Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 30-60mins
Play Time (Goof): 20-60mins
Designer: Scott Almes
Recently I’ve been enjoying non-generic fantasy. If you knew anything about Harbour before you clicked this link you probably didn’t expect me to start the article this way. But it’s true, Harbour is a bit of a strange blend of fantasy and working in a seaside city.
When I started making my own world in Dungeons and Dragons, I actually made a seaside city called Seacean (the more I reveal of my D&D naming conventions, the less I think Charlotte is going to let me have a hand in naming any of our currently hypothetical children). But I loved it. The crash of the waves against the cliff face, the smell of salt in the air, the shanty’s… and the Duragar who ran the ‘Gin Here’ tavern.
There really is something about fantasy which pushes the various nerve endings of creativity in my brain whenever I see elves, dwarves, or other fantasy races outside of a forest/castle/mountain pass. I’ll admit the only reason I want to play Shadowrun when I get a chance is the cyberpunk setting with Elves. I’ll be honest I know nothing else about it, and I know I’m probably going to thoroughly enjoy it.
I had a similar feeling when I saw Harbour. So how does it stack up?
Harbour is deceptively easy looking. When I was watching it on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop I thought this was a game I would really enjoy playing with my family. I haven’t even taught it to them yet, because the game itself is actually a bit complex. I start talking about how the market moves and people look at me like I’m diving into a discussion about real world market forces. I took it along to Boarding School once, an event where I teach people (mostly families) new or different tabletop games. I’ve taught dozens of different games, and while I’m not a professional teacher I’m happy to say I’ve done adequately enough that it’s brought new people into or back into the hobby. Harbour on this particular night should probably have been called “Huh?”-Bour with how well it went over in a couple of different groups (yep. Proud of the groan I’m certain you just made.)
For a game which appears at first to be a simple worker placement game with a cool little economics engine, none of the buildings are really straight forward. In something like Lords of Waterdeep – you know when you place your agent you get whatever is on the square. But look at a building like the seaside crane – “convert a number of goods of one type to another goods type up to the number of anchors you have. Then buy a building”. Say you’ve taken a second or two to read this and fully comprehend it, now picture you’re in a four player game and every building is like this and there are seven of them. Time and again I’ve seen it overwhelm players.
There’s a decent amount of symbology too. Okay sure, you don’t need to be Robert Langdon to understand the symbols like you would in Race for the Galaxy (joke itself probably needs a Sophie Neveu), but I find myself checking back to the rulebook on occasion just to make sure I understand the top hat. The fact it’s the only icon which takes opponents into account throws me for some reason, and it just feels a bit clunky and out of place.
Of course a game doesn’t need to be simple in order to be good. It’s not like I’m bringing Scythe along to Boarding School. But Harbour doesn’t really scratch the in-depth strategy aspect of something like 51st State, nor is it as quick paced and combative as Exceed, or as satisfyingly tactile as Ars Alchemia.
One of the strategic areas Harbour falls down for me is at the larger play counts. Honestly even at three players, by the time it gets around to your turn again there’s not really any telling where the market is going to be. Not without drawing out the game to excruciating lengths. If I have to stop and analyse the likelihood of my opponents business moves for each resource and not-so-simple building combination then we’d honestly might as well be playing Twilight Imperium.
There’s a ton of different character powers in the game. And while it can be a good thing they’re not overly invasive – it also means they don’t really stand out. I tend to be more interested in the symbols each character has with it, which other players could purchase as the game continues. What I don’t overly care about is the ability I can use to be unique and different and which encourages me to play differently to another character I could have chosen. Each power probably only makes an impact (even if used more often) once or twice in a game. I’m not sure if my tone is accurately conveying my intended message so let me be clear – I hate this. Harbour actually encourages you to draw two and select a character from them. At first I thought this was great, limit everyone’s choices but gives them a chance to potentially try new things or luck out with a favourite. Not to mention jumping into a game a lot quicker since there is so much choice. But now it does sort of feel like there’s no point. There are generic characters you can all choose from who have no powers. And Harbour really doesn’t feel too different.
I’m not much of a solo gamer. But if the game has a solo mode I’ll often make sure I play it a couple times in addition to my other player counts just so I can talk about it on here. You know what? I had the most fun I’ve had with the game playing Harbour by myself. Because you can see what’s coming, you know what the game is going to do on its next few turns so you can decide how best to go about your own turn countering it. I would honest still rather play a video game, but it got me wondering what other tabletop solo games are out there and if they’re any good. So I’ve got a couple on my wishlist now (and make sure to tell me if you’ve got any you think I should try).
Pros: +Solo variant is fun.
Cons: – -Complex without strategy, -Overly complex buildings, – Boring character powers.
I was thinking on the reason I like role powers in games, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but I want to feel unique when I play a game. Moreso than just “oh cool I look like a green dude”. I mean what’s so special about being a green dude? What does it mean to be a green dude? What makes him green? What makes his existence different to other people because he is green? The further down this Lapine hole you go the more you realise these questions are best solved by special powers or abilities. I mentioned in the gameplay section, I don’t feel like the character I’m portraying. Which is a shame because the characters are so cool!
Can I give a standing ovation to the genius who came up with each fantasy character having a different occupation in town which just fits so bloody well into the world building. The giant as a dockhand? Brilliant! The Vampire as the Diplomat? I love it! And what makes it even better is not once is the fantasy name ever written. Everything is either heavily alluded to or comes across so perfectly in the artwork. I really want to see another game with these characters.
For all the crap I’ve given Harbour so far – it does feel like an economic engine. When there’s a high level of supply, the price starts to drop. Especially when the demand has been met and people start to feel like they can’t eat fish every night of the week. Seeing the squares move around, and occasionally making a nice play feels like you’re manipulating whatever part of the market you can. I’d love to see this mechanic implemented in another game. Admittedly it feels more like this at 2 players. At higher counts I don’t even think I’d try to do much more than maximize my resources and hope for the best when I got to take an action (maybe this is why I don’t run my own business).
The Key to the City is actually a great touch. It’s this card you give to the person who won the last game (someone tell me how you solve the rotating player issue because I don’t just play with the same group combinations every time.) I love how it feels like “yeah, we’re starting again. But you all know I’m the reigning champion”. Not every game needs this, but I like it in Harbour.
Pros: ++Character design, +Economic feeling, +Key to the city.
Cons: – – Don’t feel like my character.
You know how I talked about how the game is deceptively complex? The small box and artwork has a lot to do with it. I pull this game out and people relax, thinking we’re about to do something a bit light hearted and simple. When the realisation hits them that Harbour is anything more than dice rolling or a light social deduction game, there’s a hint of genuine panic. I’ve seen it over and over again. At least with something like Android: Netrunner or Star Wars: Rebellion the set up and pieces tell you exactly what you’re in for.
I’m the sort of reviewer who will happily complain about rulebook pamphlets and how they’re crappy and difficult to navigate. But I get why TMG included a pamphlet in this box (I’d have preferred a smaller book but yeah…okay. I get it). What’s frustrating is when you’re looking for a particular rule in Harbour, like those damn top hats, it’s hard to locate them because they’re not sectioned properly or enough. Is there a thing against bullet points? I love them, they make it so much easier to navigate.
The solo variant comes with a Training Bot which you can play against. But the rules for said bot are on the back of the card, and since you need to put tokens on the front of the sheet to track the amount of goods you have, you can’t turn it over to recheck things. The big one for me are the buildings which the Training Bot can’t use. Maybe it’s just because I’m not usually a solo gamer, and it’s true there are several of the rules repeated simplistically on the front, but I still end up having to take a photo of the rules with my phone so I can refer to them as I play.
When I think of travel sized games, I actually reckon Harbour comes in about the perfect sized box. It easily fits in most bags but the components aren’t forced to be so small as to be a Tiny Epic pain in my ass. The cards are a nice size, the tokens are weighty and easy to locate if you drop them at any point (not you, of course you wouldn’t. I mean your annoying sibling/child). For the life of me I can’t work out why they decided to go with the player colours orange and red in the same game when there’s more than four colours in existence.
Is it strange to say the box is nice to hold? I really don’t think anyone is going to run out and go “On TGR I saw this game which apparently wasn’t very good but he said it’s nice to hold. Do you have it in stock?” but there’s something strangely satisfying about it. To the point where I might go along and hold every game in my collection and compile a list of ‘Best Board Games to Hold’. I mean… I probably won’t. Coz the idea is too stupid even for me who once wrote an article on DJ-ing a tabletop session. Oh wait – I’ve just realised it would be an excuse to complain about tins again (they are decidedly the worst to hold). Although now this tangent has given away the conclusion of that article. You know what? Let’s wrap up talking about Harbour.
Pros: ++Weighty tokens, +Good sized components in a good sized box.
Cons: -Rules-not-book, -Rules not easy to access, -Player character colours.
Okay, so like the smell of the seaside and stench of fish I imagine as I picture myself arriving in Gullsbotttom, we’ve reached our destination. But I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily cleared things up in this review. The best thing I can do therefore is to answer the fundamental question of gaming – “is it fun?” – But I’ve got to disappoint you there as well. Because my answer is… sort of. Every now and then when I make a great play, or a funny scenario comes up with the theming, or the satisfaction I get of making a sale and moving the tokens around on the market board I get a real twinge of joy and find myself thinking “oh I actually do like this game”. But the moments in between sort of feel like you’re flailing. You’re making moves not because you’re planning something cool but because it might vaguely work to your advantage.
Harbour is really hard for me to place. It’s one of those games where I just don’t know when I’d choose to play it over something else. It’s not bad – but it’s too shallow for the hardcore among us and too complex and confusing to be a family-weight game.
If I’m settling in for a big game day with some hardcore tabletop gamers, we’re probably not looking for something this simple. And if we’re playing a micro game between larger games then there’s games better positioned for this – Coup, Sushi Go, Grifters, Tiny Epic Galaxies… I could seriously keep going… Timeline, Spot It! and since I don’t really like commas after exclamation points, I’ll stop now.
I give Harbour:
If I ever work out where Harbour is best suited, I’ll make sure to come back and update things in this article. Or maybe you could let me know where you’ve had it work in the comments. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to work this question out – which in itself is a fairly revealing point.
I got my copy through Tabletop Wonderland
Tabletop Wonderland are offering readers of The Goof Review a 10% discount off of your first month to their subscription service! Just use the code GOOFREVIEW10
If you enjoyed this then share the joy on social media so others can enjoy it too. And check out our other reviews. They’re always good for a laugh.
Please comment, lets get the conversations flowing!