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HEAVEN & ALE

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

HEAVEN & ALE (eggertspiele, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90-120 minutes; $69.99)

 

Monks brewing ale, a theme that is sure to craft beer lovers everywhere to salivate with anticipation!  Even though I was reared Catholic and don’t share the hang-ups about alcohol that many Protestant religions foster, I still chuckle at the thought of slightly inebriated monks gleefully toiling away the hours in their monastery! 

Heaven & Ale is a collaboration between experienced designers Andreas Schmidt and Michael Kiesling. As the title may indicate, the theme centers around monks brewing ale.  Well, maybe not exactly, as the action really concentrates on growing and cultivating the crops that are needed to ultimately produce that delicious beverage.  While the game’s components are plentiful, sadly you have to provide your own beer!

The central board is mainly a circular track upon which players will move their pawn, purchasing the item(s) available located on the space upon which they stop, or taking the appropriate action.  To begin each turn, each space will contain a resource (wood, yeast, hops, water or barley), a monk (one of four types) or a scoring token.  Two spaces allow the player to claim any of the scoring barrels located on the center of the board, provided, of course, the player meets the conditions required.

Each player receives his own board, representing the plot of land upon which he will plant and cultivate the crops acquired.  The board features both a “light” and “dark” side, which determines the cost of placing a resource or monk, as well as type of benefit that will be earned when scored.  The player also tracks the yield (or value) of each of their resources, as well as the progress of their brewmaster, on a track that runs along the edges of their board.  Players begin with 25 coins, which rapidly depletes and must be replenished regularly.

The idea of the game is to acquire and plant the resources in one’s field, then grab scoring markers when the opportunity is ripe to increase the value of these resources and progress one’s brewmaster.  Of course, players will want to optimize their scoring as often as possible, but there are only a handful of scoring opportunities (represented by discs on the board) available each round.  Wait too long and opponents will scoop those discs, meaning you will not be able to score as often as you like, or miss out on scoring one or more of the particular items you will  want to score.

On a turn, a player moves his marker as far as he likes along the track, then may purchase the resource or monk available on the space upon which he comes to rest.  This movement choice can be tough, as the player may not move backwards, so any tiles on spaces passed over will be forever lost.  This “opportunity cost” movement mechanism, which is present in other games such as Tutankhamun (featured in the Spring 1997 Gamers Alliance Report) and Egizia, can be angst-inducing.

A player may purchase any or all tiles (resources or monks) on a space, provided, of course, he can afford them.  Usually spaces have only one tile, but if a tile is left unclaimed in a round, a new one is added to it on the subsequent round.  The cost of the tile taken depends upon what side of her board the player elects to place it.  Placing it on the shaded side costs the printed value of the tile (1 – 6 coins), while placing it on the light side doubles this cost.  The difference is apparent when scoring, as tiles on the dark side provide income, while those on the light side allow the player to increase the value of the corresponding resources.  This can occur when a player lands on a space containing a scoring disc.

In addition to potential income and an increase in resource values, a player is also attempting to surround the pre-printed “shed” spaces on his board.  When one of these spaces is completely surrounded by resources and/or monks, the player gets to place a shed token upon it, which triggers numerous benefits.  The value of the shed marker placed is determined by adding the value of all the resource tiles surrounding it.  The higher the value, the larger (aka, more powerful) the shed placed.  Larger sheds activate more tiles that surround it, but smaller sheds allow the player to move his brewmaster further along the track.  So, it is a trade-off, and players must carefully balance this when selecting and placing tiles.

When tiles are activated by a shed, they will convey benefits to the player.  As mentioned, tiles on the dark side of the board will give the player income equal to the value of the tile (so, a “4” valued hops on the dark side will pay the player four coins), while those on the light side of the board will allow the player to increase the value of that resource on the track.  So, if that “4” value hops tile was on the light side of the board, the player would be able to progress the hops marker four spaces on its track.  Both income and resource value are critically important, making the decisions as to where to place these tiles very tough. 

Monks operate a bit differently.  If they are activated by a newly placed shed, they radiate their holiness outward, activating all adjacent resource tiles, which deliver benefits as described above.  Monks do not create a chain effect with other monks, but any monks adjacent to the triggered one will allow the player to move his brewmaster forward on the track.

What about those scoring discs I mentioned?  Each round there are six spaces that provide scoring opportunities, each allowing a specific type of scoring.  When a player chooses to move to one of these spaces, he takes the disc, so that space is no longer available for anyone else that round.  The space landed on depicts the type of scoring available, and the player places the disc onto his board, indicating that he has scored that particular resource or monk. He cannot score the same item more than once during the game.  The types of scoring are:

Resources:  The player chooses a resource and scores all resources of that type, receiving either money and/or an increase in that resource’s value as described above.  Of course, it is usually wise to choose a resource that is plentiful on one’s board, but there are incentives to score all resources during the course of the game.  For example, each resource is paired with another type of resource, and when a player eventually scores both of a pairing, he is able to play a special “privilege” card from his hand.  These privilege cards grant immediate benefits, including money, moving of the brewmaster, increasing a resource’s value, etc.  Each player has five privilege cards from which to choose, and getting as many played as possible will prove extremely beneficial.

Resource number:  The player chooses a value (1 – 6) and scores all resource tiles bearing that value.  The tiles provide money and/or an increase in the corresponding resources’ values as described above.  This is very beneficial when a player has multiple tiles with the same value.

Monks.  The player chooses one of the four types of monks and activates all of the monks of that type.  Each of these monks activates all adjacent tiles, as described above.  As with resources, each monk has a friend with whom he is paired, and when a player scores both of those monks, he may play a privilege card.

Timely scoring is critical, but one must resist the temptation to delay scoring until she feel she is going to reap an impressive bounty.  Each player has ten different items she can score, but throughout the six round game, there are only 36 opportunities to grab a scoring disc.  This means that not every player will score every one of his ten items.  I believe there are enough incentives to score some items early, even though the benefits earned may not be optimal.

Let’s talk about those barrels.  There are twelve large (4 points) and twelve small (2 points) barrels available for players to claim when they meet the requirements listed.  A player can move to one of the two locations on the board and immediately claim as many barrels whose conditions she has achieved.  The first player to do so grabs the corresponding large barrel, while the second player to satisfy the depicted conditions claims the smaller barrel.  The conditions include having your brewmaster or resources at a certain level on the track, completely filling the dark or light side of one’s field with tiles, having three privilege cards in play, having three sheds of the same value in one’s field, etc.  These barrels provide incentives that will likely influence one’s strategies throughout the game.

After each round, new resource tiles, monks and scoring discs are placed.  There can be multiple resources and monks on spaces if some were left unclaimed from a previous round, but there will only ever be one scoring disc on the six scoring spaces.  Six rounds are played in this fashion, after which the final scoring occurs.

At first glance, the final scoring seemed rather complex.  In practice, however, it is fairly easy…but difficult to describe.  First, players determine their “resource exchange rate” based on the position of their brewmaster on the track.  The further along the track the brewmaster has progressed, the better the exchange rate.  For example, being on space “9” provides a 3:1 exchange rate, while progressing to space 15 gives a 2:1 rate.  The idea here is to progress on’s brewmaster as far along the track as possible.

Once the rate is determined, the player may move resource markers back in order to move the trailing resource markers forward, the amount being determined by the exchange rate.  The idea here is to equalize one’s resource markers by moving those in the rear forward as much as possible by moving those further ahead on the track backwards.  So, using the 2:1 exchange rate, for every two spaces a player moves a leading marker back on the track, he can move one in the rear forward one. 

Why does one do this?  Because the final scoring of resources is decidedly “Knizia-esque.”  The player will score points for his resource marker that is the furthest behind on the track.  The amount scored is the position of that marker multiplied by the victory point multiplier indicated on the space reached by one’s brewmaster. So, if the brewmaster was on space 16, the multiplier is “x6”.  If the player’s worst resource value is water, which is at space 5, the player’s score from this category would be 5 x 6 = 30.  Sounds complicated, but in practice it is really fairly easy.

Players will also score points from the barrels they possess (4 points or 2 points per barrel), coins (1 point for every 10), and possibly the “barrel” privilege card, if played.  Of course, the player with the most points becomes an acclaimed brewmaster and the envy of thirsty patrons throughout the country. 

Heaven & Ale is a fascinating, puzzle-like game that is quite challenging.  There are tough decisions to be made throughout, and with each acquisition and placement one is plagued by doubts as to whether she made the correct decision.  It is a game that generates continual “butterflies in the stomach,” as there is a constant tension in wanting to get certain tiles or scoring discs before they are scooped by one’s opponents.  As a player awaits her next turn, she will be crossing her fingers and praying silently that the desired tile or space is available when her turn arrives.  Even then, there are those persistent doubts as to whether or not the best option was selected.

Balancing the need for income–which vanishes rapidly–with the long-term need of increasing the value of one’s resources and position of one’s brewmaster creates some very agonizingly tough choices, and may start turning those butterflies into ulcers.  After every game I have played, players analyze their board and choices they made, discussing what they could have done differently to improve their position.  This is as delicious as a tasty Trappist stout!

Heaven & Ale is a terrific game that plays to completion in about two hours, although players prone to deep concentration and thought may cause this time to be extended.  The rules are clear, and in spite of the abundance of different aspects and facets, it is a game that is fairly easy to explain and understand.  This is Euro-game design at its best.  Prost! – – – – – – – – – – – – -Greg J. Schloesser


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