Review of Hawaii: Lots of Variety on the Big Island

Designer: Greg Daigle
Publisher: Hans im Glück, Rio Grande
Players: 2-5
Ages: 10+
Duration: 90 minutes
Times Played: 7

I always try to make my reviews as unbiased as possible, but I may not succeed this time. Greg Daigle has been my Gathering roommate since 2003 and he’s truly one of the nicest people on the planet. In addition, he’s a very talented game designer and his many friends had wondered for years why he hadn’t been published yet. Hawaii was his breakthrough design and I’m thrilled at the reception the game has received. This includes getting a recommendation in this year’s SdJ awards, making it one of only six games in the more “complex” category to be recognized by the Jury. Plus, Tom Vasel hates it, so that’s another point in its favor. At any rate, the game was getting an awful lot of play at the Gathering, so let me, as objectively as I can, tell you why.

The game is set on the idyllic Pacific islands prior to their discovery by Europeans. The players are chieftains who are trying to do the best job of building up their villages. They do so by traveling to different Hawaiian locations to purchase items and by visiting nearby islands to receive the gifts they provide.

The game consists of five rounds. At the beginning of each round, the players receive their income in the game’s three currencies (a set amount for each, plus any additional income they may have earned with their purchases). The currencies are: “feet” (used to move to different locations); “shells” (used to buy items); and “fruit” (which can be used for either moving or purchasing, but only if nothing but fruit is used for the payment).

The central playing area is made up of 10 different locations, arranged in four rows (2-3-3-2) to make up the Big Island. At the beginning of each round, each player’s piece begins on the “beach”, next to the lowest row of locations. On a player’s turn, he moves his piece from its current position to any other location to buy one of the items available there. It costs one foot to move to an adjacent location, so at the start of a round, the locations in the lower rows have a lower movement cost to get to than those in the higher rows. After moving to the location, the player pays for his movement, buys the item in question, and ends his turn.

The Price is…Random

The prices for the items are determined at the start of each round in a procedure that shapes the flow of the game. Tokens numbered 2-6 are randomly chosen for each location. The selection procedure is such that you can get different numbers of tokens at a location in different rounds. The tokens determine how many items are available in each location that round and how much they cost. So, for example, if there are two tokens numbered 2 and 5 in a location, there will be two items for sale there that round and they will cost 2 and 5 shells respectively. If instead, there is only a single token numbered 6, there will only be one item available and it will cost 6 shells.

Most of the items that the players will buy are used to fill up the player’s villages. Each player begins with an L-shaped board where the villages will be constructed (they resemble the “homeland” bases in the game “Vikings” where the players place their tiles, even though the boards in Hawaii work differently). Players can have up to five villages. When a player purchases a village tile, she adds it to the end of a village row, extending it. Some of the tiles placed in the villages will affect the player’s position as a whole, while others will only affect that village.

What kinds of tiles can be bought? Some are starter tiles–a village must begin with one of these tiles. Some increase the player’s income, in either feet, shells, or fruit. Others allow the player to substitute different currencies when paying to move or purchase; these can give you some valuable flexibility. Then there are those that make moving around the island cheaper. Still others award the player end-game points for the tiles in that village. There are a few other types I’ll explain after I introduce some additional concepts.

There’s another important decision that has to be made when a tile is bought. Most of the tiles are double-sided. If the player chooses to spend twice the indicated price for the tile, she can acquire the more powerful side of the tile, which usually gives double the effect. It’s more efficient, but pricey, so this decision must be made wisely.

Speaking of efficient, the central tension in the game is deciding which kind of efficiency to pursue. The most efficient way of traveling is to slowly make your way up the island, making mostly short trips to conserve your feet spending. However, if you do that, your opponents will jump to the more distant locations to grab the cheaper items there. Ping-ponging from location to location to snag the bargains will give you the biggest bang for the buck for your shells, but really drains your feet budget. Travel too conservatively and you’ll find nothing but prohibitively expensive items are left (and some critical items may no longer be available at all). You have to find a balance between these two extremes each round and base it on your current position, your opponents’ positions, and the arrangement of the price tokens that round and that’s a very enjoyable challenge.

Islands in the Stream

There’s another way of making progress and that’s visiting islands. At the beginning of each round, four islands are laid out next to the beach, with varying costs to visit them. The cost for these are strictly in feet–there’s no need to shell out shells. What you do need in addition to feet are one or more boats, which is one of the items you can purchase at a location. Visiting an island earns you victory points (the higher the feet cost, the greater the VP award) along with the benefit from that island, which in most cases is a specific double-valued tile. Island hopping can be quite lucrative and make acquiring one or more ships a high priority.

The round ends after each player has moved their piece to a spot that determines their player order for the next round. When the price tokens are laid out at the start of the round, tokens are also allocated to all the turn order positions but the first one. The further back in the player order the position is, the higher the price token is assigned to it. When a player claims a turn order position, which ends the round for him, he has to decide if he wants to go earlier during the next round or grab a higher price token.

The reason you care about price tokens is that there are some VPs to be won at the end of every round. When you buy an item from a location, you keep the price token that determined its cost. At the end of the round, the players add together the values on these price tokens (including any token that they may have grabbed when they claimed a turn order position). Each round has a cost threshold. If the player meets or exceeds this threshold, she will earn some VPs. One of the village tiles can assist with meeting this threshold. All of the players who met the threshold then compare their sums and the highest two totals earn additional VPs. So you might decide to go later in the turn order next round if the price token you acquire allows you to meet the threshold or lets you beat out an opponent for more VPs. The interesting thing about this process is that when you pay double for a more powerful tile, you still only claim the price token with the base amount. That’s another reason to be prudent when deciding whether to pay double–those extra shells you spend don’t go toward meeting the threshold.

This process continues for five rounds. In each round, the price tokens are reallocated, so that there’s a brand new set of prices to consider. Meanwhile, your villages steadily grow. At the end of five rounds, you tally up the end-game points in your villages. These can be a big part of your final score. However, there’s one final twist. In order for a village to contribute its VPs to your end-game score, it must be sufficiently large. The minimum size is determined by how many tiki tiles the player purchased during the game (tikis can be bought at one of the locations; paying double gives you two tikis). The basic strategy decision here is to go with one or two huge villages or four or five small ones. Both strategies can work if they’re implemented properly. Once all the end-game bonuses are awarded, the player with the highest victory point total wins.

The Shifting Sands

And the next time you play Hawaii, it’ll be entirely different. That’s because you shuffle the locations and deal them out in a different arrangement at the start of every game. So that location for starter tiles that was so accessible last game, because it was in the bottom row, is now on top and so much more expensive to get to. A different arrangement of price tokens each round and a different setup of locations every game; variety really is the spice of life in Hawaii. Hawaii is one of my favorite titles of 2011 and I’m quite sure this would be the case even if I wasn’t friends with the designer. It’s a well crafted game that is consistently entertaining. Mechanically, it’s a worker placement game that brings something new to the genre: spatial relevance. In addition to considering what you want your next action to be, you also have to consider where it is. That, and the juggling of three separate currencies, give the game a unique feel. Every round is a puzzle that begins when the new price tokens are revealed. Where are the bargains; are they also the things I need? Where in the name of the (Jack) Lord are my opponents likely to head? What path will combine movement efficiency with reasonably cheap items? How does my current budget of feet, shells, and fruit fit into that plan? The choices aren’t so many that they’ll lead to AP, but they’re sufficiently great to make the planning very enjoyable.

In addition to the tactical choices present each round (and the need to be able to react to an unexpected bargain), there’s a fairly strong strategic element to the game. There are quite a few paths to victory and they’re well balanced. Your early purchases will often determine which strategy you’ll pursue and proper execution is essential. This mix of tactical and strategic choices is one I always find attractive in a game.

There’s a good deal of player interaction in Hawaii. All of it is of the indirect variety that is standard with Euros, but you will not do well if you ignore your opponents. Depriving players of lucrative items, getting to the cheap item or key island ahead of the others, and outpointing your opponents with your collected price tokens are just some of the areas where the players bump heads. Those who like Euros with a bit of jostling should appreciate this aspect of the game.

Chance Favors the Prepared Mind

Luck plays a role, but not a big one. If you really need an item and all the price tokens are expensive (or, even worse, if the location gets fewer than the expected number of purchases), that can suck. Then again, a good player won’t put himself in that position. Flexibility is important and it’s always a good idea to have a Plan B. I’d say the skill/luck ratio is in the range of 80/20.

The random setup of locations for each game doesn’t affect your strategy quite as much as the price token distribution for each round, but it should influence your thinking. It’s just easier to buy things from the bottom row than the top one. Some layouts will favor a multiple village strategy, some a big village strategy, and yet others will tempt you to focus on visiting islands. But duplicating what your opponents are doing is less than ideal, so you have to consider that as well. The main thing is, between the different location setups and the different price token draws, Hawaii has a lot of replayability. Those who like to reason their way through an ever-changing landscape will be pleased.

I’ve played the game with both 3 and 4 players and thought it was excellent with both; I probably slightly prefer the 4-player game. I don’t know of anyone in my group who has tried this with 2 players, but the Geek users seem to think it makes for a reasonable game, but one that isn’t as good as with more players. We have played it with 5 and opinion in my group is divided. Since the rules are basically the same for any number of players, the 5-player game is a much more contentious and crowded experience. That was a definite turn-off to some folks in my group, who felt it was too frustrating to get things done. On the other hand, some people thought the game was at its best with 5, and they loved the pushing and shoving and the fact that it was a more unforgiving game. I haven’t had the chance to try it with 5 yet to make up my own mind, but based on these opinions, you probably already know if you’ll like it with the maximum number of players or not. There’s no question, though, that the game works very well with 3 or 4.

Hans im Glück did a terrific job with the components. Dennis Lohausen, one of Germany’s busier graphic designers over the past five years, filled his illustrations with bright cheerful colors and made his drawings both pleasing to look at and easy to recognize. The frame for the island has to be pieced together jigsaw puzzle-style, but it works very well and holds the location tiles snugly. The three-dimensional cardboard player huts are very thematic and do a good job of hiding each player’s currency tokens. Those tokens are nice and chunky and will give any HiG fan deja vu: the feet tokens are from Pantheon and the fruit tokens are the limes from Finca. Overall, the game is most attractive.

Unfortunately, both HiG and Rio Grande dropped the ball with the rules. They’re organized in a very awkward manner and there are several rules errors and omissions. Five minutes on the Geek will set you straight, but it continues an alarming recent trend of a publisher delivering a substandard rules set for a game that just isn’t that complicated. Hans im Glück used to be the standard for gamer’s games among the mainstream German publishers. Lately, however, they have focused on lighter designs, just like so many of their competitors. Hawaii represents a return to form for this grand old company and it gladdens my heart to see that Bernd Brunnhofer and Co. can still turn out a top quality gamer’s game. Hawaii looks great and plays great. It provides lots of enjoyable decision-making without being overwhelming and the downtime is quite reasonable. It’s innovative, but still has a comforting level of familiarity. And, as you may have gathered, replayability is a major plus. Because there’s no big central board, the game is quite affordable, but if your budget is a bit tight, I understand there’s a copy available in Tom Vasel’s recycling bin that you can probably grab. Either way, this is a game I can recommend for any lover of meaty Eurogames. Mahalo!

Opinions from the Other Opinionated Gamers

Rick Thornquist: Larry’s covered the game very well, so all I can do is agree: Hawaii is a very good game. I’ve played it quite a few times and have greatly enjoyed each play. It’s about freakin’ time Greg Daigle got one of his games published and I’m very much looking forward to his next one.

Brian Leet: I also consider Greg a friend, but that isn’t hard as I think anyone who has ever met him does likewise. Hawaii has been a hit at our house the last month and a half, and I expect it will see a fair bit more play. While Larry went into exhaustive description I’ll say it is popular because there are multiple valid paths, it moves along fairly well once you get going, it is beautiful, and it is a engine building and resource management game without so many parts ot think about as many. My only knock against it is the time it takes to explain, set up and play with new players. But, that is a minor complaint, and we’ve had requests for it to come back to the table quickly.

Jonathan Degann: I never met the designer and wouldn’t know him if he showed up at my home wearing a grass skirt… and I still love the game. It offers everything: a good story arc that causes the flavor of the game to change over its play time, tough decisions, potential to create a strategy, and yet enough surprises to force you to keep adapting. One feature I especially admire is the choice over whether to pay double and take an enhanced tile, or restrain yourself. Taking a doubler is very efficient – but the game very smartly adds a special cost. When you do that, you fall behind in the battle to have the most point from your scoring tokens. Every choice seems perfectly balanced. On top of that, it’s a great value. As more games seem to demand a $60 list price, this gives you oodles of quality components at a list of $40.

Nathan Beeler: I don’t believe I’ve ever met Greg Daigle, either, and yet I like Hawaii a fair bit. I’m actually probably somewhere between liking it and loving it, but as this was one of the best of a fairly mediocre year, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and round up. The only real knock on it I have is that turn order can sometimes be very important and sometimes not be a big deal at all, depending on how the price tokens come out. And you don’t know how important it will be until after you have set turn order for the next round, which can be a source of frustration. I’m not sure there’s any way around that, but it would have been a lot nicer to have a better sense for the value of dropping early before I had to decide to do it. Overall, a small problem for a really nice game.

Jeff Allers: my first thought when playing this game in Essen last year was similar to Larry’s: finally a return to the gamer’s games that built Hans im Glück’s reputation among hobbyists in the 90’s. The game was also considered by Alea for some time, and I could see it fitting well in that line of excellent strategic thinkers. I, too, enjoy the variability and the balancing act required (especially the 3 currencies) in order to do well. Optimization games are nothing new, of course, and this does seem a bit like a throw-back to the “golden age” of German games. But it is also reminiscent of those earlier classics in that it is a good combination of the familiar with subtle innovation, and the whole is well-polished–a nice reward for Greg’s perseverance in continuing to develop the design over the years. So many optimization games these days seem either underdeveloped–or over-developed (the so-called “everything but the kitchen sink designs), but Hawaii is a return to that narrow middle ground that put German games on the world gaming radar. It is too bad that the rules were not developed as well as the game, and, similar to other optimization games with many options, it could drag with perfectionistic players who easily succumb to analysis paralysis (even I’ve been guilty of this). However, Hawaii deserves to be recognized this year and will hopefully be an inspiration to both HiG and others to again publish deeper games.

Mary Prasad: I played Hawaii one time recently (three players). I like the game pretty well. It’s a bit fiddly – lots of pieces to put out, every round having to re-seed the board, three currencies, etc., but mainly I think it has a bit too much “bumping heads” for me to put it in the “I love it!” category, although I would definitely play it again.

Greg Schloesser: It is difficult to add anything to Larry’s excellent description and comments on the game. I will echo the comments of others: Greg is a great guy, extremely friendly and kind. I am very happy to see Hawaii finally published, as he has labored on this project for many years. Like others, I feel the game is a solid design with a traditional feel to it. I enjoy the numerous decisions that must be made and the angst this often causes. There appear to multiple strategy paths players can pursue and no one clear road to victory. It is a fun, tense game.

My concerns mirror those mentioned by others: extensive set-up time and a propensity to suffer from analysis paralysis. Still, the pluses far outweigh these concerns.

W. Eric Martin (four plays, all with 3-4 players, on a purchased copy): As with many of the other commenters, I’ve known Greg for years and am astounded that it’s taken this long for one of his designs to appear in print. I met Greg in 2004 at a game designer’s conference organized by Stephen Glenn and was blown away at the time by an involved alea-ish game that included a game system similar to what appeared years later in Anthony Rubbo’s Hey, Waiter! – that system having players create a new “card” during play by combining the halves of two other cards. The idea is simple and mechanistic – not driven by thematics, that is – yet the possibilities that open up during a game are phenomenal because you have to see everything anew over and over again. You’re exploring a game system and challenging yourself to do as well as you can, while simultaneously trying to elbow everyone else out of the way so that you can do what you think needs to be done.

Over the years, I played other designs from Greg, and despite how polished and well-thought-out they all seemed to be after one or two plays, none of them hit the manufacturing line. As you might expect, I’m delighted that Hawaii made it into print. Aside from the tedious pricing at the start of each round, the game system works fantastically well, with variability both from round to round and from game to game that challenges you and forces you to rethink whatever strategy you might want to undertake – or might have already started. Yes, you want to grab bargains when they’re available, but as in real life getting something cheap does not equate to getting something valuable. As in Amun-Re, Goa, Tigris & Euphrates and other classic Hans im Glück releases, you need to have a plan, while being open to altering that plan as needed based on what everyone else is doing – and as in those games, the plans you create in your first games will likely be terrible, something you’ll realize only after a more experienced player smokes you or after you play multiple times and start to see all there is to explore in this well-crafted design.

Congrats, Greg! Now when’s the next one coming out…?

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!: Larry Levy, Rick Thornquist, Brian Leet, Jonathan Degann, Joe Huber, Nathan Beeler, Erik Arneson, W. Eric Martin
I like it: John Palagyi, Jeff Allers, Mary Prasad, Lorna, Greg Schloesser
Not for me:

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2 Responses to Review of Hawaii: Lots of Variety on the Big Island

  1. Dan Blum says:

    Wow, I totally spaced on commenting on this review. I don’t think I have anything substantive to add, so it doesn’t matter too much. I’ll add a vote to the “love it” camp, though.

  2. DLE says:

    Not for me: Tom Vasel

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