Thursday, January 10, 2008

Board Game Review - Key Harvest


Usually when I get a review copy of a game, I really want to like it. I want to say wonderful things about the game so that I can get the company in question to send me lots more games. Yeah, I'm a whore like that.

But when I got Key Harvest, I wanted to hate it. I wanted it to be really bad so I could mock it. I wanted to say, 'this is a game about farming!' and point and laugh at it like it was a third-grader with mismatched socks.

Because it really is a game about farming. A week or two ago I joked about how Germans made exciting recreations of farming, and here I am getting a game about farming. I'm ecstatic to finally get review copies from Rio Grande without having to weasel them out of Knucklebones, but the first game I got was a game about farming. If the big-voice movie announcer did this one, he would go:

"From the minds who brought you Carcassonne and To Court the King comes an epic game of..."

And then he would stop and turn to the other guys in the sound booth and go, "Is this right? It's a game about farming?"

But then I played it. I read the rules carefully to make sure I could see where it would be bad, and sat down with my family, and we ran through the game. It played out in 90 minutes, just like the box said it would. And after 90 minutes, I couldn't believe it - I had a blast. Key Harvest is a great game. About farming.

Rio Grande Games has this reputation for publishing awesome games. Those two games I mentioned, Carcassonne and To Court the King, are two really great Euro games. I should have known better than to think they were going to make a stinker just so I could mock it.

Each player in Key Harvest has a card representing his or her countryside. Each card is marked off in hexes, and each hex is numbered from A1 to G7. There's a registry in the middle of the table where players will be placing field tiles that they blind-draw from a cloth bag. Every player has a store where they put those field tiles, along with crop markers to indicate how much those tiles are worth to them.

At first glance, this doesn't make any sense at all. Store tiles, country boards, crop markers, workers, events... there's kind of a lot going on here. You can tell Reiner didn't make this one, because there's just too much happening. On your turn, you get two actions, which can be one of four things:

1) Put some field tiles in your store, and put a bid in front of them. This is how much you're willing to pay for those, and how much someone else has to pay if they want them.

2) Buy field tiles, from your store or from someone else's. If you're at an opponent's store, that player gets to keep the crop markers you pay for them. If you're buying from your own store, you just discard your crop markers that you put down as a bid. Then take the field tile you just bought and put it on your country board. Congratulations, you just planted some wheat. Or hops. Or wine (I don't know how you plant wine, but you can sure harvest it).

And to keep people from putting stuff out for free, you can't take tiles from your store on the same turn that you put them there. Everyone else gets a crack at them.

3) Play or remove a worker tile. These helpful little buggers get you a free action that you wouldn't otherwise get - harvest out of turn, buy stuff you couldn't usually afford, and other neat goodies. They're helpful, but they're not always easy to place - a number on each worker describes how many field tiles that worker has to be adjacent to. If you've only got three fields on your board, you can't even put out the four-point worker. But if you could you can do some stuff that's not even fair, like buy fields from someone else's store with the wrong kind of crops.

The real strategy behind the worker tiles comes from the fact that if you play a field tile on top of a worker tile, you can replay the worker immediately and use his ability again, and now it really is a freebie. In fact, if you're good, you can chain these together and get two or three extra actions in a row. And then the other players will hate you, which is unfortunate but often hilarious.

4) Harvest. This is where you get all those crop markers you need for buying field tiles. You just pick one connected series of field tiles, flip them over to their harvested side, and take crop markers.

But wait! There's more! When you place a field tile from the registry onto your store, you draw another tile to replace it. And the bag is full of events, which make some crazy stuff happen like your fields disappear or you get to harvest stuff without flipping it over. They're generally very nice to see - but not always. Sometimes every one else will be giddy, and you'll get hosed.

The game ends when ten events have been drawn. Then everyone counts their field tiles - you get one point for each tile in your largest connected series of tiles, and two points for the second largest. This interesting scoring twist is an incentive to make two balanced fields, rather than one big one. It creates a tricky balancing act where the last thing you want to do is connect your two big farms into one and end up missing out on all those great double points. Other stuff adds to your score, like workers and having lots of crops, but the real determining factor is the size of your farms.

That's basically the game. It's a game about farming. It's not even a game where you could swap out the theme and make it a game about killing stuff - the farming thing is really pretty important to the game, and the game makes a lot of sense in the context of farming. Of course, to make it more interesting to Ameritrash fans like myself, it could have been a game about farming in space, but either way, it's about farming.

But I figured out why I was able to really enjoy a game about farming - the stuff you farm is not carrots and beets. You farm hops, cider apples, wheat and wine barrels (like I said, I don't know how you grow wine barrels). They knew I was going to be playing it, and said, 'OK, if it has to be about farming, how about making it about farming stuff that can be made into booze?'

And that's why I love it, because it's thinly-veiled propaganda trying to get us to drink. And since I just really love to drink, I was bound to like the game. They knew better than to make us farm boring crap like string beans and artichokes. No, we're farming for alcoholic beverages, and I can get behind that theme. I just didn't understand that's why I liked it so much.

See, until I read what all the crops are supposed to be, I thought I liked the game because it's an excellent game. I thought the fantastic decision-making, quick turns and careful pricing mechanics worked together marvelously to create an exciting game... about farming. I thought I loved it because it was magnificently balanced, so that you could never pull far ahead with one brilliant move, or get too buried with one dumb move. Every decision is do-or-die, but somehow not so important that you can't recover if you make a mistake.

It turns out that Key Harvest is actually made by British people, who I always thought shared our enjoyment of things that blow up. After all, Brits made Warhammer 40K. But I guess there are British people who also like to drink, and when they drink, they get inspired to make really great games.

Summary

Pros:
Tautly-balanced game
Great mechanics
Intense decision-making
Lots of pre-planning and strategy
Rewards smart play without over-penalizing mistakes

Cons:
It's about farming

If you're a big Euro gamer, you won't have any problem with the farming theme, and then Key Harvest is a must-buy game. And if you're not, it's still a really fun game. Get it here:
http://www.bouldergames.com/detail.asp?Product_id=2713

4 comments:

Hendal said...

Another great review - as stated who would have thought a game about farming could be so cool. I just may have to get this one, it almost lends itself to be a drinking game!
What type of drink would you recommend for this game?

Matt Drake said...

This is a clever game. I would suggest waiting until the game was over to get down to serious drinking - you'll want your wits about you.

Hendal said...

You make this game sound really fun, I just figured since it is about growing drink making supplies it might be fun to have a few drinks along the way - I havn't been a serious drinker since the band broke up years ago - well before I was married actually.

I got a few friends starting to check out your reviews, they have said they also like your writing style, good on ya!

Jim said...

I just played this last night (Thanks again for the game!) with my boss and a couple others. It certainly was a good game. My boss said as we finished the game that he couldn't wait to play it again!