I Whip My Hara Back and Forth
Ask me what my favorite thing is about Champions of Hara, and you aren’t going to like the answer. It’s far too twee. Too sickly sweet. Too basic.
Why don’t I tell you my second and third favorite things instead?
Behold Hara. Picturesque, in its own way, but not much to recommend at first glance. Six hexes of six hexes apiece (plus an inaccessible middle hex for storing that hex’s cards), surrounding another hex of hexes. A world fragmented, abstracted, hexagonified. The horror of six-sided geometry brought into sharp contrast with the contours of the earth.
But wait a short moment. After one round each of those big hexes will have something appear within it, a monster or event occupying its lowest-numbered sub-hex. And that’s just the morning. By dusk a second set will appear, this time drawn from a different deck and assigned by rolling a die that shows the symbols of those six big hexes. Yawning rifts, planar monstrosities crawling across the landscape. Even now, you haven’t seen anything yet. By midnight, Hara itself crawls, two of its hexes swapping places. One of them is always your safe haven, the central dojo; the other, who knows.
Hara is perhaps my favorite fantasy adventure game landscape ever crafted. Within the span of a single in-game day it transforms from mundane to entirely inhospitable. Safe spaces take flight and sequester themselves on the opposite end of the map, while creatures villainous and friendly establish themselves among opportunities and traps alike. It all interlocks to generate a geography of coiled barbwire and cool oases, where previously these prairies seemed formless. Here’s a monster that attacks at range; here’s an unbeatable foe squatting on a vital passage between terrain; here’s a place where you can catch your breath for a moment, at least until the ground beneath your feet is rearranged yet again.
In other words, Hara is a moveable feast. Sometimes literally. It’s cliché to say no two maps are alike. In Champions of Hara, the same map won’t be alike within the next quarter hour. The previous challenge will be whisked away, while an open passage will become deadly.
Of course the real joy is in traversing that shifting landscape, and in that regard Champions of Hara delivers. Its system is vaguely reminiscent of the geographical meanderings of Mage Knight, where the simple act of traipsing from A to B was often fraught with dangers and even uncertain movement. Champions of Hara, however, is no Mage Knight; in many ways it’s better, offering a streamlined system that evokes many of the same emotions — the consternation at landing one space short, the aha! of realizing that two cards can be combined just so to arrive there anyway — but without the oppressive sense of working out an escape room rather than embarking upon an adventure.
Conceptually it revolves around four cards, at least initially. Each of Hara’s six heroes starts with four cards and may gain more over time, gradually expanding their range of abilities. Smartly, this is usually a broadening rather than a direct power-up, offering more ways to do things so that you can specialize (say, by doubling down on movement or damage), rather than leaving your original cards useless when compared against newer tricks. This is partially because leveling up is admirably restrained, and also because you’re only allowed to play three cards at any time. But the main reason is because of the way these cards are deployed.
Consider Leaf, the mushroom man with big knotted muscles. His four starting cards include Dash (the same basic movement card that all heroes utilize), Falling Pine (move and inflict damage), Syncopate (damage, with the possibility of being free if you have enough resources), and Modal Movements (movement and resource-gathering). Right away, you can see Leaf’s basic synergies take shape: he gathers resources while moving, then exchanges them all at once for big damage. His personal resource — every hero has their own — is called Momentum, because his cards are very much about gathering momentum from movement and then unleashing them for bonuses.
But those are the way Leaf’s cards behave when they’re in your hand. Once used, they become table cards, where they flip over and now provide entirely different (but often related) abilities. Dash now moves half as far, but deals a bit of damage. Falling Pine only deals damage, but may cash in Momentum for even more. Syncopate becomes a dual-use healing/movement spell. Modal Movements keeps moving and gaining Momentum, faster and faster, until a certain monster keyword can be sprinted past. If that sounds like a small thing, it isn’t.
Every one of Champions of Hara’s heroes presents its own puzzle in miniature, a tension between movement, damage, and smaller considerations like immunities, resources, and boosts that unfurl as your cards move between hand and table, becoming useful in new combinations with every passing decision. It’s a remarkably simple system: cards are in your hand or on the table, and that’s that. But within that system there’s room for surprise, for setback, for innovation. Planning, too, although the alterable landscape often makes tatters of careful preparations.
And every hero explores this system anew. The inventor Thomas Evening uses runes to power his guns to incredible effect. But runes are mostly found in rifts, prompting him to occasionally dart off to procure ammunition. Kaoru and her bear Kuma are tough, with their grit restored afresh every morning. But it’s a limited pool, and tuckering themselves out early on means they’ll still be tuckered come dusk. Persephone grows more afraid every time she’s injured, only to unleash her terror in the form of her manifested nightmares. For very little overhead, every character shows up with their own personality.
This isn’t to say that every card is equally useful. One of the game’s few disappointments is the occasional new card that doesn’t spark as many possibilities as its peers. This isn’t common, and leveling up — which is done by reaching certain thresholds of the game’s descriptively-titled blue, red, or green energy — is usually a momentous occasion, if only because now you can maybe slay that monster blocking that nearby event. But it does happen.
Fortunately, like most of this game’s weaknesses, it’s a momentary lapse. More than that, it’s a forgivable lapse because of what Champions of Hara ultimately accomplishes.
Brace yourself. This is the part that might sound twee.
What Champions of Hara does so well is that it evokes an adventure.
Truly. Champions of Hara kicks up an effortless adventure. In that regard it’s better than Mage Knight, and infinitely better than anything set in that husk called Terrinoth. From start to finish, in every scenario and player count, whether feuding or cooperating, it has a story to tell. And although that story is told via framing timber and ellipses, by draping clothes around the invisible skeleton of the emperor, it manages a coherent tale. Even a compelling tale. If anything, that’s how board game stories are often best told. Add color, provide a quest, and then step back and let the heroes do their business.
In this case, it’s the color that whisks you along. The goals themselves are the usual fantasy guff: gather tokens in sequence, beat a boss monster, race to max level before your companions. That sort of thing. In the meantime, however, you’re navigating those interlocking threats and opportunities. Keywords, really. There are a handful of the things, each shaping the game’s geography as surely as multi-terrain hexes and a dozen modifiers in other adventure games, but streamlined to a needle’s profile. Aggressive monsters attack before you. Ally monsters can help you. Armored monsters can’t be attacked at range. Critical attacks demand a roll to possibly inflict extra damage. Dangerous monsters attack back when defeated.
That’s it. Five keywords. Between those and a few basic stats, like life points and damage and range, and the map is breathed to life like clay become man. Even in the moment of a monster’s death, the game is alive. Consider the decision you might face when staggering through the Aerchi Wastes and presented with three monsters: a Blue Riftling, which might befriend you and heal your wounds, a Forgotten Guardian that will inflict damage but yield modest energy, or Greasebeard the pirate, dangerous but carrying the deadly Captain’s Hook, which you can pry from his twitching arm to help overcome further threats in the future. Did I mention that the item cards are numbered, and that certain foes will yield specific rewards? There are no random item draws to suffer through, no junk to shuffle through. Champions of Hara is far too focused for that. Every item has a use, every step takes you toward something and away from many somethings, and every card moved between hand and table provides both new limitations and new possibilities.
Between its colorful shifting landscape, solid card play, and the sheer vibrancy of its characters and enemies, Champions of Hara is one of the finest adventure games I’ve played. It’s a near-perfect marriage of story and game, both redolent and understated. The usual adventure game warnings apply, as it requires fortitude against the capriciousness of events and a willingness to read the occasional splash of flavor text. But those elements are handled so deftly that rather than irritating me, as they often do in lesser titles, they’re a joy to discover, a brief pleasant pause before we return to the task of pushing past our current obstacle.
In short, Champions of Hara has charmed me. Its world may be changeable, but its craftsmanship is anything but.