On the Table – Harmonies is a satisfying tactical tile laying must-play

Posted on June 17, 2024

Another new riff on tile-laying games, Harmonies is a buzzy, board game of the year contender that everybody is talking about. Its concept resembles the much-loved Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra and its many versions but with a wildlife twist that brings gorgeous, colourful artwork alongside its easy-to-learn but hard-to-master ideas.

Visually, it’s impossible not to be charmed by what Harmonies is doing. Artist Maëva Da Silva (who you’ll be familiar with if you’ve played Dixit or Mysterium before) has completely knocked it out of the (wildlife) park with this one, with adorable animals on painterly backdrops that leap off of the various cards. It’s bright and gorgeous, with even the “tiles” themselves quite eye-catching.

A strategic game, the concept is that you’ll need to create beautiful landscapes in order to welcome animals into your ecosystem. Unlike Azul, you’ll have an empty board in front of you, and it’s entirely your choice on how you create your various habitats. You’ll have to use the space wisely to earn points, which on a basic level, come from the various terrain types.

Much like Azul, a random selection of terrains will be pulled from a bag and placed in front of the players, and you have to take the whole trio from a spot. From there, you’ll incorporate terrain tiles in different ways to ensure they qualify for points at the end of the game. Trees must have a brown base, with green tiles on top to earn points. Grey mountain tiles must be next to other mountains to earn points, while rivers need to be connected for maximum points, and within one more challenging variant can be placed tactically to form point-scoring islands.

“I love that this gives you more agency in how you want to build your landscape.”

What makes the game feel interesting and more dynamic than some of its counterparts is that tile placement is 3D, meaning that you can (and in some cases must) stack tiles on top of one another to earn points, and pattern development is key. I love that this gives you more agency in how you want to build your landscape. Sure, you might be waiting for certain tiles to come into play still, but if they don’t come there are always other ways to score points. This approach means you can adapt based on the luck of the draw, rather than simply being stung by it.

Where Harmonies complicates things in the best way is by the pool of Animal Cards you can draw from. Five are presented to the group at all times, and these Animal Cards have different combinations of tiles pictured on them, with points attached. They also have multiple opportunities to earn points; for example, one simple card might have two mountains next to a tree; the point values increase based on how many times you pull off this combination. Smart players will be able to claim them multiple times by using pre-existing placements effectively, placing a cube on top of a stack when it has been achieved.

These Animal Cards can really turn the tide in a game full of strategic players, and in the sessions we had, they often became the key difference-maker when it came to tallying points at the end. You can grab a new one every turn, up to a maximum of four, and once you’ve completed the conditions of a card entirely you can archive it to make room for new ones. Of course, these cards do lock you in to certain patterns if you want to earn big points, but you’re not penalised for incomplete ones at the end of the game, so it encourages experimentation, risk and a bit of luck to ultimately be the winner.

The rules are very simple, but it does take a game to get your head around all of the concepts of tile placement so that things really click into place. Thankfully, the player reference cards are colourful, clear and concise, so it’s a fast-moving game that is pretty easy to slot into a board game night as a head-scratching warmup.

An included variant for advanced players locks you into one permanent Animal Card from the outset, taking up a valuable slot if you don’t use it properly, but paying dividends if you manage to achieve its goals. Honestly, the base game has more than enough variables and strategy as it is, but it’s nice to have as an alternative every now and then.

It’s easy to see why Harmonies has become so popular so quickly. It has a stunning design and a deep, satisfying gameplay loop for players who like to think tactically while still being able to adapt to a bit of luck. It’s an instant crowd-pleaser.

Harmonies is available now in all good board game stores. Thanks to VR Distribution for providing a copy for this review.