Hallertau won the Solitaire Times 2020 Best Game Award, so it was high time I checked it out. And I did. I played it fifteen times in the last five days. I consider that a lot, for an hour long game with challenges and dilemmas that will take up all your attention. But as soon as I was finished, I would set it up again.
The Bavarian region of Hallertau. Land of glorious hop production. Of Weihenstephan Hefeweißbier. 🍻 Great stuff. I'll admit I was a bit disappointed that there's no brewery in the game. But at least there's hop. There's always hop.
Your player boards represent a village and the fields around it, where you can grow crops, hold sheep for milk and wool, trade on the market, prepare the grounds for expansion by removing stones, etc. It's a busy life. You'll start with a hand of cards that will give you short term goals and business opportunities. Once fulfilled, you will get an immediate profit and perhaps a bonus card that will provide you with yet another goal to reach, this time for a permanent benefit to your village.
The solo game plays exactly like multiplayer. The less players, the more action spots will be blocked on the board every turn (simulating the "missing" players). You can still take those actions if you really need them, but you'll need extra workers. About halfway you'll have a good idea which action spaces will get blocked in the rest of the game (just not in which exact order), again simulating live opponents quite well. This makes planning your own actions in the long term as relevant as the ones for your current turn.
As you know, we are grumpy folks here at Solitaire Times. We hate it when we get an empty box. This box on the other hand, is filled to the brim, very - very - heavy, and when you take out the stuff you need for solo, still over half full. That's one and a half kilos we don't need (over three pounds, for our overseas friends who think bigger is better)! Ugh.
But the weight of the box really is the only thing that makes Hallertau a heavy game. It's one of the easiest games to learn to play. After reading through the exceptionally clear rulebook once, you'll be off to go. All action spaces and cards are explained in the appendix, but you'll probably won't even consult it that often. There's a player aid for the steps you take in a round, everything is printed on the boards in easy to understand symbols. The goal is clear: expand your village to the max. The way to get more victory points is clear: try to fulfill missions on bonus cards and on end game scoring cards.
Reaching 100 victory points is considered a win in solo, anything over 110 is great. After my first learning game I already ended up in the 90s, and by now I also managed scores of 126 and 135. To compare: I have never scored that good in Nusfjord (relatively, I mean, so 40+ in that game). While I've played that game four times more. I don't consider this game harder.
The cards you draw give you a nudge in the right direction, gameplay is more tactical than strategic. You are not lost in a sea of options, you just make the most of what you get - always working towards clearly visible goals. And if you think your hand only contains rubbish, you can use one of your workers to get an extra bonus or scoring card. You can even sell land or the inventory of one your crafting buildings to buy jewelry and use it later to pay for progress (often with way higher benefits). Even though your cards are different every time you play, the game's not that random. You'll find a way.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the passing of time. Sheep you acquire at the beginning of the game, will grow old and die of natural causes unless you send them off to the butcher before it comes to that. If you leave a field fallow for a year, it will be more productive the next year - if you sow crops however, the land will be somewhat depleted the next year. Economic growth is simulated: every year you'll need more resources to still be able to expand, but fortunately your workshops will also be able to produce more and be more efficient. And all this is done without adding complexity to the ruleset, just by clear indications on the boards. You won't have to think about all those changes over time, making progress will go naturally.
Replayability is very high. There are four gateway decks included and four farmyard decks, while you use just one of each every play. And just a small part of the cards will get into play. I think I've seen most cards of the first two decks of each now, which means I can have over 30 plays before I've seen them all. Then there are other combinations to make, and of course you'll shuffle the decks so the cards will come out in another order... You get the idea.
Okay. Now the weird confession. I am completely hooked on the game, but I feel no love. It is a thematic game, make no mistake. As is hopefully clear from my short description above, all action spaces make sense, they are logical and are not abstract with some theme pasted on. Yes, I feel like the chief of the village, planning and overseeing all that has to be done. And yes, I enjoy seeing my village expand when our craft buildings become more productive and efficient. So what's the problem? I guess for me it's this. Hallertau is a very cerebral game. You're playing a manager, sitting behind a desk. Doing your calculations, making everything run smoothly. It's an important job. But all the real stuff is happening outside, you can only see it through a window. You take no part in it. Also: there should be a village feast at the end. With beer.
That said, game of the year. 🏆 Well deserved. I'd rather be back playing it than writing this post. 😁