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Bremerhaven - exploring the logistics of operating a shipyard

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Bremerhaven

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Bremerhaven is one of those games that you don't figure out, right away. The process (and by extension, the rules manual that explains it) is fairly straightforward. You learn how to do something, though, without completely understanding why you're doing it, or the means by which you can utilize the process effectively to accomplish the game's objectives.

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What this means, and this applies to all games with this sort of learning curve, is that you're not likely to have a lot of fun playing it your first time around. With no clear idea of how early decision-making is going to affect you, later on, you're likely to make a few bad decisions, although sometimes with games like this, you can stumble onto some good decisions. You end up losing or winning without a clear understanding of how either was accomplished and might decide that you just don't like the game. Bremerhaven, though, is worth a second, possibly even a third look, to get at its optimum enjoyment level. It's possible that some might never find it.

There's what's known as a blind bidding process involved. On each turn, you will be deciding how badly you want to claim certain spaces on three separate boards. To accomplish this, you are in possession of five Influence cards, initially numbered 1 through 5 (upgradable to higher numbers up to 9). One by one, in turn order, you will be expected to place these influence cards, face down, on any of a number of available spaces on the three separate boards - A Sea board (where you're bidding for ships), a Land board (where you're bidding on shipping contracts) and a Town board (where you're bidding for a variety of things you can do to improve your harbor, selling prices of goods, and turn order; two of the six spaces on the Land board can be utilized by multiple players, and thus, not subject to claim by just the highest bid).

So it's your first turn and you're looking at your bidding cards. Where do you place your best bid, the "5"? Do you want to grab a dollar by putting it on the appropriate space on the Town board? This requires you to know the intrinsic value of that dollar. Not only that, but what if someone else puts a secret bid on that space? Do you want, then, as you are capable of doing, put a second card there to increase your bid or abandon the effort to place a second influence card elsewhere. Initially, no one is going to be able to outbid your "5" with a single card, but if someone else considers that dollar to be important and ties your bid, the winner will be determined by player order, which, in and of itself, is subject to a bid.

There are multiple layers of understanding necessary to arrive at good decisions in this game, which are unlikely to be present the first time you sit down to play.

Let me back up a bit. You're all Harbormasters in a shipyard, represented by a personal Harbor board, onto which you will place goods (barrels, crates, containers and passengers) and ultimately, fulfill contracts. The ships you bring in to the personal docks at this harbor of yours bear Prestige points, as do certain buildings you'll be able to bid on and place on your Harbor board. At the end of each round of play, you will determine the value of these Prestige points (ships+buildings) and increase your Prestige marker by that many points. If you fail to increase your Prestige on a given turn, your marker stays where it is. At the end of the game (determined by movement of a Ship token, along a Progress track; when it reaches the end, the game is over), you will multiply the number of Prestige points indicated on your board by the amount of money you have accumulated through fulfillment of contracts (and other sources). Highest total (most efficient Harbormaster) wins.

There are some readily apparent issues with this scenario, the most critical of which is a player's ability to match the needs of contracts with the available ships offered randomly per round that carry the necessary goods. Sometimes, you'll see ships with crates and contracts with crates, but often, the goods on the ships and contracts don't match up. Do you bring in a ship and wait for the right contracts to show up, or buy the contracts and hope the right ships come out during the regular turnover of them from turn to turn? What happens if you do one or the other, and an opponent outbids you for either the contract or the ship you wanted?

Another tricky mechanic that comes up is a time factor. Ships and contracts bear time tokens; so many per ship or contract card, added to the card when you acquire it. You might successfully bid for a ship, carrying the cargo you want, but it will come in to your personal dock with a number of these time tokens on it (up to five of them), and that ship will remain in your harbor until the last time token has been removed (one per round of play). While you can offload the goods on that ship into your harbor facility right away, that dock space, one of three on your board, is going to stay occupied until it's 'time' for that ship to leave, thus, offering you no opportunity to bring a better ship (offering more/varied cargo and more Prestige points) into your Harbor. Same with contracts. They come with the same time tokens on them, and even if you've got the goods, you can't collect the money (or Prestige) points for fulfilling the contract until the time tokens have run out.

UPS would be good at this game, because it's all about logistics and timing, and in that regard, it's a decent exercise for testing those aspects of your gaming acumen. The family group got it out onto the table and essentially, ran out of time before it could successfully be completed. I deliberately held off on writing about it until I'd been able to bring it out with the Wilmington (NC) Board Gaming Group, which will meet tonight. So grab yourself a beverage, and by the time you get back, I'll have a bit more to say.

Okay, so three of us, Dave, Tom and myself sat down to play this thing through. It was the first time out for Dave and Tom and I was teaching. There were frequent visits to the rules to clarify certain points as they arose, but basically, as I had learned in the aborted earlier experience, the process went pretty smoothly. I discovered that the board offers assistance regarding the proper order in which play proceeds. Each board, including your personal Harbor board is numbered. Thus, you know, from looking at the Town board (numbered 1.0 to 1.6) that you resolve the Town board first, and that when you're moving into the personal actions on your Harbor board, you perform them in order 4.0 to 4.4. This was a big help.

As a point of reference, each of us was able to move our Prestige marker up to 11. The difference in our scores, therefore, was based on the amount of money we'd managed to accumulate - Dave ended up with 67 dollars, I finished with 36 and Tom had 28, leading to final scores of 737, 432 and 308 (money times Prestige). During our debrief, at game's end, we discussed ways in which one might concentrate more on the acquisition of Prestige points to elevate that multiplier, instead of, as we all apparently had, acquiring money and boosting that side of the multiplication equation. We all agreed that it was engaging enough, and not nearly as frustrating as some of the ratings and comments on BoardGameGeek might lead you to believe. It's a balancing act, trying to keep ships in your three docks, and contracts (trucks needing goods) backed up to the door of your Harbor facility, so that goods make a smooth transition, based on time tokens, from ship to storage facility to the trucks in the loading dock.

As a relative newcomer to the Geek, Bremerhaven has only received about 165 ratings, so far, and is maintaining an average of about 6.64 on the 1 to 10 scale. Not a good jump out of the gate. Among 44 who chose to comment, only one rated it at 10, and the scale drops pretty rapidly down to 3 among the first 25 commentators. I'd give it an initial 7, based on my one-and-a-half plays, but have no doubt with a few more cracks at it, preferably with people familiar with the game, it'd work its way up on my personal scale to an 8.

I liked it and look forward to playing again.

Bremerhaven is designed by Robert Auerochs, with artwork by Klemens Franz (artist for LeHavre, to which it bears a striking visual similarity and theme; comparisons stop right there). It is published by Lookout Games and is intended for 2-4 players (with a solo variant), aged 12 and up. The box says it can be played in two hours, but that isn't happening with a group that's learning it for the first time, and with a full four players, it's doubtful it could be played in that time with experienced players. Most of the components are solid, although the Harbor boards are a bit flimsy and the cards, particularly the buildings, are quite small. Goods are cardboard chits, and they should perhaps have been more appropriate wooden cubes. The game retails for around $50, although the Geek marketplace has copies for around $35.

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