Sunday, May 30, 2010

Game Review: Hacienda

I'd like to take a moment to comment on a game I've been enjoying for several years now: Hacienda, designed by Wolfgang Kramer.  The theme of the game is ranching in Argentina, and it's essentially a tile-laying, board management game with money as an additional resource.

It's a very clever, very flexible game design.  Players have a variety of different types of land and animal tiles to play and also a supply of money.  The tiles each come in a variety of types (different terrain types for land, different animal species for animals).  There are lots of ways to score - six different ways, all nicely balanced - so the game gets complicated and strategic nearly instantly.  You need to connect to markets, develop good board position, keep enough money to buy the high-scoring haciendas and water units later, and thwart your opponents' plans.

The game is played in turns, with each player getting three moves per turn.  This is a great mechanic - you can accomplish small goals easily on one turn, but if you want to set up long-term plans, you have to try to get them accomplished in pieces, and you may not have the resources to do so.

I haven't played the game in its tabletop cardboard form, only online at SpielByWeb.Com, but I've played enough that I can imagine how it would be to play it in person with cardboard bits.  The online version does a ton of work for the players, from the mundane (organizing tiles, recording moves, keeping track of money) to the more daunting (calculating scoring).  I think this is an interesting example of a game developed as a real boardgame that actually plays better online.  Not only are the construction and mechanics of the game better handled online (since it contains lots of fiddly little bits), the quantitative and rules elements are too.  Because you can actually make multiple moves in a turn, the online version works well - you have enough to do that a turn takes a bit of planning, and you're making a number of decisions in a turn rather than just one.

I think there's a fundamental distinction there between game types.  Games with fast-paced action and short turns are going to be bogged down by online play (e.g. checkers, stratego).  Games with lots of parts and time spent organizing are going to work better online (e.g. Risk, Scrabble).  For me, Hacienda is great online, and I don't know if it would be as fun in person (although you'd get to see the reactions to your moves on your foes' faces, which would be fun).

The online version at SpielByWeb also allows for custom board layouts, which makes this game (which holds up very well to a wide variety of layouts, evidence of its clever and robust design) even more fun.

Images above from Hacienda Entry at
Image at left from implementation.


  1. I think most board games are improved by online play if you consider the game separated from the social aspects. Having the computer do the rules enforcement, bookkeeping and setup is priceless.

    You ought to distinguish between real time and turn based implementations though. They are very different experiences, and there are plusses and minuses to each.

  2. Agreed on the RTS vs. turn-based. I think turn-based works well; that's how the SpielByWeb ones are. I haven't played many real-time boardgames, although I've played a ton of RTS games and others of that ilk. I'm currently playing some Neptune's Pride, which is much like a simultaneous real-time boardgame, and works pretty well.

    I'd disagree partially with most boardgames being improved by being computerized - many are, but some are completely not. It depends entirely on the game, and on what makes the game fun. I talk about that some here: