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Board in the Stacks: Harvest

img_1245Harvest is a fantasy themed farming game for 2-4 players which plays in about 45 minutes. Players take the role of a character with unique abilities (or beginners can take a standard, dull old peon farmer) and need to get to work early to plant, nurture and harvest their crops. Additionally, you can construct buildings and expand your fields. This is a small box but pleasantly chunky game with minimal rules overhead with its tongue placed firmly in cheek. While seemingly lite at first glance, players are provided with a comfortable decision place and beginners may want a play or two to get into the flow of the game.

Overview:

Harvest, at it’s core, is a standard farming game with an additional layer of fantasy applied on top. For me, this fantasy wash doesn’t add or detract from the play experience – it is just window dressing. While beginners are recommended to play the “standard” character – Wil Plantsomdill, the peasant – to start, there are nine other characters that provide a variety of starting resources, special abilities, and game end scoring modifications. It is worth mentioning that there is a nice variety of body, gender, and cultural options. I also appreciate that the “standard” character – Wil – has a victory point “subsidy” at the end of the game which makes it accessible to new players.

The game is played over five rounds. During set-up there is a market of Initiative Cards. Each card has a number and provides a bonus. At the beginning of a round, players, in turn order, pick an initiative card. Players take the bonus and the turn order is established for the upcoming round.

Each round, players will place two workers in order to gain (sometimes with a cost) seeds and various items (poo and elixirs), plant/tend/harvest crops, expand their farm, or plow fields to ready them for planting.  The Town Board houses most of these action and is divided into three sections – Labor Market to harvest, plant, or tend; General Store to gain or purchase seeds and items; and the Land Office to expand your farm, plow fields and build.  The first players to place in a section can pick two actions/items with subsequent placement only gaining one action/item. Additionally, there are buildings and action cards that provide some variety of those actions at once but often with a cost of stars.

Stars?

Each seed has a star value which determines the amount of fertilizer needed to plant it. When the appropriate amount of poo is paid, the seed tiles are flipped to their crop side and placed on an open field space. Each crop also has a star value which determines the amount of water needed to tend the crop tile and add another of the same crop to the field. Each field has four spaces and can only hold one type of crop at a time. Players then need to harvest crops, removing the crop tile from the field.

The star value of the harvested crops can be used as points for the end of the game or as an in-game currency to gain fancier seeds, build new buildings, and take special actions. This is one element of Harvest I found particularly engaging. In order to grow your farm and gain more specialized abilities, you need to spend your hard earned victory points.

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Review:

Harvest is a tight little game. With only 2 actions per round and 5 rounds, players have a measly 10 actions to make their farm prosper. So each action has to *really* count. For a worker-placement, the placement part is fairly relaxed. Most spots can’t be blocked and every turn will have a variety of possible placements.

While the core of the mechanisms are basic; the random action cards revealed each round, the variable initiative cards, and having victory points serve as the only in-game currency, your overarching strategy tends to change abruptly. It is all about the tactics. The initiative cards provide a nice balance between larger bonuses and getting that coveted first placement. Several times, when playing, I’ve succumbed to the temptation of a huge bonus and altered my plans to grab a higher initiative card and let my strategy unfold while literally rolling in poo. The choice of initiative cards at the start of each round is easily the most exciting part of the game.

Without this system of initiative, Harvest would be lackluster. In most games with a variable turn order, there is a cost associated with going first. You may bid or pay outright in order to go first. Or it is determined by your score, allowing people in the back a chance to catch-up. But Harvest is different. By balancing out the bonus with going initiative, players always get something. It always feels like you are getting something extra. Maybe a burst of plenty with a veritable cornucopia of resources or maybe it is JUST THE THING (TM) you needed and that plus going first is just perfect. Either way, it is a great way of redistributing resources, providing incentive to change up a strategy, and changes the turn order in a thematic and engaging way. Also it feels good. It is the literal opposite of how Agricola makes you feel.

One thing that really became apparent after a few plays was the double-edged nature of the building market. Intuitively, one thinks that new buildings would always be the way to go but I’ve found that the payoff for those buildings, unless they really mesh with your strategy, is low. The pacing of the game doesn’t vary at all. With only 10 actions during the game there is very little time to build an engine. Instead it is a mad rush to efficiently use each one of those turns.

The play experience of Harvest is simple. Do you stay steady and toil through or do you call an audible and change everything due to the sudden appearance of a new card? It provides plenty of decisions within a short playing time. I didn’t want to like Harvest after playing Harbor (which I didn’t enjoy) but Harvest did a good job of provided a large amount of variability within a 30-45 minute game. Unique player characters, each with special abilities and starting resources, revealed action cards, and a varied initiative turn order ensures a different game for multiple plays.

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