Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Release Year: 2009
Once again Rio Grande showcased and demoed a large suite of games at the 2010 Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. This year, one of the newer games in the demo area was a rather unique card game called Havana.
Similar to the card game San Juan, which is a simpler version of the board game Puerto Rico, Havana is essentially a stripped down card-game version of the board game Cuba. Unlike San Juan, while Havana maintains the basic theme of Cuba, the game play departs significantly from its progenitor game.
Game play in Havana revolves around a mechanic of simultaneous card selection from identical sets of decks. Each player has a set of 13 cards that each individually allows the player to take specific actions. On the first round of play, all players secretly choose two cards to play. Turn order for the round is determined based on the cards chosen. Then, in turn order, each player resolves the actions of their cards.
These actions primarily allow the player to gather various types of resources or mechanically alter specific rules of the games (like making a player temporarily immune to thieves and taxes). Once a player has resolved the action portion of the cards player, the player may purchase any available building. Buildings provide victory points and the game ends when one player reaches 20 victory points.
Starting on the second turn, and every subsequent turn thereafter, each player in turn order publicly chooses one played card to discard and secretly chooses a new card for next turn. This gives later players in the turn a sense of what earlier players might be doing and helps balance the advantage gained by going early in the turn.
Admittedly, game play is slick and smooth. Due to rather limited options on any given turn, play rarely slows down to player overanalyzing the available options. But, while game play is slick, it can also be rather frustrating. One poorly timed card play can screw all but ruin the chances for victory. Unfortunately, in anything other than a two player game, it is impossible to simply call the game since other players are probably still competitive.
In fact, this highlights the biggest flaw of the game. The game is frightfully unforgiving of mistakes and has a high learning curve. While the game play is simple, the complications exist entirely in the abilities of each card. Frustratingly, the only way to play well is by attaining system mastery of each of the cards. Thus, new players are at a massive disadvantage to more experienced players and cards can seem enticingly good when in fact they are quite unimpressive.
Havana is not entirely without its charms. First and foremost, it is a short game. Even inexperienced players can easily finish the game in 45 minutes to an hour and the number of players does not significantly affect the time it takes to play. Furthermore, the art style, similar to the art in Cuba, is rich and occasionally humorous and the game play enhances the theme rather than obscuring it. And, most important, it is inexpensive. Copies of the game can be found online for $23 before shipping and handling.
Also, many gamers will appreciate that Havana breaks one of common trend in modern board games of limited to no player interaction. Many of the cards allow players to steal from each other or to adjust the availability of buildings, often specifically to deny an opponent from purchasing one. This interaction makes the game feel competitive and can, slightly, help mitigate the unforgiving difficulty of the game.
Overall, fans of quick card games like Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, or San Juan will likely find Havana to be an entertaining new diversion. Fans of lengthier games like Through the Ages will find the limited mechanics of the game too simple. The difficulty of the game makes it a poor fit for younger players and unlikely to resonate with casual game players, while the simplicity will turn away many players of Euro games. It is a limited player base that will truly enjoy this quick, difficult, yet oddly elegant game.
Rating: 3 of 5