From the Parallel Worlds Magazine archive.
There’s a particular type of fantasy common among gamers: the siren call of farming. Whether you’re tending your crops digitally via Stardew Valley, or fencing-in wooden animals in Agricola, there is a strong pull in gaming towards setting resources in place and seeing them grow over time. But what happens when you fill your farm fantasy with a fantasy farm? In the case of Harvest, pure magic.
Harvest is another addition to my long-standing love of big game experiences in small boxes combined with longer games compressed into a more manageable length. Games like Agricola are great but, to the inexperienced player, can take a very long time to get played. What Harvest offers is a very similar experience — in terms of the mechanics of growing limited resources, competing for actions and trying to complete scoring objectives — but typically plays in under an hour.
I don’t know whether this game is unique in having little brown wooden ‘poo’ tokens, but if it isn’t, then it’s a rarefied group.
The farming aspect is fairly simple. Each field can only hold one type of crop and are generally a 2×2 grid of spaces. Some plants are a single square, while others are 2×1 shape. To grow a new plant, you must spend a certain amount of fertiliser tokens (I don’t know whether this game is unique in having little brown wooden ‘poo’ tokens, but if it isn’t, then it’s a rarefied group) or, to multiply an mature plant, you either spend water tokens equal to the number of victory points on the plant, or a single magic potion. Farmland comes to you generally unprepared but there are actions to either till a field for farming or to place a handy building in the space, giving score bonuses or extra abilities.
Each player selects a fantasy persona for their farmer from a choice of characters. These are rendered with comic art and have groan-worthy pun names, such as the bearded wizard ‘Landalf’ or the classical mythology-styled ‘Im-Hoe-Tep’ being among my favourites. Each farmer has individual abilities which provide unique advantages and will probably steer your strategy for that game. Landalf, for example, is able to make the magical plant-growing potions easily, whereas Plowdor the Troll never pays for anything but takes a score penalty for every field they own.
There’s also a fascinating element at the start of each round in which players choose a turn order in exchange for resources.
The bulk of the game is worker placement, in which each player has access to two workers and the available spaces each round are very limited. There are main worker slots in each location which provide two actions (Labor Market for farming actions, Land Office for expansion and buildings, and the General Store for seeds and fertiliser) but there is also an overflow space, which only provides one action. Using these is an act of desperation. There are also three additional actions each round which are randomised and drawn from a deck. These are often more valuable, but virtually impossible to plan for.
It’s an incredibly simple game from the point of view of the actions available each turn, and in coming to the game for the first time you may imagine that only two workers per round is somewhat limiting. However, the game becomes a huge tactical challenge with the interplay of limited actions, random buildings for sale, and regularly changing action spaces. There’s also a fascinating element at the start of each round in which players choose a turn order in exchange for resources. You can have your turn sooner for less valuable freebies, or you can knowingly go last, choosing a turn card full to the brim with goodies. Honestly, sometimes having two workers to think about is more than enough.
One particularly clever aspect of the design is that the only currency available to spend on new resources is the golden stars on mature and harvested plants. You are, essentially, spending your score. This is a fab twist and experienced players will realise that sometimes it’s useful to cultivate several lower point-value plants, simply because the shops don’t give change and nobody likes to overspend. Keep some Snap Peas and Scarrots handy to avoid inefficiency.
In a genre replete with scorecards sometimes featuring score categories in double figures, Harvest simply requires you to count every star you see in your own farm.
Harvest rarely runs long or overstays its welcome. At five fixed rounds it’s usually under an hour every time, unless you’re playing at maximum players with an inexperienced group. In fact, when I’ve had two-player games with a regular partner, it’s not uncommon for us to ‘house rule’ the game to six rounds instead of five, as if anything it can feel too short.
While the game is full of agonising decisions, thankfully scoring is very simple. In a genre replete with scorecards sometimes featuring score categories in double figures, Harvest simply requires you to count every star you see in your own farm, give or take the odd bonus from buildings or character abilities.
The physical production ranks as one of my favourites. Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG) routinely produce beautiful game components of high quality, and Harvest is no exception. The comic fantasy art is perfectly pitched as well as the magical veg (the toothed ‘Snap Peas’, ‘Scarrots’, ‘Phantom Peppers’, ‘Rockali’ and ‘Plumpkins’). The brightly-coloured wooden tokens representing water, manure and potions really ‘pop’ on the table, and the clever double-sided use of many of the cards keeps the package small and is admirable in its efficiency. If there’s a single flaw in any otherwise physically perfect gem, the shared ‘actions’ board is a little too lightweight to sit completely flat — a minor inconvenience.
The physical production ranks as one of my favourites.
It’s a game which excels via the mantra of less being more. You always seem to be a single action or resource short of the perfect turn, forcing you to figure out the best next step. Planning your vital action for the next turn and then figuring out how to stay ahead of your rivals in the turn order is essential — and often equally frustrating.
Harvest is an easy game to recommend: inexpensive, travel-sized, beautiful and engrossing. It has earned its place as an absolute favourite on game nights and has flown way too far under the gaming radar for a while.
Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games