I’m not a big fan of abstract games. That’s what I keep saying, at least, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Much of that evidence has been provided by Michael Schacht, who has designed a number of games I quite like, including one of my favorites Web of Power. And now I find myself enamored with Schacht’s most recent release, a enjoyably agonizing little gem called Hansa.
The gameboard shows nine Hanseatic cities, connected by a web of water routes and home to an assortment of consumer goods. The players, meanwhile, are merchants on a ship zig-zagging across the Baltic sea, visiting the various cities as the vendors ply their trade. The crucial point here is that all of the players are on the same ship, and only control it on their individual turns.
At the start of the game each player receives three coins and places markets in some of the cities. Players then spend their turns sailing the ship from its current location to a new destination — in accordance with the route lines, and spending a coin to do so — and taking actions: buying goods, establishing markets, or selling goods. To buy a good, a player takes one of the good counters from the ship’s current city and pays one coin to whomever has the most markets in that city. To establish new markets, a player discards a previously purchased good and places 1-3 markets in this ship’s current city. To sell goods, a player turns a number of previously purchased goods face down (adding them to his score pile) and removes one market from the ship’s current city (if the player has no markets in the current city, he may not sell there). Complicating all this is the restriction that a player may take more than one action in a city at a time. At the end of the game, players receive points for all the goods they own, and two points for every city in which they have at least one market.
What makes the game hum is the clever (and often maddening) way in which money, goods, and markets are intertwined. Owning the plurality of markets in a city is always a boon, not only because other players will pay you to buy goods there but because you can take goods from that city for free. The coins you receive from your markets can be used to purchase goods, and these goods can be later discarded to establish still more markets. This would be a powerful positive feedback loop were it not for two limitations: each player only has a total of 15 markets, and every time you sell goods (a necessity, if you wish to win) you remove markets from the board.
Hansa is very much a tactical game rather than a strategic one — that is, every turn you evaluate your current position and decide what to do, with little focus on long-term planning. In that respect, each turn of Hansa feels like solving a little puzzle, as you noodle out where to buy and sell goods, establish markets, and sail the ship, all with a finite number of coins at your disposal. These kind of mental gymnastics might become taxing over a long period of time, but I find them quite enjoyable over the course of Hansa’s typical 45-60 minutes playing time.
Unlike some of my previous recommendations, this one isn’t necessarily for everyone — although the rules couldn’t be simpler, playing well does require a willingness to mentally crunch the permutations before making a move. But for folks game for a little analytic reasoning, Hansa is about as addictive as they come.