Loop-de-Loop in the Hanseatic Sea
June 1, 2008
Hansa is a game of creating and maintaining loops. There are four possible loops that you need to be aware of and consider throughout the course of the game. They are Reval-Riga-Danzig, Lubeck-Aalborg-Copenhagen, Tonsberg-Stockholm-Kalmar-Copenhagen, and Kalmar-Copenhagen-Danzig. I will consider the strengths and weaknesses of each loop in turn. Regardless of which loop you choose to pursue, you need to be mindful of all of these loops throughout the game, making sure that you donít allow your opponent to easily take control of one of them and exploit its strengths to your detriment. As an aside, youíll notice I use the singular of opponent because I donít recommend playing Hansa with more than one opponent at a time. Itís truly a two-player game that loses that something special that it has when you play with more players. While itís a game that is nominally about collecting goods and turning them into victory points, itís really a game about positioning the boat to hamstring your opponent and benefit yourself. The game breaks down with additional players because the tense balance between helping yourself and hurting the opposition is disrupted. The scale tips towards helping yourself, as it no longer makes sense to sacrifice your own interests to hamper one of multiple opponents when the game isnít zero-sum as it should be. Hansa becomes plagued by a seating order problem with more than two players because your fate rests on whether the opponent sitting to your right decides to sacrifice his or her own interests for the good of everyone. The fate of the opponent on your left rests in your hands, and whether you defect from the prisonerís dilemma and solely care for yourself, or cooperate and take the hit for the good of everyone to block a great move by the player acting after you. This tragedy of the commons is why the game fails with more than two players. Hansa needs to be a zero-sum game that is all about balancing your own advantage against the possibility of disadvantaging the singular opposition.
First, the Reval-Riga-Danzig loop is the strongest one on the board and the most advantageous one to take control of if your opponent allows you to do so. It has five barrel spaces in the three cities combined, but even more importantly it has two entrance points, but only one exit point. You can enter this loop coming from Stockholm into Reval and from Copenhagen into Danzig, but only exit it from Danzig to Kalmar. Furthermore, this loop has the deepest point at which you can bury the boat before your opponentís turn, which is at Reval, where it takes three moves to escape the loop. In contrast, every other loop that I will discuss can be escaped in two or less moves no matter where you position the boat. This combination of a good number of barrels, with a high ratio of entrance to exit points, and the deepest point to bury the boat, makes for a loop that far outweighs the other three possibilities. However, just as auction games can balance stronger strategies by making them more expensive (e.g., nutmeg in Goa, jesters in Princes of Florence), the strongest loop in Hansa should be balanced by the players making it more difficult to control and exploit this loop. Hence, it should be much easier to take over one or more of the other loops discussed below, and depending on the board layout and your opponent, it may be worthwhile to put some resources into making control of this loop expensive and time consuming, while still seizing a different, less powerful, but cheaper loop.
Second, the Lubeck-Aalborg-Copenhagen loop is the second most visible loop and one that beginner players will also naturally gravitate to, but which is significantly weaker than the Reval-Riga-Danzig loop. The weaknesses of the Lubeck-Aalborg-Copenhagen loop will not become apparent until after you play the game for a few times and see this loop fail repeatedly. It has only four barrel spaces, one less than the superior Reval loop, and the fewest of any of the possible loops on the board. More importantly, it only has one entrance point, but two exit points. You can only enter the loop by moving from Kalmar into Copenhagen, whereas you can exit it by moving from Aalborg to Tonsberg, or from Copenhagen to either Tonsberg or Danzig. The entrance to exit ratio is only 0.5, in contrast to a ratio of 2 for the Reval loop. As mentioned above, the deepest point at which you can bury the boat is Lubeck, which can be escaped in only two moves, unlike three moves from Reval to escape that loop. It would seem as if the Lubeck loop is inferior in every way to the Reval loop. However, between experienced players, it should be easier to obtain and to maintain control of this loop, compensating in part for its strategic inferiority.
Third, the Tonsberg-Stockholm-Kalmar-Copenhagen loop contains more barrels than any other loop, with six available barrel spaces. However, this abundance of goods comes at the price of making this the longest semi-viable loop on the board. I say ďsemi-viableĒ because there are obviously even longer loops on the board if you count loops that take significantly more moves, but I will rule those out because theyíre not realistic to control, especially given your limited number of market booths. The Tonsberg loop is even probably too long to be especially good. Itís simply too big to lock down. Furthermore, it doesnít have anywhere good to bury the boat since the best spot is Tonsberg, which can be escaped in just two moves, and there are simply too many exit points from the Tonsberg loop to trap the opponent effectively. It is a loop that you should be mindful of so as to prevent your opponent from easily taking control of these four consecutive cities and exploiting that control, but it should be easy enough to disrupt such an effort if your opponent tries that path and youíre aware of the danger of letting it go unobstructed.
Fourth and finally, the Kalmar-Copenhagen-Danzig loop is an interesting alternative since it lacks some of the weaknesses of the Lubeck and the Tonsberg loops. The Kalmar loop is not a loop that is frequently pursued, but it does avoid the weaknesses of the Lubeck loop, which has too few barrels and only one entrance point, whereas the Kalmar loop has five barrel spaces and a surplus of entrance points. In addition, the Kalmar loop avoids the principal weakness of the Tonsberg loop because itís not too long, containing a more manageable three cities. However, the Kalmar loop may be frequently overlooked for a good reason, which is that it lacks the key advantage of the Lubeck loop (i.e., burying the boat in Reval which is three moves from escape). The Kalmar loop doesnít even have as good options for burying the boat as the other loops, with Lubeck and Tonsberg at least being two spaces from escape. There are simply too many exit points from the Kalmar loop.
All four of these loops have characteristics that you should be aware of while playing Hansa. You should be mindful of the number of barrel spaces in each loop, the length of the loop, the ratio of entrance to exit points, and the deepest point at which you can bury the boat to make it difficult and expensive for your opponent to escape. Obviously your path in each game will be dictated in good part by the way in which the barrel tokens turn up, both in terms of the color and the quantity of the barrels, and your path will be dictated as well by your opponentís proclivities, so itís not possible to recommend a surefire approach to guarantee victory, but knowing the attributes of each of these loops will certainly help you one your way. Best of luck navigating the Hanseatic Sea in your next game of Michael Schachtís wonderful two-player design.
(See this Post for this article plus additional comments on it)