Larry Levy and Tom Rosen have been known to debate which game to play from time to time. Larry wants to play this; Tom wants to play that. It’s a recurring theme on game days as they each try to persuade their peers to play the game they think is best. All this debating can only mean one thing — it’s time for another Opposing Opinions column. In the past, Tom and Larry have debated expansion fever, cooperative plague, and Wallace delirium, but this time they’ll be pitting game against game in a multi-round grudge match.
Tom: Java is hands down the best game in the Mask Trilogy. I don’t care if Tikal won the Spiel des Jahres, has a higher average rating on BoardGameGeek, and has thousands upon thousands more owners. The design of Tikal (and Torres) in 1999 was just a warm-up for Kramer and Kiesling as they geared up for their real masterpiece, Java in 2000.
I’m not going to argue that Tikal isn’t good; it’s very good. And yet it pales in comparison to the beauty, the depth, and the enduring nature of Java. Just look at that game! It’s drop-dead gorgeous and has the enthralling gameplay to back it up.
The debate about the relative merits of Java and Tikal comes down to one of our fundamental differences — I prefer open-ended games with sprawling decision trees, whereas Larry prefers narrow and confined games with more limited options. Java gives you that wonderfully wide open feeling of having a million different things you can do. You’re not forced to pick from a menu of doing A, B, or C like in so many games. The way in which the board develops at the beginning of Java is so free form that it’s daunting to many players who are used to being guided and corralled by games. But it’s liberating to have that much flexibility in a game and makes for an incredibly replayable experience. While this leads many to criticize the game for analysis-paralysis, it simply leads me to select my opponents more carefully. As long as you’re playing with people who think during other players’ turns and don’t need to calculate every single available move, this game will move at a reasonable pace and, more importantly, be worth the time invested. Wouldn’t you rather play a meaningful longer game than several forgettable shorter games?
Tikal is not as confining as many German-style games, but the board still tends to develop in similar ways, and unless you play with the prolonging auction variant, the random draw of the volcano tiles plays an immense role. It’s also just hard to get excited about the incremental gains of swapping treasure tiles with opponents or building your temple up one more level. Java can be a quiet and pensive experience, but it’s also got plenty of excitement as sprawling cities are chopped up and reconfigured in surprising ways. In the end, Java is the one with the looks, the depth, and the replayability that will make it a classic for many years long after Tikal has fallen by the wayside.
Larry: Tom is right when he says that our Tikal/Java split truly illustrates our divide over focused vs. wide open games. But that’s all he’s right about. Tikal is a brilliant design, the only game ever to win the SdJ, DSP, and IGA awards. It originated the idea of Action Points and implements it wonderfully. The “stones” hexside movement mechanic is a terrific idea, where the players essentially set the geography of the countryside each game. And if you’re looking for dynamic play with the potential for bold moves, just see how dramatically the game can change when you establish one of your additional base camps on the perfect hex.
I think my favorite thing about Tikal is how wonderfully themed it is. Every action is closely tied to its real-world counterpart. This really adds to the appeal of the game. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most beautiful games I own.
Java is just as attractive and is a fine game in its own right, but it can’t hold a candle to its older brother. As Tom says, the board is a blank canvas. That’s fine if you’re Picasso or have a few dozen games under your belt, but for the rest of us, it’s bewildering, to say the least. So rather than analyze your position, you just latch onto a line of play that looks decent and hope it doesn’t cost you the game. That’s not nearly as much fun, or as skillful, as quickly sizing up the Tikal board and making what might be your best play. It’s not like your options in Tikal are limited–far from it. But the first lesson of modern boardgaming is that the skill level rises when your options are restricted just a little bit. Tikal gets that balance down perfectly.
Java also isn’t nearly as true to its theme as Tikal is, so it loses points there. And the Analysis Paralysis that Tom so casually mentions can be a huge issue. In addition, Tikal works with lots of different kinds of gamers, thanks to the two methods of play (I prefer the auction variant, which adds very little extra time with experienced players, but the standard “pick a tile” method is great as well). Tikal has the awards, it has the ratings, and it has the superior gameplay. It’s a modern classic and time has already shown that it (not its little brother) is the game from the Mask Trilogy that will be long remembered.
Larry: Well, that was fun, but Action Points are so twentieth century. Let’s move closer to the present day and compare a couple of games that also share a common mechanism, namely Mac Gerdts’ wonderful rondel.
I wish I could trash Imperial, but I can’t, ‘cause it’s really a very good design. In fact, I’ve played some amazing games of it. The trouble is, I’ve also played some games of it that were kind of flat and some which were downright frustrating for a few of the players. It’s a little bit fragile, as is sometimes the case with games with so much player interaction. The situation is somewhat worse for Imperial, because it can be really hard to recover from a poor start.
Fortunately, there is another rondel game that doesn’t suffer from this problem. Navegador is not only a wonderfully designed game, but it’s one of the most reliably enjoyable ones I play. The various mechanisms fit together like clockwork and the game moves along at a crackling pace, because all of the turns are so short and basic. Navegador also has a very strong fidelity to its theme, something Gerdts is known for. The rondel works better than ever and instead of the players being deprived of actions they’d rather do (which is often the case in other rondel games, including Imperial), in Navegador the players have to choose between several attractive options. Of course, you’re able to do them all, but then your slow pace means you’ll be limiting your chances of acquiring the privileges that yield most of the VPs. It gives the game a more positive feel and doesn’t make the choices any less difficult or the skill level any lower.
Gerdts has designed a number of successful games, but Navegador is his masterpiece. It’s smooth gameplay is a highlight, but it’s also a very deep game, with many paths to victory. The market mechanism, with the colonies and factories working at cross purposes, is very clever and, like the rest of the game, is implemented effortlessly and elegantly. It’s one of my favorite games of the past several years and one I’m always ready to play. Best of all, I’m just about certain that the experience will be great, which is more than I can say for the occasionally brilliant, but far less reliable Imperial.
Tom: Yes, Imperial is fragile, but Navegador is dull, which is a much greater sin in my book. You’re right that Imperial doesn’t run perfectly every time and can have a clear leader before it’s over, but when it does come together, it truly shines as one of the best board games ever made. These are honestly difficult games to compare because they share so little in common when it comes to the feel of the game, in contrast to their identical underlying rondel mechanism. Imperial feels tense, thrilling, exciting, and memorable. Navegador, on the other hand, feels familiar, dry, derivative, and forgettable.
The central genius of Imperial is in melding a traditional European great powers game like Diplomacy with an investment element and the brilliant stroke of genius which is control of countries changing hands throughout the game. It’s not a war game, it’s not a stock market game, it is its own thing and brilliant in its uniqueness. You get to speculate by purchasing bonds that you work to increase in value, you get to march armies and sail fleets around a map conquering your foes, and it all fits within a couple hours.
The rondel is a means, not an end. Sure rondels can provide interesting and difficult decisions, but the rondel does not make the game. Other mechanisms could easily be used to constrain player choices instead. A game cannot survive on the strength of its rondel alone. This is the same issue with many deck building games, which fail to create an actual game around the deck building mechanism. Navegador includes a game around the rondel mechanism, but a familiar and dry one of acquiring resources and converting them into victory points. We’ve all been there and done that. Sure, now we can do it with the rondel limiting our choices as opposed to the provost or what have you, but there’s nothing really new here. You mean Navegador is a game where I can finally build factories and shipyards and churches, and I can use my workers to acquire buildings and privileges in various athematic categories. How wonderfully pedestrian. I’ve played it a couple times and remember nothing about the games themselves.
Imperial sticks with you. You’ll not soon forget the time you left the southern flank of Russia open because you solidly controlled Austria and had marched its armies west, only to have it bought out from under you and all your Russian factories quickly occupied by a hostile force that you controlled only moments before. Or the time your opponent bought up the incredibly inexpensive and worthless German forces merely to use them as a tool to tip the balance in the ongoing Anglo-Franco war. Or the time you held a minority share in several successful countries and pulled out a surprising win as a total dark horse. Imperial is a special game in that, unlike so many countless games, it lives on after it has been packed up and put away. It’s a game that really gets you interacting and conversing with your opponents in a way that so few German games do. I’m not talking about the kind of interaction where you block someone from buying stone for 6 money so now they have to pay an extra dollar. I’m talking about the kind of interaction where there’s a real chance for empires to rise and fall.
Uwe’s Twins (or are they?)
Tom: Unlike the last pair which actually shared very little in common, this next pair are nearly identical twins. As a result, you might wonder why Larry and I would disagree about them at all, but it turns out this is one of our most vociferous gaming disagreements.
Uwe Rosenberg is an incredible game designer. He released a thousand and one Bohnanza expansions and spin-offs, and then one day shocked the world with Agricola. Since that fateful Essen in 2007, he’s been on quite a tear, releasing widely praised heavy, big box games in rapid succession. The pinnacle though for me came with Le Havre in 2008, which combined the tense and challenging decision-making of Agricola with a more wide open feel like I praised in Java above. I’ve enjoyed Le Havre over 20 times and it has really stood the test for five years.
Le Havre is excellent because it perfects that German game feeling of being pulled in a hundred different directions and never having enough time or actions to do everything you want to do. There are countless things to do and I always want to do at least three or four on any given turn. Thankfully, there are also plenty of ways in which you can block your opponents or grab limited opportunities before they do. As a result, while it’s got plenty of traditional resource conversion and victory point generation, it’s also very interactive as you not only have to figure out your own priorities, but also figure out and obstruct your opponents’ priorities.
Ora et Labora is remarkably similar, so similar in fact that there’s really no reason to bother with it. In both games, each turn you choose between gathering a handful of resource chits of one type, or building a building with those resources, or using a building to convert some resources into some other resources. Whether you’re playing Le Havre or Ora, if you do the first option then you get a number of resources based on how many turns it has been since someone last took that resource type. If you do the second option, the building will be worth a good number of points at the end, but anyone can use it during the game for a small fee. If you do the third option, then you will flip some of your resource chits over or exchange them for others which are more valuable and can be used to generate more points.
The underlying structure of each game is essentially identical. It’s basically like playing a different map for Age of Steam or Ticket to Ride. The problem is that they have different resource conversion paths. The reason I’m not enthusiastic about playing Ora is having to relearn a whole new set of buildings and the related resource conversion chains, when I might as well continue enjoying Le Havre. I bet Larry is going to tell you that Ora is a perfected version of Le Havre and that Le Havre is now obsolete. Don’t listen to that line of reasoning. Ora is just like a new Power Grid map for Le Havre, but instead of a fun twist, it just makes you do all the heavy lifting of tracing out building and resource connections all over again. Save yourself the trouble and ignore the New Coke.
Larry: The discussions over the first two pairs of games in this article basically come down to varying playing styles or differing tastes. However, this last comparison is based upon the far more serious matter of mental health. Because anyone who tells you that Le Havre and Ora et Labora are essentially the same game is clearly insane.
I admit, when I first read the rules to Ora, I was concerned that it seemed very similar to Le Havre. However, by the end of the third turn of my first game, I could already see substantial differences. And by the time that first game was over, I was able to conclude that just about all those differences represented improvements over the earlier game.
The biggest improvement is that in Ora, you can actually build an engine. In Le Havre, everyone has the same chance to use your buildings as you do (even more so, since they get first crack at it after you build it), so one of the peculiarities of the game is that you really can’t effectively focus on an ability. In Ora, though, you get first crack at your building if you use your Prior to construct it (and you should do this as often as you can). In addition, there are ways to use your buildings even if they are occupied and it’s considerably easier to force an opponent to leave a building you covet. There is also a subtle penalty for using an opponents’ buildings, as you let him cycle through his workers more quickly, giving him more uses of his valuable Prior. Taken together, players absolutely wind up building an engine in Ora and this, to me, is a significant advantage over Le Havre.
Then there’s the geographic aspect to Ora. In Le Havre, a building is a building and you just plop them down in front of you however you choose. In Ora, though, where you construct your buildings can be vitally important, because of the adjacency bonuses obtained from placing settlements. You also have to worry about expanding your region and this can be done in a variety of ways. This additional element is most welcome and adds greatly to the game’s appeal.
It also feels like there are more paths to victory in Ora. I’m far from an expert in Le Havre, but more often than not, it seems as if focusing on coke and steel is the way to win. At the very least, it’s the 500-pound gorilla that always has to be accounted for. Conversely, Ora has tons of different strategies and I’ve yet to see two winners do things very similarly. I’m more hesitant about this advantage than the others, because strategy isn’t my long suit as a gamer, but it sure feels like Ora has the edge here.
Another issue is the removal of the loan mechanic that is so prominent in Le Havre. This is more of a difference than an advantage, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with the loans in the older game. Still, it always felt weird that you paid the same amount of interest regardless of how many loans you have. It also represents a thematic hit in a game that doesn’t have the strongest theme to begin with. Many Le Havre fans love the loan mechanic, so even though I’m reasonably happy it wasn’t transferred to Ora, I’ll stop short of saying the game is improved by its removal. But there’s no question this represents a considerable difference between the two games.
Finally, there’s the wheel. Rosenberg takes the messy, error-prone method of resource distribution in Le Havre, with its unsightly stacks of overflowing cardboard tiles, and converts it into an elegant, error-free, and fast record keeping system, thanks to the wondrous Production Wheel. It’s rare that I get that excited by the usability of a mechanical device, but the difference in record keeping is so stark between the two games that it has to be mentioned. Once again, advantage: Ora.
Look, Le Havre is a wonderful game and even though I have some issues with it, it’s a design I regard highly (I prefer it to Agricola, for example). But even though it and Ora appear to be identical on the surface, all it takes is a small amount of scratching to find significant differences between the two games. And in just about every case, I prefer the way things are done in Ora. Le Havre is a really good game, but Ora is my favorite game to appear since Through the Ages was released way back in 2006. I’m not in the habit of saying that Game A fired Game B (there’s almost always room for two good games), but given that the two titles are undeniably similar, and given all the ways in which Ora improves on the older game, why should I ever play Le Havre again? I’d only wish I were playing Ora et Labora instead.
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So there you have it. Three gaming duels and our take on each. Java vs. Tikal. Navegador vs. Imperial. Le Havre vs. Ora et Labora. Which three do you prefer?