Haven Can’t Wait
One of my favorite genres of cardboard is the location-grabber, wherein you and an opponent feud over a line of locations, parceling out cards and strength, engaging in some brinkmanship, and ultimately hoping to nab the best spots when the timing’s right. Picture Omen: A Reign of War, the prematurely strangled Warhammer 40,000: Conquest, the freshly minted Guardians, or granddaddy Battle Line. No, I won’t be strong-armed into naming them Schotten-Tots. I have my dignity.
Speaking of favorites, Alf Seegert has always done yeoman’s work with idiosyncratic designs, especially those that evoke strange worlds and feature smart twists on familiar mechanisms. Heir to the Pharaoh in particular was one of 2016’s most interesting games. A pity nobody’s heard of it.
Well, I’ll be damned if nobody is going to hear about Haven. Illustrated by the preposterously talented Ryan Laukat, this beauty is wickedly smart — and possibly Seegert’s best design yet.
If you’ve caught a glimpse of Haven, chances are you’ve seen the board. Lush green woodland, paths trod by towering elementals, shrines and havens gradually claimed by tokens and gears and leaves. It’s classic Laukat, naturalistic and fantastical both at once, like some half-remembered blend of childhood and storybook.
That’s Haven’s — and Seegert’s — first trick. The board itself isn’t where the action happens, at least not the immediate moment-to-moment action. It’s the campaign, the strategic layer, the war to the remainder of the game’s battles. Not that it isn’t important. Crucial, even. Every battle gains ground on that map, shuffling those titanic guardians from one shrine to another and leaving your control tokens in their wake. When half an hour has melted away and it comes time to score, it’s this map that you’ll refer to. If you hope to achieve a good score, you’ll spare it a glance often.
But the rest of the time? You’re staring at a row of three locations, one per element, and the cards you’ll employ to gain an advantage over them.
The process is similar to other location-grabbers, at least broadly. You and your opponent alternate adding sentinels to those three locations, with the intent of having the greater strength when those locations finally slip over the edge into battle. Whoever has the most strength earns a reward.
But this being an Alf Seegert game, that description doesn’t quite do it justice. First of all, you’re technically fighting two connected battles at each location. Your sentinels are doubly empowered, both with weapons and a lore number. Whichever side has the most weapons earns a shrine wherever the corresponding elemental is squatting on the map, while sporting the highest lore earns the location token itself. Secondly, not all sentinels are played for all to see. Anything from your deck is face-up, but cards played from your hand are hidden, leaving your opponent guessing at how much strength (both strengths) you have deployed there. And thirdly, each location only permits a certain quantity of lore to be played there. Overshoot and you’ll be forced to withdraw a sentinel before battle or you’ll lose outright.
Okay. So there’s a lot going on. You’re gambling on deploying cards straight off the top of your deck to bolster your forces, while hoping that you don’t break past that location’s limit. Some cards are revealed and others are hidden, plunging many of your wagers into semi-blindness, informed only by what’s revealed on the table and some vague memories of what your opponent spent in battles past. And you’re hoping to connect these little skirmishes to the grander war being waged over on the map, investing your strength where it will do you the most good.
But the coolest thing about Haven is that it’s so smooth in practice. The information is fragmentary, but it’s all within grasp. Sentinels are numbered simply enough that it’s easy to remember that your opponent isn’t likely to draw a 4 at a critical moment, or that a pile of concealed cards may hold no value at all, or that your opponent is stewing on their hand hard enough that they probably can’t win this round. Within a few minutes, the whole thing speaks a language of its own. And it isn’t hard to become conversant.
There’s even some asymmetry, but Haven is smart enough to keep it mild. According to the fluff, one side is safeguarding the forest while the other is hoping to pillage it. But rather than going overboard with faction powers, the differences are a matter of a few cards and who wins the weapons and lore tiebreakers. The brain-burning asymmetry of Root this is not.
There are, however, details aplenty. And every single one of them can be bent to your advantage.
For example, I haven’t mentioned how battles trigger. Let’s start with your three decks. There are your sentinels, the little dudes who fight for you, and power cards, which I’ll describe momentarily. Then there are offerings. These are connected to the three battle locations, and you’re required to play one at the end of every round. A leaf offering, for example, can only be played on the leaf location, while a wild/water offering can be played to — well, you’re smart enough to figure it out. Once a location has been bestowed three offerings, the next battle phase will see both sides tallying their strength.
Most of the time, playing a third offering gives your opponent an entire turn to react. This is thanks to the phase order, with offerings made at the very end, whereas battles occur earlier. Commonplace board game phase lawyering. But here’s the clever part. In addition to regular offerings, both factions have three insta-offerings in their decks. When you go to draw them, zip! Straight to their location they go. Now that battle can happen immediately, because you draw cards before the battle phase.
It’s a dash of uncertainty, but it’s uncertainty you can manipulate to your own ends. With some careful measuring of your deck’s resources, it’s possible to predict such an appearance. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve swung ahead of an unsuspecting opponent by focusing my limited draws on the offering deck, thus prompting a battle where I was only marginally ahead. There’s nothing quite like winning both of a location’s battles for half the effort.
The real uncertainty comes in the form of lore cards. Yes, “lore” appears often enough that it starts to become confusing. Call them “powers” and the lexicon straightens itself out.
Power cards, then. You’re only permitted a couple of draws per turn, and it’s tempting to spend them on sentinels and offerings. Still, it’s a good idea to cultivate a healthy stable of these babies, because they pack the potency of compressed accelerant tossed into a wildfire. They can raise spent sentinels from the discard pile, spring newborn armies into existence, reveal your enemy’s hidden warriors, and rearrange your troops. They’re limited in quantity and never come back once spent, but careful application of a spell or two can completely transform the landscape of a fight.
While I’m tossing in the stuff that didn’t fit elsewhere, it’s also a good idea to play with the Hidden Artifacts variant. It requires some extra hand management, but it pays out secret rewards that can tilt the final scoring. It might seem like one more thing to consider — and it is — but like everything else in Haven, it’s a delight just how seamlessly it all fits together.
Like I mentioned earlier, that’s the best thing about Haven. Although it sports an entire grocery list of mechanics, from wagering and area control to press-your-luck and hand management, every element blends smoothly with everything else. Rather than a confounding mishmash of ideas and systems, it’s a supernal location-grabber, largely because it steps beyond the usual boundaries of the genre in surprising and appealing ways. It’s more than a game about dominating three locations. It’s also about picking your fights, and manipulating those that you do pick, and wagering shrewdly, and prodding at your opponent so that they can’t do the same to you. It’s about the joy of peeling back layers of mastery and discovering that there’s more beneath the skin than first met the eye.
It is, in other words, Alf Seegert at his absolute best.
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A complimentary copy was provided.