15 February 2019
Whose turn is it to get the points in?
A gathering of middle-aged men with dull-coloured clothing and prominent bald spots, and large quantities of real ale – I could be talking about a games event in the 1990s but no, this is Heaven & Ale, the Kennerspiel des Jahres-nominated game from Michael ‘Azul’ Kiesling and Andreas ‘quite a lot of movie tie-ins’ Schmidt.
It is the year mumble-mumble and the players are the heads of several monasteries, competing to brew the optimum combination of the best beer or the most beer, and have the most expert brewmaster.
Play goes like this: you can move as far as you want on the main board, where the various spaces let you buy resources (mostly ingredients), buy monks, score your player board or take one of the 12 special barrels if you qualify. Monks and resources get placed on your player board, which shows your monastery’s cloister garden, with a sunny side and a shady side, plus quite a lot of sheds that when activated give you more money (shady side), boost your resource supply (sunny side) or move your brewmaster up their track. After a few rounds of this, you all do the final fiddly scoring and someone will have won.
Heaven & Ale is a strange beast. On one level it’s a combination of careful decision-making, intricate tactics and watching the clever interplay of the game’s systems, as the various mechanics interlock like a mighty medieval clockwork device. From a game design perspective it’s really impressive. What it doesn’t do is give you the sense of monks brewing beer, or a rivalry between religious institutions, or really anything except doing your actions, making your moves, placing your tiles and scoring your points.
Mechanically this is a game of beauty. It is rich in possible tactics, and rewards careful thought and skillful play. But thematically you’re never thinking about your hops and your novice monks and the quality of your brew; you’re thinking about bits of cardboard and numbers.
For some people that won’t matter, but when a game is sold on a theme as strong as Heaven & Ale, you really want to feel some of that come through in the play experience. And it just doesn’t. It never feels like more than a game, or even more than a collection of clever mechanics.
A game’s theme being properly integrated with its mechanics matters. There’s even a term for it, borrowed from video gaming criticism: ‘ludonarrative dissonance’, where the game and the theme or the story rub up against each other the wrong way. Theme needs to be more than something tacked on to make a game commercial.
Heaven & Ale is a great piece of game design, but as a game experience it needed more time to ferment. It won’t be to everyone’s taste.
It may be heaven for a certain type of gamer, but the ale part of the mixture is lacking. Heaven & Ale is all body, no head.
Designer: Michael Kiesling, Andreas Schmidt
Artist: Fiore GmbH
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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