“What news from our traders, Andreas?”
“Well, Klaus, we have reports of good success on the Göttingen-Warburg route.”
“Excellent! That will give us more opportunities to spread our influence!”
“Indeed, but our competitors have established offices there, so we are helping them as well. But we’re also getting strong reports from the Hamburg-Lübeck route.”
“How nice! That will allow us to send our traders and merchants back out more quickly!”
“Absolutely. And our office in Hamburg is boosting our prestige from trading on that route, and it’s also helping us with the competitors trying to increase their offices’ privilege level next door in Stadt.”
“Good, good. And the Stendal-Arnhem route is coming together?”
“Indeed, as we’ve established offices in Brunswick and Munster. We just need Minden to connect them. But there is a problem…a rival firm has taken the first office, so we’ll need to increase our own privilege.”
“Well, let’s go from Stadt to Hamburg then!”
“A rival is already trying to do that, but we could get in their way, get more traders, and then teleport back.”
“Teleport? Teleport! You fool, this is the 14th century!”
Designer: Andreas Steding
Artist: Dennis Lohausen
Publisher: Argentum Verlag, Z-Man Games, more
2-5 players (2 with variants)
45-90 minutes (listed; it can take longer if people are new to the game, if there’s some analysis paralysis, and/or if everyone is going for ability improvements instead offices. But it can also definitely finish in 45 minutes under the right circumstances; length is very player-controlled.)
Hansa Teutonica is one of my favorite games, and it’s interesting that it is, because it involves a bunch of elements I don’t always enjoy. I often like strongly-themed games, and while the theme (trading firms in the medieval European Hanseatic League of cities) here makes some sense with what you’re doing, there are points where it falls down (especially with the “teleport” discussed above) and this has a strong reputation as “Just Another Soulless Euro.” (It was one of the top selections in the Geek All-Stars’ “Dry Soulless Euro Draft,” and for good reason.) It’s literally a cube-pusher, and that doesn’t always work for me or others. And perhaps most notably, it often feels highly interactive (especially at higher player counts), with your plans often being affected by what others do, and many of the games I like are much lower on that scale. (I find “multiplayer solitaire” is often overused for games it doesn’t really fit, and is often used pejoratively, but there are plenty of actual multiplayer solitaire games I enjoy, and there are plenty of highly interactive games I dislike.) But the nature of that interaction in this game feels particularly distinctive, leading to the title’s comments about passive aggression. This often feels like a game of battles without any actual battles, and where your opponents removing your forces is regularly a positive.
So, how does that happen? Well, it starts with the player boards (which are outstanding, by the way, indicating both how powerful each of your skills currently is and also the five possible actions you can do on your turn). You have an active and passive supply (referred to as “supply” and “stock” respectively in the rules; I prefer using “active” and “passive,” as it’s created less confusion with the people I play with) of traders (cubes) and merchants (discs), and while there isn’t a way to distinguish them outlined specifically in the rules, I find putting passive cubes below your player board and active above it works well. (You can also use small cups or bowls to hold the passive ones, or leave them in setup bags until you get them).
On your turn, you can take a number of actions equal to your action skill, which starts at two but can be improved all the way to five. Those actions can be converting passive pieces to active (three, five, seven or all, depending on your skill there), placing one trader or merchant in any house on a trade route anywhere on the board (the most common action, especially early on), knocking someone else out of a house on a route, moving (teleporting) your pieces (from two to five, depending on your skill) around the board, and completing a route (once you occupy all the houses on it), removing the pieces on the houses to either place a trader or merchant in a city office on one end or increase one of your skills (if the route is connected to the city associated with that skill.
It’s the way the actions intersect that’s particularly interesting, and that makes this such an interactive and passive-aggressive game (in my mind). There was a great recent episode of Ludology where Geoff Engelstein and Gil Hova discussed “tightly coupled” games, games where the individual mechanisms all affect each other significantly, and I would put Hansa Teutonica down as an example. Consider the “place” action: putting one trader or merchant on the board is a step in its own right, but when you take the last spot on a route someone else is trying to finish, that’s where it particularly connects in to everything else.
The player in question now has to bump you, which requires them to sacrifice an additional piece (or two in the case of bumping a merchant) from their active to their passive supply. It also lets you place the bumped piece and an additional one (or two in the case of a bumped merchant) from your own passive supply on an adjacent route. If they have actions remaining after bumping you, that lets them take a complete a route action, but at a higher cost in pieces than if they’d been able to just place in an empty house. And while the new spot your pieces are in isn’t necessarily where you want to be, you’ve received free pieces for getting bumped, and the move/teleport action can let you quickly move those to a spot that’s convenient for you. And that sometimes can even be the route you were on, as it’s been cleared by your bumper taking a complete a route action. (Presuming someone else hasn’t jumped in there first.)
This is the part of the game that’s perhaps the most unique and the most fascinating to me, as it provides a highly-interactive experience without any destruction. In fact, it often feels really good to get bumped, as you’re getting free pieces out of that, and it’s quite possible to win this game solely by focusing on getting in others’ way at every conceivable opportunity (especially if you’ve improved your teleportation skill). And that feels strongly passive-aggressive to me, as you’re not actually attacking the person, but just getting in their way and seeing if they do anything about it. In a life context, that probably isn’t a recommended approach, but in a game context, it can be pretty great (and it feels less direct and less mean than, say, the outright attack options you find in some games).
But even as someone inconvenienced by players moving into your way, it doesn’t feel that bad. It’s an extra cost, but not a crippling one, and an extra reward for your opponent, but not necessarily an overwhelming one. And there are ways to avoid it, from simply shifting your focus elsewhere to actually starting routes far away from your true goal, having opponents move into block and then teleporting your pieces to where you want to be. So this can get into mind games and into trying to read opponents’ intentions, adding another layer to the interaction.
The many different ways to score also create a lot of interesting coupling and interaction. If you control a city (by having the most offices there, or in a tie, the right-most office), you score an in-game point whenever anyone (including yourself) completes an attached route. And this can make controlling the cities attached to increasing skills important, as people are often trying to finish those routes to bump up their skills. But to do that, you have to complete that route and choose to place an office instead of increasing your own skill, and it’s quite possible for that office not to wind up being too valuable for you if someone else comes along afterwards and fill a further-right office, or if others wind up ignoring that city (maybe partly thanks to your office). But it’s also possible to “ping” a route where you control one or both ends regularly, boosting both your skill and your points. But that’s at the opportunity cost of establishing offices elsewhere, improving other skills, or getting in others’ way…
And the in-game points also serve as one of the game timers. If anyone crosses 20 in-game points, the game instantly ends. That’s mostly done through scoring for offices when an adjacent route is closed, but there are also offices that reward you an immediate point for establishing them, and you can receive bonus in-game points (7/4/2 for first/second-third) for having at least one office in a chain from Stendal to Arnheim (at the opposite ends of the board). So it’s quite possible to speed up the game by establishing offices in highly-trafficked areas or repeatedly pinging routes where you control offices. But opponents have some control there too (they can avoid those cities, or put their own better offices in them), and this isn’t the only timer; the game can also end from 10 cities being completed (all offices filled) or from needing to draw a replacement bonus marker when they’re aren’t any.
A word on the bonus markers, which also add a notable dimension here. These give you a variety of use-any-time one-shot effects, from extra actions to boosting a skill to placing an extra office to the left of a city to switching the relative position of offices in a city to removing three pieces from the board to their owners’ active supplies. And they also count for set-collection end-game (not in-game) points, ranging from one point for one marker to 21 for 10-plus. But what’s interesting with them is that they start in specified locations (the three taverns on the board), but when you pick up one, you must place a new one at the end of your turn, and it can go almost anywhere, but has to be on a route that doesn’t already have bonus markers and is adjacent to a city with at least one office. So you can set it up so that others that want the marker have to give you points by closing a route adjacent to your cities, and they then have to weigh the value of that versus other options.
And there’s further end-game scoring for fully developed abilities (four points each, except for the town key skill), for the Coellen table (a special Coellen-Warburg route gives you the option of putting a merchant down for 7 to 11 end-game points, but this takes away one of your merchants), for controlled cities (two points per), and for your longest chain of cities with an office (which is multiplied by the value of your key skill). So there’s a lot going on in the scoring, and it’s not always the person who triggers game end who’s going to win. That, combined with how sudden the game end is (instantly when one of the three conditions is met) adds a lot to the interaction and to the attempted mind-reading; in the late game, you have to guess if you’re going to get one or two more turns to carry out your full plan, or if you should just do the best you can with a single move.
What also appeals to me are the variable paths to victory and the many different ways this game can play out. One reviewer (NowOrNever88 on Board Game Geek) called it “sandbox-style,” and that’s definitely somewhat apt depending on what you think of as a sandbox game; you can focus in on a whole ton of different areas in this game, from any of the five skills to the Stendal-Arnheim route to the Coellen table to collecting bonus markers to grabbing offices near other people, and many different strategies appear relatively viable. But everything is so connected to what other people are doing, particularly at higher player counts, and that makes each game play out pretty differently.
Some areas (especially Gottingen and its ability to improve your action skill) are typically heavily contested, but not always, and the value of others changes from game to game. Plus, a slow-developing strategy can be great in some games, but can hurt if someone else rushes the game end. And while this does have a bit of a point salad feel in that almost everything gets you points in some way, it’s not really a fit for the “your actions don’t matter” criticism of some games along those lines; what you focus on, how well you do that, and how well you read what others are doing makes a huge difference to your success here. So it’s a sandbox in the sense of a wide space of elements to explore, but not in the sense of having your own little corner independent of others.
A word on player counts; I’ve mostly played this with four and five, and it’s really good at those counts. This is a rare Euro that works superbly at five without a ton of downtime, as the actions on your turn are all relatively simple (and especially as players get the hang of the game, turns go buy quickly). You’re also engaged on others’ turns, as where they go will affect you (directly in terms of bumping or establishing an office that affects yours, or indirectly in terms of taking a space you want, establishing an office on a route you were eying, or setting a bonus token somewhere different). And while the board state does change significantly ahead of your turns, it’s not utter chaos that prevents planning (especially if you’re able to contemplate multiple plans), and once you get more powerful skills and bonus action markers, you can do a lot on your turn before people can mess up your plans. Four and five players also means that the getting in someone’s way feels less mean, as you’ll rarely be clashing with the same person for too long.
But I think this does scale reasonably well down to three, especially as the base board has a two- to three-player side with some notable changes (such as closing off extra routes to some skill cities, forcing more competition over the remaining route). There is the possible kingmaker problem common in three-player games, if two players spend all their time fighting and a third can execute their strategy unopposed, but it’s easy enough to figure out that that’s not optimal play in this game, and the rewards for getting in someone’s way whereever they are make it still worthwhile to block someone who isn’t in direct competition with you. And while I haven’t tried the two-player game, the changes (just three paragraphs of rules and a few extra components) that force you to place, displace and complete routes only in provinces where the figure is or is adjacent to seem like a low-overhead way to produce some more interaction there, and one I’d certainly be interested in trying.
One last word on the available expansions: there are two I own with full boards, the East Expansion and Brittania, and both bring some interesting twists to the game. The East expansion includes one city (Waren) that’s the upgrade spot for both grabbing passive pieces and taking more actions, making it a central focus of gameplay, but it and two other cities (Dresden and Belgard) are green cities that can only take offices under special circumstances. Beyond that, there are also ocean trade routes that require merchants, but have permanent bonus abilities. This map’s a pretty good twist on the base game, pushing you even more to explore some different strategies, and that expansion also contains nine cards that can be used with the base game to give players hidden goals for placing offices in and controlling certain cities, which can be nice in shaking that game up a bit.
And then there’s the Britannia expansion, which carries on the ocean trade route/permanent bonus marker idea and adds interesting twists in terms of Scotland and Wales, which have routes you can only place on if you control Cardiff (for Wales), Carlisle (for Scotland), or London (for either), and you can only place one to two traders or merchants there each round. It also adds majority scoring for cities in Scotland and Wales to reflect the difficulty of establishing offices there. This is probably my favorite map to play regularly, but it is the most complicated and does seem to take a little longer, so it’s probably best not to start new players with it. (This expansion also offers variant “neutral player” rules that can be used as an alternative with two players, and can be used on any board.)
I think these expansions are great, and they add yet more variety to the game and encourage you to try even more approaches. (There’s also an Emperor’s Favour player powers expansion from the 2016 Brettspiel Adventskalender: I don’t have that, but it sounds interesting.) And if you really like Hansa Teutonica, they’re well worth checking out, and can be acquired for about $10 U.S. each from online retailers. But there’s tons of replayability in the base game itself, so the extra expansions certainly aren’t a must-buy from the start.
Overall, Hansa Teutonica stands the test of time for me, mixing multiple paths to victory with enjoyable, non-destructive player interaction, and providing an experience that changes a lot from play to play. It’s a rare Euro that’s very good with five, and it’s a fun and thinky experience that doesn’t take overly long. And it presents you with an interesting puzzle to solve, one that’s constantly changing thanks to others’ actions but one where you still have some control and can still accomplish plans. It’s a game I’m hoping to play for years to come.