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Haleakala Review – Is it lava at first sight?

Hear something? There’s a rumble in that jungle!

Haleakala is a new game for two players published by Z-Man Games and designed by Marc Klerner and Florian Racky.  In Halekala two players face off against each other to build statues on the slopes of the island Haleakala, using their invocation cards and their shaman to gain influence and appease the rumbling volcano.  At some point the volcano will erupt and send its lava down towards the sea, perhaps burning down some of your statues, but the lava will cool down as a result and provide new land on which to build.  Your surviving statues will earn you points, as will the other items you have managed to find in the fertile waters around the island.  If this sounds like a pleasant destination for an hour or so’s play then it might just be the game for you.

Card and cards – how are the components?

Haleakala Board Game

The circular board is colourful and has slots for the cards in each of the six bays.

The components of Haleakala are made of good, solid stuff in the main.  You will need to affix stickers to the chunky wooden statue markers and to your number and lava tokens (also chunky and wooden) but then you are good to go.  The thick and colourful board folds out into a fetching circular design representing the island, with slots in the various bays into which the cards will be placed.  There are marked spots for the fishing boat, as well as a subtle iconic reminder that it always moves clockwise.  The score board, as well as holding various cards, also contains a thoughtfully designed representation of what will be counted up in the scoring rounds, and wherever you look there are small garlands of bright flowers, a welcoming touch which also means that a player can be drawn into the smaller details of the design.  One minor disappointment is that the cards are a little on the small side, tending to be fiddly, hard to shuffle and easy to damage in comparison with their larger and more satisfying cousins. In Haleakala’s case the size can be excused by the way they are used in the game, as they need to fit into areas around the edge of the island and also onto the scoring board, so it is not as much as issue as it might have been if they were to be held in hand throughout.  Overall I would have to say that the components get a strong thumbs up, and are of the quality you would expect from a company like Z-Man.

How to tame the mountain?  Game on with your shaman!

Haleakala Board Game

Boats, tokens, shamans and statues – welcome to Haleakala.

To set up the game players place their shamans on opposite sides of the island, the boat in the harbour, and receive their number tokens and statues.  The scoring cards are laid out, while the other cards are sorted according to their backs (with one, two and three palm trees).  The one-tree cards are dealt into the slots onto the island, with the remainder going face down onto the scoring board, while the other cards sit in their own face-down piles.

A player’s turn is limited to a choice of one of two (and a bit) actions.  On their go they may either place or take back one of their number discs, or if they have no discs left in their supply they simply move the fishing boat one space clockwise.  The catch is that the total displayed on their number discs in any of the six areas of the game board must always be different from that of their opponent.  For example, if your opponent has a ‘3’ in a segment and you already have your ‘1’ there then you have been blocked from placing your ‘2’.

Need cards?  Disc jockeys should apply here!

Haleakala Board Game

Yellow has placed their ‘1’ in the bay on the right. They have majority in the next bay, so will get first choice of cards when the boat moves there.

If you place your number disc in the segment with the fishing boat, you then move the boat clockwise the number of segments shown on the disc you have just placed (remember, always clockwise).  In the boat’s new segment there is now the opportunity for the players to acquire cards.  The player with the highest total on their discs gets to choose first, while the remaining card goes to the other player (unless the cards were identical, in which cases the second player gets nothing).  If one player has no discs then they do not get a card, and if the segment is entirely devoid of discs then nothing happens.  Once the cards have been distributed then the card powers are activated, the various discs returned to their owners, and the cards refilled.  If a lava card shows up, then the volcano has come closer to erupting, and a lava disc is placed in the crater, overlooking the current segment.

The various card types allow for different privileges.  The Lava Priestess means that you can move one of the lava discs to an adjacent segment of the crater, Build A Statue cards mean (have a wild guess!) that you can build a statue on the segment where your shaman is currently located, while Shells are currency and may be used to purchase bonus cards from the central board.  There is also pearls, a nautilus, baskets of fish and butterflies, all of which may be worth points in due course.

If you place your number disc in a segment without the fishing boat you get the opportunity to move your shaman up to two spaces, although he can only move at most one space uphill per turn.  This is an important action because, as mentioned, statues can only be built on the space currently occupied by your shaman.

The all-important bit!  How to score…

Haleakala Board Game

The scoring board holds cards and reminds players how the points will be awarded.

The two scoring rounds are triggered by different events in the game and also cause the volcano to erupt.  The timing of the first round of scoring (when the final two-tree card is placed) is more or less beyond the control of the players, while the second (when the final three-tree card has been placed and the boat moves to an empty segment) can be manipulated a little more accurately.  Before each scoring round the players have a valuable opportunity to buy a further scoring card, and then the volcano erupts, spewing its lava tokens out of the crater and destroying any statues that happen to be in the way, taking some of your victory points with them.  Players then tot up their points for statues, which are worth more the higher they are up the volcano’s slopes, fish, pearls, shells and the bonus cards.

Never mind sun burn!  Brain burn is the factor here…

While the basic choices in Haleakala might appear almost simplistically straightforward, you will find yourself considering all sorts of factors when it comes to making your move. Do you need to build a statue on a certain space in order to secure bonus points from a scoring card you have bought?  In that case you’ll need to move the boat to a segment where there is a Build A Statue card, but not only do you need to get the boat to the right section of the island to get hold of that card but you also either need the numerical majority in the area, or you are just going to have to hope that your opponent leaves that card for you.  You will end up kicking yourself when you realise – again! – that the token you need is already on the board and taking it back will cost you the majority in its current area.  In short, there is little room for sloppy play, and you need to be on top of many different things or you will go down to defeat.

Haleakala Board Game

The island gets busy as the game progresses.

When the board fills up, especially as Haleakala heads towards the second round of scoring, everything can be so finely balanced that you will often feel that you are are simply trying to do the least bad thing of the few possibilities you have left – this can be deliciously painful!  And yet, and yet…somehow the theme, despite the wonderful art, just does not quite come through, and it feels very much like an abstract with a lick of (very colourful) paint.  If however you like your abstracts with a little more thematic width, then you will feel at home here.

Lava trouble?  Just go with the flow!

The idea of cleansing the board of player pieces is one that has been seen before in games such as Assyria, and it tends to keep players on their toes, lending their empire-building aspirations a temporary quality and meaning that the struggle to add to the board is always undermined by the game itself.  Given that Haleakala is for two players only there is a tense to-and-fro as you build and adapt to the ever-changing threat of the volcano, but I always felt that the lava was merely an irritation rather than a genuine threat.  There are only four lava discs placed in each of the scoring rounds, and there are enough Lava Priestess cards knocking around to be able to deal with them well enough.  After several games I can see that players might well become aware of the strength of depriving their opponent of these cards, but there are so many points to be grabbed elsewhere that you might feel it not worth the bother.

Haleakala Board Game

Sunrise on Haleakala.

I would have loved a variable setup, perhaps with a random number of lava discs per game, maybe between four and eight. Seeing that volcano brimming over with destructive force would make things much more tense. Some would prefer less of the lava though, and it is worth mentioning that Haleakala comes equipped with a “tactical” variant, allowing players more control over the placement of lava tokens.  Less chaotic it may well be but it seems curiously unthematic.

Haleakala – lava, like or loathe?

My initial impression of Haleakala is a mixture of feelings and ideas.  The gameplay itself is simple to grasp, but it can become very thinky indeed once you get into the meat of game.  Once you realise that you cannot get to the correct part of the board for the card you need you will kick yourself, and by the middle of the game players will realise that each move will have a considerable knock-on effect.

The scoring has pros and cons as well.  The statues are scored based on the territory where they are built, but players can, of course, buy scoring cards as the game progresses, meaning that they can tweak their focus – remember that players also get the opportunity to buy one scoring card before each scoring round, and choosing wisely is critical.  The downside is that there are so many areas that are scored that it can feel that the difference between them all is minimal and that your decisions lack weight.  It does feel at times as if there is just too much going on.

So is Haleakala worth a visit?  Here’s what I think!

Haleakala Board Game

Haleakala is both pretty and clever.

Haleakala is an interesting and polished two player game with some beguiling twists and a decent level of complexity.  It is very thinky, much more so than appears during the opening moves, and can develop into a really engrossing back and forth battle as players try to make the best use of their limited number tokens.  It may well be too deep for casual gamers, but it could certainly appeal to those who like something a little more involved and interactive without being directly confrontational.  Once you realise that underneath the colourful design there beats the heart of an abstract you will have a fair idea of whether you might like this or not.  In terms of depth, length and thinkiness I would place it in the same region as something like Targi (which I think is the better game), or maybe even Aton (which I liked less).

As it is, there are better games around that fill the same kind of niche, so Haleakala will probably suffer to have appeal beyond collectors and completists I suspect.  It is not a bad game by any means, but it lacks something to grip the player and excite them, despite the intriguing premise.  I can see myself playing this because I feel I should rather than because I really want to, but it will stay in the collection for now, as I suspect there are more depths to be revealed.

5 (100%) 2 votes
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.