.
The Haven game board is a rectangle with three spaces at either end for each side's decks. The forest, divided into havens and shrines, is between them. An elemental standee (water, leaf, and stone) is placed on three of the shrines nearest the board's edge. Each player has three decks: seeker, offering, and lore cards. Next to the game board are the three stacks of lore tokens (water, leaf, and stone) with lore values between 5 and 7 printed on them.
Players will play seeker cards (each with a lore number of 0-4 and a combat number of 0-2) by the lore token stacks in order to claim the tokens, shrines, and havens. On a turn, you go through five steps: First, you perform two actions. Either you play a seeker from your hand face down or the top card from your seeker deck face up, or you play a lore card. These have effects that give you advantages or your opponent disadvantages. After these actions, you draw two cards. You can pick from any deck, but you must have an offering card in your hand for the later steps. You then check to see if any lore token has been resolved. This happens once there are three offering cards by a stack. Flip the seekers face up and count their numbers. If a player's seekers have more combined lore than the token's value, they are immediately discarded. Otherwise, the player with the highest amount of lore on their seekers gains the lore token. The player with the highest amount of combat claims the shrine beneath the elemental matching the lore token.
Once all resolved lore tokens have been dealt with, you place a leaf, water, or stone offering card by the relevant lore tokens.
Finally, You Check For Game End
The game ends once players have claimed all but two shrines, or once a stack runs out. Give points for each lore token and shrine. The players with the highest combined value in each of the three types of lore tokens gain an extra 3 points. The player with the highest number of havens (gained by claiming the majority of the shrines surrounding them) gains an extra 5 points.
A Highly Thematic Game...
Haven does an excellent job at combining gameplay with theme. The two-player engine centres the struggle between the forest and the city. The asymmetry caters to different play styles and highlights the conflict between the two sides. One way the theme is weaved to the mechanics is in the question of who wins on ties when a token is resolved: The forest for lore, the city for combat. These translate in-universe respectively to the favour of the elementals and the conquering of the land. Another way is the differences between each sides' decks. The three unique lore cards in the forest's deck all focus on growth and pushing towards lore by drawing more cards or playing more face-up seekers. Contrarily, the ones in the city deck cause confusion and disruption. By reorganising their own seeker's face down or barring the forest from playing any. Like any game with art by Ryan Laukat, Haven is beautiful through and through. Even the bottom of the box is illustrated on the inside with foliage and buildings. This means that already during setup, the players can feel immersed in the city/forest conflict.
This is not the only way the art and components support the theme. The game board forces the players to sit across from each other, spatially opposed. The wooden tokens used to claim havens either depict green leaves (which fit with the beautiful nature on the board) or brown cogs (which stick out). And the greens and browns used to illustrate the forest's cards versus the rusty reds and greys on the city's draw up the contrast even further.
…With Sophisticated Gameplay
One of Haven's strongest aspects is how balanced a game it is. This can be hard to achieve with two-player games, where especially the first turn can easily make the game uneven from the get-go. Or where one player may pull ahead and be largely impossible to catch. In Haven, the opening turn is always given to the city. But they are only allowed one of their two actions, and the forest gains a lore card for their opening hand as compensation. The balancing does not end after the first round either. In most cases, when one player gains an edge, the opposing player gets something that may help put themselves ahead for the following rounds. The player who loses in combat gets to choose where the elemental goes next. This gives the player the opportunity to choose shrines that will help them claim havens. And if a player loses on both lore and combat, they get to leave one of their seekers for the next token in the stack. Haven's many different ways to gain points make for a very dynamic playing experience. The imperfect knowledge from your opponent's face-down cards creates suspense. As well as the placement of the elementals. The only randomness in the game is the values of the lore tokens and the stacking of the decks. Each lore token is worth one point regardless of value to counter this. And the prize from having the highest combined lore value being only three points. The latter adds an extra layer of thrill to the game. When a player chooses to play the top card face up without knowing what they will get, whether it will overshoot the lore token's value. For a small game that takes about 30-45 minutes, there's a lot going on.
Haven is a super immersive and satisfying two-player game. It is easy to set up and the detailed step-by-step turn summaries make play smooth. The replay value is high. Playing as different sides changes your game experience. The rulebook also contains several different game variants for spicing things up. I have enjoyed Haven every time it has hit our table, and I recommend it to anyone in the market for a solid two-player game.