We board gamers live in a time of abundance. Everywhere you look there’s a new interesting game to try out and chances are it’s going to be pretty good. Every once in a while I hear tales of the old days where a few intrepid souls ventured out to Essen every autumn to bring back news of the gaming treasures being produced in Germany. Others would painstakingly translate rulebooks and provide English-language supplements for download on BGG so us in the States could play these austere wonders. Now everyone’s heard of Catan; I saw The Castles of Burgundy being sold at Target the other day.
For those of us who like to enjoy a bit of the ol’ brain burn, the last decade or so has been excellent, with Vital Lacerda leading the way as a mess of heavy euro-inspired games have made their way to market with much fanfare. We are indeed spoiled. So when I say that Schmidt and Kiesling’s Heaven and Ale is a thoroughly competent game, I want my intentions to be very clear: I am indeed damning it with faint praise. In a world of greatness, good isn’t good enough.
Those experienced with eurogames will immediately recognize a number of familiar elements: you’ve got a hexagonal grid in which you’ll buy and place hexagonal pieces. On the main board there’s a path full of different actions you can take; in the center are end of game scoring goals. Indeed, the most original mechanism of the game are the shady/sunny halves of the board, on which tiles score for money and points, respectively. But even that’s merely a geographic twist on the basic structure of any engine building game–devote time to resources first before transitioning towards scoring VPs.
Despite its unoriginality, Heaven and Ale lacks any mechanical flaws. It’s a well put-together tactical game where you’re constantly trying to plan out how much you can get away with not collecting money in order to squeeze out more points, while navigating the capriciousness of everyone else’s plans. The decision-point tensions extend beyond the choice between money and points. Scoring only happens when you stop at one of the six scoring spots on the action track, and only certain types of scoring can happen depending on which space it is. So you want to try to score frequently, but if you score early you won’t get much out of it and you’ll be blocked from ever scoring that category again.
Suppose, for example, that you get a couple of hops plants down in your field and there are more you might be able to get later on. However you’re a bit short on cash and a scoring space is open. Do you try to push your luck and get a better result out of scoring hops in the future, or cash in while the opportunity presents itself now?
My favorite decision space is in the tile placement itself. Beyond the question of which half of the board to place a tile, you’ve got to consider how you’re going to arrange your tiles in relation to any monks you purchase (which score the tiles surrounding them) and any shed spaces (which trigger various scoring effects once completely surrounded). It’s a tidy puzzle that occupies any downtime I might have during other player’s turns.
I’ve got to stop myself before I spend this entire review listing Heaven and Ale’s mechanisms. As a game with little soul besides being a pile of mechanisms, that’s not a simple task. The art is pleasant, and my copy came with a set of four coasters (for some reason) that show off its stained glass-inspired visuals.
Maybe I’m harboring a bit of resentment over the fact that while the setting is about monks brewing beer the game is entirely abstract. I love trappist beers. I’ve got a bottle of St. Bernardus 12 in the fridge right now waiting for the right moment. They couldn’t have tried to be thematic at all? Really? Some aspects are even anti-thematic, like the fact that the four things you plant in your field are wood, yeast, hops, water, and barley. None of this makes sense. Four of them are an ingredient in beer-making, and only two are things you actually plant. I’ve got two games on my shelves about winemaking (Viticulture and Vinhos) that both make me feel, to some degree, like an entrepreneur and winemaker.
Why should I settle for this unnecessary abstraction? What’s compelling me to choose Heaven and Ale over the dozens of mid-weight euros I already have on my shelves? It doesn’t have the elegance of Burgundy or the charm of The Gallerist. It lacks the tight interaction of Brass or the punitive grind of Pipeline.
There is nothing at all wrong with Heaven and Ale. In many ways, that’s the problem.