Neko Harbour The Card Game: A four-sided review

Neko Harbour The Card Game is a drafting and engine building game for 2-4 players, lasting 1-2 hours (30 minutes per player). Although it says 30-60 minutes on the box (maybe we’re slow). It’s listed for ages 12+, which feels right. It’s not overly complex, but the way things fit together makes it very thinky.

The theme works well enough, but isn’t doing any heavy lifting here. You’re fuelling and improving a fleet of ships and sending them to tourist destinations. Which just happen to home penguins. Yes, it could’ve been a fleet of anything going anywhere. But who doesn’t like penguins? If anything, they’ve missed a trick by not squeezing more cute critters onto the cards.

It fits neatly into a Kosmos 2-player-sized box. Inside you’ll find 220 cards, half full-sized and half small, plus a scorepad. This works well, as the small cards are largely just resources that never go into your hand. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for just under £30 including shipping. Perhaps a little steep, but I presume it is currently only available as an import.

Teaching Neko Harbour The Card Game

NHTCG (as no one is calling it) has an interesting take on drafting. The game is split into halves, and each player drafts six cards at the start of each. Once you’ve finished drafting, players take it in turns to play a card until everyone has played all six. There follows a short intermediate scoring/reset, then you do it all again. Then its final scoring.

For 3/4 players, each player drafts a pile of one, two and three cards (making your hand of six). It’s a nice system, forcing you to decide what you really need – and what you’ll happily be stuck with because of your early choices. For two players, you simply lay out eight cards and draft 1-2-2-1, discarding the other two cards – then you do it again. So the start player chooses one, then the second player two, etc. Both work fine, but the 3/4 player version feels a little more interesting. There are cards left over in both scenarios, so its unlikely you’ll feel you’ve got a bum hand.

Playing your cards

Neko Harbour The Card Game has six types of card, which can be added to your tableau in one of two ways: their main use (as a location), or to bolster any location already in play. Cards of the same type are placed in a stack, so you’ll have up to six stacks in total. When activated, three of these trigger the game’s core actions, while the others give ongoing or end game bonuses.

After adding a card to your tableau (in either way) you trigger each of your card stacks (or ‘harbours’). And when you do so, all card in that harbour (played for their main action) activate. In addition, the three core actions can be triggered at the end of your turn if they haven’t been already – meaning you don’t have to have played them yet. This is important, as if you’re frozen out of a card type by the draft you’re not necessarily frozen out of the action itself. You just need to have the required currency to do said action.

Moving your ships

Each player also has six ship cards, which you use your actions to move and improve. The cards are double sided, with each having flipped numbers like a dice (so 1-6, 2-5, 3-4). So, if you don’t have a particular number available, you can’t do the upgrade. Which can be a particularly tricky part of the puzzle.

Moving your ships is essential to success. Firstly, moving a ship across your harbours can activate those locations, triggering bonuses or letting you do an action an extra time. This happens if your ship’s value (plus those already at that location) is lower than the harbour’s value. Hence why you may add a card to bolster a location, as this adds to its harbour value. Secondly, a ship can only be sent to a tourist location (read: end game scoring) if it has moved across as many spaces as its upgraded level. Sending ships away gives a small bonus, while the totals of your ship values at each location will determine end game points.

Points also come from ships you’ve moved into harbours, but that didn’t make it to a tourist location. While other actions or location cards reward you with bonus points.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Neko Harbour The Card Game’s rulebook is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But when you start to see how everything here interacts – and try and succinctly explain the rules yourself (see above!) – you realise why. Everything here is familiar, but comes together in surprising and tricky ways. There is little elegance here. But once you get your head around some of the strange timings and interactions, there’s a very rewarding puzzle at its core. Especially for a game that plays in such a short time.
  • The thinker: Don’t let the cute penguins fool you – this is a tricky strategic puzzle made all the better thanks to a well-implemented tactical majorities scoring system. Its quickness works in its favour, as you have limited – but known – time to build and execute you engine/plans. Send boats away early can gain you extra bonuses. But will that mean sacrificing end game majorities? As well as limiting your scope for upgrades. I’ve been very impressed and surprised by the game and am looing forward to more plays.
  • The trasher: I agree that the puzzle of end game scoring is a good one. There’s great tactical interaction here, especially as you can move your boats (as long as you have fuel) between tourist locations after the fact, so aren’t tying yourself to a location by going early. The question is, do you want to fight through a brain-burning euro game to get to this point? And the truth is, it won’t matter where you want to send your ships if you can’t get your engine going. so ultimately its a good game, but its not for me. I’d rather get my area majorities kicks via a game in a purer form.
  • The dabbler: Don’t let the cute penguins fool you – but not for the reason the thinker said! How can a game about penguins and the sea be this dry? It should’ve been about moving water biscuits across the desert. And it could’ve been, for all it has to do with penguins or Neko Harbour. Hard to get your head around, frustrating, and really not for me.

Key observations

It takes a lot of work to learn and play Neko Harbour The Card Game. Players who love a meaty puzzle will feel its worth the effort. But it seems an odd theme, and cover, for such a tricky game. I’m not saying its dishonest. I just hope that the game manages to find its audience, without disappointing those who may pick it up on a whim without doing a bit of research. In my opinion, this is not a game for new or even gateway gamers.

In his video ‘final thoughts‘ for the game, YouTuber Rahdo (who clearly likes the game) picked up on quite a few issues he had with the two-player rules. He didn’t like the two-player drafting, which I thought was absolutely fine. That’s very much a personal preference. But I do agree with him on some of the card restrictions. The game has a bunch of unique ‘research station’ cards. But a set few are always used with two players. This could be house ruled. But its an odd restriction, especially as it has a real impact on replayability.

Talking of replayability, the game comes with a 10-card ‘fishing boat’ mini expansion. These add a small amount to the game, in particular a way to get an extra harbour. This means you can ignore a basic card type and still get to six harbours, allowing you to still send level six ships away for scoring. But beyond that, as you use all 10 each play, they fail to add that ‘random cards each play’ element I feel the game is missing. That said, the tactical nature of scoring should keep players on their toes over multiple plays.

Conclusion: Neko Harbour The Card Game

I was very impressed with Neko Harbour The Card Game. It takes some tried and tested euro mechanics, throws in some real interaction, and makes something that feels unique but also familiar. Particularly impressive from a small box game that can easily play in under an hour. But it won’t be staying in my collection. I found it a bear to teach. While you really need a specific type of player who is going to fall for its charms. If that sounds like your group from what you’ve read here though, I highly recommend it.

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