Healthy Heart Hospital has a theme that was equally intriguing and off-putting for me before I played it. I have worked in healthcare, in a hospital setting no less, for the past 10 years, and I was curious to see designers Scott and Anna-Marie Nelson's take on the theme, but I was also had a sneaking suspicion that playing the game might just feel like work. The game has a subtly morbid sense of humor though, from the need to "hide" the bodies of dead patients, to the way the patients are essentially just numbers that take up space, to the importance of public perception over everything else, that makes me think that one or both of the designers have actually worked in healthcare, and have had to deal with the ever present struggle of trying to appease overbearing hospital administration while still trying to care for, and treat, patients as quickly and efficiently as possible.
A purely cooperative experience, Healthy Heart Hospital reminds me of Pandemic in many ways, yet is different enough that it feels familiar without feeling derivative. Players have to make it through 9 rounds of play without running out of places to put dead patients and without running out of money, which is compounded by the fact that it becomes increasingly expensive as more and more patients die. This is easier said than done, as each round two Ambulance cards show up with a fresh batch of problems for players to contend with, and space is limited, whether it be in Triage or in the hospital Wards.
The patients arrive to the hospital Triage in the form of wooden cubes, drawn at random. The color of the cubes represent the malady that the patient is stricken with, while the number of cubes of each color represent how severely that patient is afflicted. Patients whose illnesses are the most severe need to be prioritized, as a fifth cube almost guarantees that the patient will die. The cubes are replaced with bed markers once the patient is moved to the inpatient Wards, yet, again, if the patient's illness level surpasses 4, that patient will die.
Players have to constantly juggle the need to deal with the sickest patients against the never ceasing influx of new and worsening patients. While moving a patient from Triage to the Wards can be a short term solution, patients' health can easily worsen after being admitted, and the number of beds available to admit patients is limited. The hospital can be expanded to accommodate more patients, and make patients easier to treat, by adding Operating Rooms, a Clinic and various other facilities, but they will need to successfully treat existing patients first, in order to make enough money to be able to afford those new facilities.
Making money is relatively straightforward. For each illness level that players successfully treat, they gain money based on the Prestige value of the area in which the patient was treated. Treatment isn't assured though, and it is even possible to make patients worse instead. Treatment is performed by drawing cubes at random and comparing their colors against the color of the patient's illness. Drawing cubes that match the patient treats one level of illness each, while drawing black cubes increases the patient's illness level. As cubes are drawn from the bag throughout a round they are removed and set aside, only returning to the supply at the end of the round or when all of the cubes have been drawn. This means that certain diseases can become easier or more difficult to treat, and can also significantly increase the chances that a patient will get worse. This adds to the balancing act that players need to deal with as patients need to be prioritized by illness level and location, as well as the potential to make them better or worse based on the cubes that have already been drawn.
Drawing cubes is a great mechanic and is a wonderful method of randomization, especially since players can see what has already been drawn and which cubes are still on the board representing patients. Instead of just hoping to get a certain result, you can plan around trying to force certain outcomes, or at least make educated guesses as to how successful you might be based on how things are going. There are numerous different ways for players to manipulate the potential cube draw as well, such as abilities that allow players to return some cubes to the bag after each draw. In a world of card draws and dice rolls, Healthy Heart Hospital's cube drawing feels fun and fresh.
Four Doctors and one Administrator, each with their own special abilities, are used each game, and there are enough included that players can try different strategies game to game. After a few plays it becomes apparent which Doctors and which Administrator should be chosen during setup, and which hospital add-ons are the most effective, and, unfortunately, these choices can make the game feel a bit predictable. This can be mitigated by selecting characters at random, adjusting the difficulty via suggestions in the rulebook, using the more difficult Ward abilities, or simply playing for higher and higher end-game scores, so it's only a very mild disappointment.
A note on play time: Healthy Heart Hospital plays in about 90 minutes consistently, regardless of player count. Turns of bad luck can end the game sooner, but the length of a "successful" game feels just right.
A note on solo play: Healthy Heart Hospital plays well as a solitaire game. Five characters are always used, regardless of player count, so there aren't any fiddly changes that need to be made to accommodate different player counts.
A note on “chrome”: Some of Healthy Heart Hospital's art has an interesting retro vibe to it, but most of it feels rather sterile and utilitarian, which is actually surprisingly apt considering the theme. It's certainly not the most eye catching game. The cards are decent and the tokens are thick, although a few of the white Ward Ability tokens were a bit discolored around the edges due to the laser cutting process used in their creation. The board itself is printed on cardstock, although it is one single piece, so, while thin, it doesn't detract from the gameplay at all. The rulebook is fairly well written although there aren't specific explanations for a few things, the Ward Abilities in particular, which can lead to some confusion when playing with some of the less obvious ones.
The bottom line:
Healthy Heart Hospital is a great game that will really appeal to gamers who enjoy cooperative games such as Pandemic. The theme is excellent for a cooperative game, and the game's sense of humor manages to lighten the tone with just the right amount of cheeky silliness. Play time is consistent and the difficulty is easily tweaked, whether players crave an easier experience or if they want to truly be challenged. Drawing cubes to spread and treat diseases is a great mechanic. Healthy Heart Hospital isn't the most visually stunning game, but the gameplay is interesting, fun and satisfying.
Get this game if:
You enjoy cooperative games such as Pandemic.
You like the hospital theme.
You want a cooperative game that can play up to 5 people, rather than the standard 4.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike cooperative games.
The copy of Healthy Heart Hospital used for this review was provided by Victory Point Games.