The Opinionated Gamers’ Review of Helvetia
Designer – Matthias Cramer
Publisher – Kosmos
# of players – 2 to 4
Ages – 12+
Time – 90-120 minutes
[Editors Note: This is a joint review which was expanded from a from a previous piece written by fellow Opinionated Gamer, Jonathan Degann. Rather than re-invent the wheel, we have reprinted the initial review by Jonathan and then added on our other comments below – DY]
Helvetia is a game of rural economic production by Matthias Cramer, set in the Swiss Alps. Players manage villages which produce the basics of sustenance – from familiar items like wood and bricks – to really exotic secondary goods such as cheese and beer, as well as babies, which will grow up to help out on the farm.
This is the third game by Cramer I’ve played, following Glen More and Lancaster. It is apt that he chose Switzerland as the setting for his latest game. Cramer is a thoughtful designer who tunes his games carefully. He creates balanced interlocking mechanisms with the care we’d expect from a Swiss watchmaker. Helvetia is a production chain game, a little like “Neuland” but without the map and so not quite the brain-burner.
You get, for example, a building that produces water, which you can sell for a point. Later you might get a building that turns water into goats – if you have both the water building and the goat shed, may be able to produce a goat to sell for a point. Then you can get a building which converts your goat to cheese, but as before you must have all links on the chain: water > water to goat > goat to cheese.
To build these production buildings, you also need buildings that produce appropriate combinations of the basic building materials: bricks, stone, and wood.
You may sell an item only once, and there are bonuses for being the first to sell given items, for selling specified groups of items, and for creating special point-scoring buildings.
To actually operate a building, you need to put a person on it. Once assigned, he cannot move. So in addition to working your production chain of buildings, there is the need to produce more people. You increase your population by having a married pair in one of your buildings and choosing the “midwife” action. This creates a bambino (I like to pretend that I am in the Italian speaking portion of Switzerland. You can call ’em whatever you want) who takes a turn to go to school and then becomes available to man one of your new buildings. It roughly parallels the need to have colonists in Puerto Rico. However, in Helvetia, your people remain with the building they are first assigned to for the entire game, and once used, you lay them down, making them unavailable until you choose the “night watchman” action, which will revitalize some of your people.
Rather than go through the hard work of creating a building and manning it, you can glom onto someone else’s building. You wait until THEY have manned it, then you take an uncommitted worker (or school child!) of the opposite sex and move it there. Your benefit is to be able to use the building just as if you had built it. Their benefit is that they may use the happy couple to make more bambini.
So the course of the game is:
- Start with basic production buildings
- Use those to create fancier buildings
- Grow your population to man those buildings, and to marry off into your opponents’ villages so you may use others’ buildings
- Use chains of fancier buildings to sell ever fancier goods for points.
- Race to achieve bonuses: first to sell a given good, first to sell specified groupings of goods, first to build ten buildings, and build special buildings that provide victory points wbut which otherwise do not produce.
The game is action driven. Apart from bonus moves [which will be explained later], on your turn you may choose a single action type and perform it. You’ll have 4-6 action disks at the beginning of each round. In your turn, you may perform a single type of action multiple times by spending multiple disks. But you must wait until next turn to choose a different action and once you’re out of disks, your round is over.
Oh… nasty little rule. The round ends immediately when there’s only one person with disks remaining. Someone always has unspent actions (remember you can spend more than one on your turn, performing an action multiple times.) In consolation, that player gets to go first next round.
Here is the menu of actions to choose from:
- Build a building (you may also make up for missing basic building blocks by spending action disks)
- Sell a good
- Marry off a pawn to someone’s building (Sex matters! Your pawns may be men or women, and may only marry those of the opposite sex.)
- Make babies
- Revive people on tiles who’ve already been used.
In addition to playing action disks to select from this menu, each selection will award a bonus tile at the end of each round to the player who has made the most use of that selection. This grants you a bonus action of its type which may be used once in the following round.
Scoring is done at the end of each round, though it is not cumulative. It is in the manner of “Settlers of Catan” in which you examine the assets you’ve achieved at that point. The game completes at end of a round where at least one player has 20 points. The main way to score points is via delivering goods to market. You score one point for each different type of good you have delivered over the course of the game. There are also a number of ways to score bonus points:
- build special 3VP valued buildings
- win the marker awarding an extra action – worth 1 VP each
- hold the start player marker – worth 1 VP
- be the first player to sell each particular good – 1 or 2 VP each
- be the first to sell certain combinations of goods – worth between 2 and 4 VP each
- be first or second to build 10 buildings – 4 or 2 VP
Ties go to the player with most awake villagers at the end of the game.
Opinions from the Opinionated Gamers:
The good part of the game is that, like Lancaster (which it bears no resemblance to besides designer), whatever you may think of the specifics of the mechanisms, the game works very well as a game. A production game like this could be very processional and about squeezing efficiency. Helvetia isn’t because of the way Cramer sets it up. There are key races for the bonus VP’s which really drive the game and the competition.
The marriage rules create further pressure. On the one hand, it’s easy to just jump on someone’s tile and spare yourself the trouble of building it. However, each worker takes only one mate, and it must be of the right sex, so there is a race to marry off onto the choice tiles.
I would not say that this is a game where a lot of the stress comes from wanting to do more actions than you have available, but it is a game where you want to execute your current turn’s plan quickly, and there is pressure to choose the action that keeps you from being shut out of your plan. I’d like to marry onto John’s “goat” tile, but I also need to buy the “cheese” building. If I do one, will I get shut out of the other?
If I take a straight forward, slow course of action that will get me what I want, step by step, will other players use many of their disks rapidly, cutting me off before I finish?
The choices are tough, “agonizing” and make for a game with the right amount of stress. Our group is not known for its speed, and we finished this game in ninety minutes. For a game of that duration, it’s filling and satisfying. Cramer has tuned the mechanisms, but he’s also tuned the game length. You are not only rushing to be the first to achieve bonuses, you may find that if you’re not careful, the game will end just one turn before you finish executing your master plan. The game culminates just as the knots are being tied, with nothing wasted at the end.
What impresses me about Cramer’s major designs are their tightness and lack of waste. They end on a high note. In both Lancaster and Helvetia, players collect assets (like bonus tiles or squires) which are to be used in the following turn. A lesser designer would make these merely tiebreakers, but Cramer gives them a consequential role in the scoring that is proportional to their importance in the game. The result is that player never takes an action that seems barely consequential.
The down side is that the game can be abstract. Not in the sense of “pasted on theme” – not at all. It’s that the mechanics aren’t easy to visualize.
“Let’s see, I want to make cheese, I’ve got a building that makes water… who makes goats? What’s the sex of the person on that tile? Do I have a man to go with their woman? Ok, so first I have to get the cheese building – no first I have to marry onto Jim’s goat tile because… oh wait, do I have what I need for the cheese building? I’ve got my own stone. Let me look around and see where is that guy who makes wood… yeah, she’s on Bart’s wood building…
One player was very frustrated with this all. I think that it’s no worse than Puerto Rico – but gone are the days where we played a game to death and these patterns of thinking became automatic.
If you’re prepared for the conceptual learning curve (the rules themselves aren’t bad), you just may find this to be a rewarding challenge.
This is among my three favorite games from Essen 2011 (As of Feb 2011). I really like all of the interacting mechanics here, and that there are many things that you want to do, and not enough time to do them all.
You start the game trying to figure out the puzzle of trying to ramp up your production so that you can build the buildings that you want to build. You get to choose some of your production in the inital setup but further production is decided through which buildings you choose to build and which buildings you’re able to marry into. Of course, there is constant pressure to do things quickly because you could have your coveted building snatched up by someone else OR someone else could marry into the building you want to be in.
Then, once you’re making things, you have to constantly be keeping an eye on the board to try to win the race to deliver things. You can try to deliver goods early, which can be quite valuable as there is a bonus for the first of each non-basic good to be delivered. When the total you need to win is only 20, a 1 or 2 point bonus is quite meaningful. Of course, if you deliver your early goods, that can slow down your production engine as you will likely have fewer buildings (and thus crappier production).
I very much like the production loops and the puzzle that you sometimes have to solve in order to make or deliver a good. I know that this isn’t the sort of thing for everyone, but I adore it. It can get a bit complicated because not all of your meeples are in your own city, but once you’ve played the game a few times, it becomes fairly easy to remember where your people are and what they make.
There is one big production problem in the game – and that is the male and female wooden bits really look alike. It’s pretty darned hard to tell the gender of a wooden bit from a distance. There is a fix on the way from Kosmos – hat stickers to be placed on all the “male” pieces, but this is really something that should have been caught before release. I have played the game six or seven times, and I would say that in at least three of my games, there was at least one player whose enjoyment of the game was lessened from the frustration of not being able to tell the gender of the pieces (because it caused them to make a bad plan of action, etc).
Once you get past that – and I most certainly have – the game is challenging in all aspects. It is a tense game from start to finish, and it is the sort of game that I am engaged in the whole time because I’m constantly trying to keep track of what goods people can make and deliver, and which buildings they might want to build or marry into.
(And FWIW, I got around my gender issue by placing star stickers on my male wooden bits… So, my boys call the people Sneetches now!)
Dale told me he liked it, so I sought it out. Wow. I loved it. I did not like Glen More that much and would be fine never playing Lancaster again, so I’m not a Cramer fan, but Helvetia speaks to me. I think it is in the pleasant land between The City, which I like as a filler and Mage Knight, which I like as an epic. I see a continuum between those three games because they all have chaining – in other words, you use A to produce B to produce C. They also all have interrelationships with other player’s tableaus. In The City, you have some cards that score based on what other players have. In Mage Knight, you have some spells that can use other creatures. In Helvetia, you get to marry into other players’ boards and then use those goods. I also liked the diverse scoring possibilities that are not overwhelming.
In addition to chaining, they have character selection, so the engine that drives the game is choosing one of five actions, which feels quite manageable. No, I am not going to call Helvetia a world beater. Nor am I going to declare it a 10, but for at least the first two plays, I loved it and hope to buy or trade for a copy soon.
One note – My recent play of Ora and Labora highlighted something about Helvetia. In Helvetia, you get to make your chain all at once. I prefer this to the Ora-style chain, where each turn you make one step in the process. In Ora, you can take two or three turns doing your chain, only to be thwarted by inadvertent choices by other players. Helvetia did not have that frustration for me because you could do the chaining within a single turn. Caveat, I also like Duck Dealer.
Unlike Mr. Franklin, I am becoming a Cramer fan, with this, Glen More, and Lancaster being among my top games of the last two years. Helvetia is really good. Trying to plan for the building chains, while also worrying about marrying off your meeples, injecting new blood by having kids, and trying to acquire bonus moves is a very challenging balancing act. That it’s all encased in a delightful nostalgic theme is a real bonus.
My only concern is I wish there was a better way of figuring out who owns what building and what its status is (are the occupants asleep, what’s their gender, etc.). It’s almost impossible to gather all of this vital information at a glance, so I find myself walking over to the other side of the table and studying my opponents’ displays. This slows things down, of course, and gives the game less of a snappy feel than I think is optimal. However, the game still isn’t long, nor does it outlast its welcome, so I’m still very happy with it. It’s in my Top 10 for 2011, along with Lancaster, so I can’t wait to see what Herr Cramer gives us next!
As has been, or will be, reported elsewhere, I have a large problem with one aspect of Helvetia: I find the round ending condition distasteful and fairly unpredictable. I know others claim it’s either not a big deal, or it’s more predictable than I give it credit. Whatever the case, that part does not work for me. The rest of the game, I quite enjoyed and sits squarely in my wheelhouse. I adore tech trees, though the one in this game could only marginally be called a tech tree because each new “tech up” only gives victory points and unlocks another level. Players aren’t gaining cool special abilities or more power, unfortunately. I love the worker placement, and think the marrying and baby-making aspect is clever and appealing. Overall, I’d happily play the game if someone wanted to bring it to the table, though I’m more likely to request a game like Glen More if it’s my choice, because it doesn’t have any sore spots for me.
This is my favorite game from last Essen. I particularly like the ability to sneak in and claim a bonus that someone else might have been counting on. For example, the first person to deliver butter earns (or anything else) earns extra points. Perhaps you are the only person with a building to make butter. But on my turn I marry into your butter churning family and use the bonus action to immediately deliver it. (Or use a bonus action to marry in and use my regular action to deliver it.) I love a game where someone is crying “nooooooooo” when another player’s devious plan comes to fruition.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
Love It!… Dale Yu, Jonathan Franklin, Larry Levy, Valerie Putman
Like it… Jonathan Degann, Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Tom Rosen
Not for me…