Monks in a Funk
To discover how I feel about Andreas Schmidt and Michael Kiesling’s Heaven & Ale, you don’t have to look much further than the rulebook. On the very first page, you’ll find the usual list of components. Here are some barrels. Monks. Sheds. Yeast and hops, barley and wood. Everything a monastery needs to brew enough beer to wash away the sting of losing Lindisfarne.
Turn the page, however, and all that stained-glass prettiness is scrubbed until all that remains is a blank pane. No longer are the resources barley and water and yeast; they’re yellow and blue and white. Gone is the veneer of monastic life, and certainly missing is the whole “brewing beer” thing. Trappists living the Rule of St. Benedict? You might as well be stevedores living the rule of finish loading these shipping containers by five p.m. or bust.
In fairness, it’s easy to see how Heaven & Ale has captured some people’s fancy. While it has nothing to do with monasteries, monks, or beer, it certainly knows how to use a rondel, and nobody can claim that Schmidt and Kiesling aren’t hyper-aware of this hobby’s obsession with overlaying hexes atop other hexes.
The game takes place in two locations. In the center of the table sits the rondel, where your “player figure” — the game is aware enough of its non-setting that it doesn’t bother to bestow a cooler name upon its most-used piece — will go around and around, nabbing resources and monks and scoring opportunities. These are then transferred to the grounds of your monastery, where they are immediately planted into either shady or sunny plots. Eventually, as certain spaces are enclosed and monks are activated, your planted resources will yield cash (if shady) or precious resources (if sunny). Jump forward a few rounds, perform a multiplication problem, and there you have it. You’ve just survived your first play of Heaven & Ale.
This isn’t without its… well, not thrills. Let’s call them moments of mathiness. The turns are quick, at least in theory. Landing on a space means you plant a resource, deploy a monk, or earn a scoring disc right away. There’s even a compelling sensation of scarcity to the whole thing, especially if you forget to plant barley — sorry, yellow — for too long, or fail to budget your initially sizable purse of ducats. Both cash and resources are essential to a good score, but the balance between fundraising and point-raising can be a tricky one to strike.
More than that, there’s an almost intoxicating freedom to some of your potential actions, which in one sense is the closest the game gets to realizing its setting. Your player figure can move as far as you like around the rondel, with the caveat that moving too far might see you to the end before you’ve accomplished everything you need. Similarly, you’re free to hoe your garden however you like, seeding whites and blues and browns wherever you can afford and in accordance with whatever strategy you’re pursuing.
It’s unfortunate that the whole thing comes packaged with a lingering whiff of ennui. Much like a monk realizing that his decade-long vow of silence was maybe a scooch too optimistic, the whole thing quickly loses its luster. Despite its variable setup, with (identical) resources and (differently tonsured but otherwise identical) monks appearing in various slots on the rondel, the game’s central conundrum doesn’t allow for much expression or, well, thematic expression.
For one thing, Heaven & Ale’s assortment of systems doesn’t always function as intended. Much of the time, it encourages careful, even obsessive planning, arraying its offer of resources and monks and bonus barrels before you like a feast on Good Friday. Then it rewards players for behavior as snitty as blocking spaces and gobbling up particular resources, leaving everyone else to play the short-game as they struggle to make use of the leftovers. Meanwhile, that intoxicating sense of freedom? It doesn’t mean a thing when the surest path to victory is moving your master brewer along the scoring track. Without accomplishing that, your score is effectively capped, and not by the soaring dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace.
Even that scoring mechanism, which multiplies the progress of your master brewer against that of your lowest resource, feels like it’s aping Reiner Knizia’s best designs rather than understanding what made them great. For example, even very small differences between two players’ breweries can translate into very wide gaps in their scores, often feeling as though they’re multiplied rather than summed because otherwise everyone’s final standing would look pretty much the same. With that taken care of, entire racks of barrels can be claimed with a single action, injecting peculiar swinginess into an otherwise measured experience.
Far worse, none of Knizia’s consideration of theme is on display here. It has nothing to say about Trappists, no idea why hops and yeast should be as plentiful as water or wood, and doesn’t bother to connect the actions of your brewer-monks to the action taking place on your boards. Robbed of context, you’re merely running in circles, ticking five different colors along a track, and counting sums. In fact, the presence of its monastic theme actually makes the game more difficult to parse than it would have been as a pure abstract, its functionless clutter of brewery-related symbols distracting from the remainder of its iconography.
Therein lies my trouble with Heaven & Ale. It isn’t merely a game with a mismatched coat of paint; it’s a game with paint that distracts from what little stands to recommend it. There are imperfections here — the way it totters between careful planning and making do with the sloppy seconds you’ve been left by other players, the tantalizing offer of freedom that incentivizes only one particular course of action — but it’s easy to see how this game has engendered some enthusiasm. It’s snappy, readily optimized, and lets you be a snit to your fellow players while pretending that you’re a great human being.
Rather, the problem is that Heaven & Ale doesn’t have anything to say. Each play blends together into the same unmemorable mishmash as its sense of place. And frankly, that isn’t enough these days. This hobby is no longer bifurcated between the games that boast satisfying systems and those that provide dramatic moments. We can have it both ways.
We’re living in the Golden Age. And this? This isn’t one of its princes.
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