Michael Schacht is becoming known for designs that are, at first glance, downright frugal as far as rules go. This frugality does not mean that the games are simplistic in play though, both Web of Power and Paris, Paris present some tough decisions. Despite the fact that his games are often quite different from each other their simplicity is becoming a "signature" of sorts. I suspect that many players would be able to recognize this signature after playing Hansa, it feels like a Schacht design.
Ostensibly a "pick up and deliver" game about the 14th century Hanseatic League, Hansa is set in the Baltic region. The first unique feature is that all players will use the same ship to transfer their cargo about the nine cities depicted on the map. Routes are pre-printed and one way so often you'll be concerned not only with your best move but how good (or bad) a position you leave for the subsequent player. This is quite clever actually as a problem with most games of this type is that player interaction is low. In Empire Builder (for example) there is some competition to build the best routes but for the most part each player is playing his own game. This interaction is refreshing and gives the game a rather unique feel.
The most novel feature of Hansa though is the interaction of the three main commodities; money, goods and markets. In most games these would exist in a strictly linear relationship—use A to get B and then use B to get C. Not so in Hansa, the relationship is much more interesting. Money can be used to move the ship but it also allows one to purchase goods. Goods can be converted to victory points but are also used to create markets. Markets can gain you victory points but are also needed for acquiring money or discounted goods. Acquiring these is important but you also need to know the best way to spend them as well. Is it better to use that 3-barrel good to establish 3 markets or should you try to convert it into victory points?
On a turn a player will receive three talers from the bank and, together with any he has saved from his previous turn, may spend as many as he likes. Much of this will involve moving the ship about the board which costs a single taler per trip. At each city the active player may perform a single action, either establishing a market, purchasing a good or acquiring victory points. This restriction of a single action will cause you no end of headache! You'll very often want to perform multiple actions at a city but, while possible, this can be very expensive since you'll have to leave and then return in order to do so. As such your turn usually involves determining what's possible with the current board position rather than planning a long term strategy. This also presents you with the problem I mentioned earlier—a good move consists not only of advancing your own position but leaving the next player with a poor one.
In terms of mechanics, this is the greatest flaw I can see in Hansa—your standing in the game can depend largely on what your right hand opponent leaves you with. If he's charitable, you may find yourself with some very nice moves but if he's vindictive then you may be in for some tough times. Having said this, it has not been as big a factor in the games I've played as I thought it would be. I suspect that this is largely because the players have all been equally concerned about leaving someone with a "birthday present" (so to speak) and so the contests have been fairly even. Still, it's something to watch for and I think a game could be ruined if one player is being overly generous.
Another, more philosophical, problem with Hansa is that it lacks any sort of story arc whatsoever, one turn feels very much like any other. There is no appreciable opening, mid or endgame, it's the same thing over and over. Wolfgang Kramer has talked about the idea of tension in a game and Hansa fails in this regard, I never felt that the game built in crescendo to a climatic finish (a desirable quality in a game). If this were a book it would be entitled "A Typical Month in the Trade Guild" rather than "The Rise and Fall of a Trading Empire". This is a shame because the latter seems much more interesting doesn't it?
This isn't to say that Hansa is not a good game, it is. I think this is primarily due to its almost perfect length. At 45 minutes I do not mind that the game has a repetitive quality, the decisions remain interesting throughout this duration. Add 30 minutes to the length and I'd call Hansa a failure. As it is, Mr. Schacht is proving that he knows exactly how long his games should last and has been very successful in achieving such a length. In fact, I think that Hansa raises my expectations for future Schacht games. It feels like a very good "journeyman" design, a solid release that shows he has mastered the basics of game design. The challenge now becomes one of achieving "master craftsman" status. It will be interesting to see if he is capable of designing a classic, a game that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of El Grande or Tigris & Euphrates.
Ignoring such speculation for the present, Hansa is a very good game and an interesting challenge. The production is excellent (although I would have preferred that the markets were wooden houses rather than disks) and the rules are clear and unambiguous. I'm also happy to say that it plays very well with only three, a hard number to accommodate at times.
- Greg Aleknevicus