The Spiel nominees were announced recently and one of the surprise nominations was a game called Heaven & Ale. It’s been nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres – the “Strategy Game of the Year” award.
Whereas the Spiel des Jahres games are meant to be light, family-weight games, the Kennerspiel are meant to be more complex, but still accessible to people with some gaming experience. Previous winners include Istanbul and 7 Wonders.
How does Heaven & Ale stack up? Is it likely to win? Let’s take a look at it…
The theme of Heaven & Ale is that you are brewing beer in a monastery, but despite the great artwork, the theme is rather thin – it is a Euro, and a heavy one at that. Players spend their turns acquiring tiles that either give them money or the potential for victory points.
I say ‘potential’ because the main way of scoring points takes a bit of getting used to. You’re collecting half a dozen different types of resources, which are tracked on your player board, but you don’t do anything with those resources. The only thing that matters is how much of your least resource you have.
So you might have lots of wood and water, but if you hardly have any hops, you’re going to do very badly. I guess, thematically, you’re not going to be able to brew much beer if you don’t have a decent amount of all the required ingredients.
You also have a brewmaster, who is the key to everything. He also moves up on a track and the higher he is at the end, the bigger your score multiplier will be. If your lowest resource at the end is on 9 and your brewmaster gives you a multiplier of 4, you will score 9 x 4 = 36 points.
The central mechanism, in terms of how you acquire these resources, involves players advancing as far as they wish around a track collecting tiles from the spaces they land on. However, you can only travel around the track once each round so if you shoot ahead to grab the best resource tiles, you might not get very many while slower players pick up lots more tiles by moving slowly around the track.
The final piece of the puzzle is the hex grid of locations on your player board. Each time you acquire a tile you have to pay money to place it on a location. Some locations allow you to earn money from the tiles (which you use to place more tiles) while others increase your resources (to score you points).
It might not sound too complicated at this point, but there are a whole pile of other interconnected mechanism that are layered into the central system. In order to acquire resources, you have to land on a space to score the tiles, but different spaces allow you score different things.
So you might be able to score all your hops tiles, or all your 3 tiles (all the tiles are numbered), but you can only score each type once in the whole game, so deciding when to score what is really tricky!
Each time you complete certain sections of your hex board, you also get to score certain tiles depending on the numbers on the tiles in that section. Sometimes you want lots of high numbered tiles (they score more) and sometimes you want low numbered tiles (they move the all-important brewmaster more).
After the rules have been explained, you sit back and look at it all and think, “Oh my goodness, where do I start?” You want to score high-value tiles, but they cost more to place, so you want high-value tiles on the money locations to get lots of cash, but if they’re on the money locations, they’re not scoring you points!
You really want to score your brewmaster to get him moving up the track, but that means getting low-value tiles that won’t score much! Aargh! The game has been cunningly designed to offer trade-offs at almost every turn. The more you have of one thing, the less you have of another and figuring out how to balance it all is very challenging. It’s heavy.
Personally, I loved it! In terms of being a contender for the Kennerspiel though, I think it’s too heavy. The only previous nominee that has a similar weight to it would be Terraforming Mars, which lost to Exit: The Game last year.
Reactions from my heavy-Euro-loving friends were a little lukewarm compared with myself. I thought the spatial element of placing the numbered tiles on your board in order to make the most of the scoring at the right time was great though, and reminded me a lot of The Castles of Burgundy.
Have you had a chance to play it yet? Do you think it’s in with a chance of winning?