Hawaii (Game Review)

Hawaii box


Hawaii is an immediately attractive game, though it has more complexity than you’d expect from its colorful appearance. That’s actually a good combination, because it seems to be successful at bringing in casual players. For many people, the main barrier to learning a game’s rules is first becoming interested in it. From what I’ve seen, new players will be able to handle it, assuming a more dedicated gamer is there to handle the fiddly set-up. Even better, once the new players have tried this a few times, they’ll have learned enough advanced concepts to prepare them for other, better games. You see, Hawaii doesn’t stay interesting for long.

This is a worker placement game, though it obscures that by having you pick up tokens from spaces when you use them, rather than putting a worker figure there to mark it. This change makes sense in-game, as the tokens you take show the price of the action. In each of five rounds, when new tokens are put out, the costs of the different actions are randomized. The game tries to offer a varied setup partly with these changing prices, and partly by shuffling up the action spaces themselves at the start of each game. (Before taking an action, you pay to “move” from your last action tile to the next one, so their physical location matters.)

This variety does matter, but it’s too random to feel strategic. Turn order is also changeable, and sometimes there will be some great deals available to the first player or two. Other times, you’ll regret that you wasted resources in the previous round to let yourself go first this time. Since there are only five rounds in the game, randomly getting a good setup can be a huge factor. (Even worse, the number of times each action can be taken is also randomized. Some spaces allow two or three action tokens, others allow one or two, and a couple will have either zero or one. If an action turns out to be unavailable for the last rounds, it can derail all your plans.)

Hawaii play

The actions that you do sound interesting, and also feel thematic. Trying to put together your community on a Hawaiian island, you gather buildings and special tokens to create one or more villages. All tokens either give you abilities in-game or increase the score for their village at the end. However, villages only score if they extend past a certain marker on your gameboard. (Among other things, there is an action that moves that marker to make your job easier.) There are two currencies to keep track of, “feet” for moving around and “shells” to pay for actions. Cleverly, your base income actually drops each round (as the king sponsoring you expects you to become independent), and even with the special buildings you can add, it’s difficult to keep that income up. However, the “tribute” you want to send after each round keeps increasing.

All the pieces provide a lot of ways to score, but there aren’t that many different strategic paths to take. You have two main options in the game:  Do you focus on one huge village or try to get many past the scoring threshold, and how much effort should you put into the “boat” actions that give you resources but generally don’t build your villages? Otherwise, just take the best deals available at the moment. That is enough, barely, to build a game around, but with only five rounds of play, it feels slight.

Aesthetically appealing and offering some clever twists on worker placement rules, Hawaii is worth trying out. It loses its appeal before too long, though. I respect its potential as a “gateway game”, but I’m not very interested in playing it otherwise.

Grade: C+

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