I guess there are many reasons why board games are fun to play solo: the challenge of maxing your strategy, beating the game, or improving your tactics ready for the next multiplayer session maybe? Does Bremerhaven fit into those categories? Does the solo game retain the characteristics of the multiplayer experience?
You find yourself running a Logistics Company with a section of the magnificent container and passenger port of Bremerhaven under your control. You bid against the other operators in neighbouring areas of the harbour – otherwise known as your pesky opponents – to attract the most prestigious ships and lucrative contracts. At the same time, you improve your amenities by building impressive or useful buildings and extending the capacity of your berths. By matching up supply and demand there’s money and prestige to be won. Good and bad things happen – event cards – and when the cute little ship hits the end of the time track, you’re done. Multiply your prestige by your money and see how successful you’ve been.
Bremerhaven works well as a gateway multiplayer. It is a relatively simple game with straightforward choices that are limited by the congestion of ships, goods, buildings and contracts sitting in your harbour. The game can be quite frustrating at times, when that ship you particularly wanted berths in the dock next door, but a clever time mechanic means that you may be the only player with space in the next bidding phase and you can clean up without competition. It’s fun, it drips with theme and, oh joy, comes with a solo variant.
OK. Here is a brief overview of the solo variant.
The game play is almost identical to the standard version, but your opponent is a dummy player. Instead of enjoying an event each round, the same cards become a mechanism by which your rival places bids on the board randomly using his hand of five bidding cards. He has undoubted advantages. He never runs short of money – which you may do – or space for ships, contracts or buildings – which you definitely will do. His berths are blessed with the requisite number of bollards at all times, damn him. In truth, given that he has the plushest facility in Bremerhaven, it’s a wonder that any ships or contracts come your way at all.
Fortunately, however, he is an idiot. He runs around the harbour trying, sometimes very hard, to outbid you when it would be evident to even the most inept real player that you are not interested. When your berths or contract spaces are full, you won’t be attempting to attract any more ships or vehicles. You may wish you could, but you can’t. In fact, this madman has provided me with many moments of humour as I’ve circumvented his antics.
Not really. But that depends on what you want.
The madman is not a very challenging opponent. I have played many times and I have always dismissed his pathetic attempts to stop me building my hugely profitable and prestigious logistics empire. So, if you want an evening in playing ‘harbours’ without really serious competition, play the published solos rules and have fun.
However, I thought I would try to knock some economic sense into the media studies student I had hitherto played against. Was it possible to make small adjustments to the rules to up the ante?
I decided to add a rule. The dummy player would only bid a second card if I had placed at least one card on that bid. Otherwise he would place that card according to the next card in the bid placement deck. It is possible that he will need to go through this process several times until a suitable bidding position arises. This small rule change did make my opponent act more like a real player. He used his bidding cards in a less wasteful and more meaningful manner. It also had the effect of running the bid placement deck through more rapidly which made his actions less foreseeable. If you card-count games – I don’t – I had realised before that it would be possible, as the bid placement deck ran out, to work out what he would bid on.
Was he less of a media studies student and more like the CEO of a logistics company? Yes. Was it still too easy to shoot off the upper end of the suggested score table? Yes, again. Basically, this was still a bit under-challenging. He had become more of an annoyance, but there were generally enough spare options on the board to duck and dodge to a resounding score. I decided that it was not the inadequacy of the dummy player alone that was the problem.
The best way to make business more cutthroat is to add competition, so I decided to attempt a game against two unintelligent dummy players. The set-up and rules are identical to the published solo game. The only difference is the addition of another dummy opponent. And the result?
Success! This option is slightly fiddlier but most closely resembles the multiplayer experience. This solo game is even more challenging than the normal game. As your opponents only have virtual harbours and are bidding randomly, you cannot second-guess their moves and the bid placement deck runs through really fast, which makes card-counting trickier again. I had to focus hard on trying to win bids that were vital to my strategy and leave myself cards and space to pick up cheap options when they presented themselves. Avoiding one idiot CEO is one thing, but squeezing around two takes some doing. For the first time I didn’t manage a top score.
I asked myself a couple of questions at the end of this process. Does the final two-dummy-players solo variant take away from the simple charm of the game? And is the published variant worth playing if the game is so unchallenging that you know the outcome before starting?
There is no doubt that building a splendid and busy harbour gives you a happy glow as you survey your handiwork with pride. The multiplayer game certainly leaves you with that satisfaction whether you win or lose. Sadly, I felt that the two-dummy-players solo variant sacrificed this; it was definitely challenging, but I found the tone was quite cutthroat, which did not reflect the feel of the original. I cared less about the final harbour and more about the process of outwitting the manic bidding of my opponents. It became a case of rabid sea dogs fighting over scraps and I emerged somewhat bruised and battered. It is possible to change the rules and end up in a very dark place and I had done it.
The published version of the solo game reflects the ambience of the normal game but is so unchallenging that maxing the score is simple with very little thought or strategy. I would definitely recommend adding the extra bidding rule to smarten up the opponent. Even so, this is not going to teach anyone how to grind the opposition to dust the next time the game hits the table on games night.
So, at the end of the voyage, it does depend on what you want. Where Bremerhaven shines is the strength of the theme, which encourages you to immerse yourself in the fiction of running your own small logistics company. However, it does come with two-sided playing boards for day and night. It’s up to you.