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Decidedly not bored games

Last night, our local gaming group took a night off from our more serious games to play some of the new boardgames we'd unwrapped at Christmas. Brief reviews below…

Reef Encounter

Reef Encounter is a weird, slightly over-complicated game of fish, shrimp and coral reefs. We played with four, which I think is the maximum; Hans had played with two before (which is probably the minimum).

Images from BoardGameGeek.

The goal is to "eat" the largest and/or most valuable pile of reef tiles. On your turn, you generally play up to four tiles in color-matched pairs (if you also have a color-matched wooden cube). You get tiles and a cube a the end of your turn (though the tiles are randomly distributed, so getting the colors lined up is half the challenge).

You also have shrimp pieces, which you use to "claim" and "protect" the tiles you've played on the board. "Claiming" prevents other players from eating the tiles you've played (a mechanism I misunderstood early on in last night's game), and the shrimp "protects" the tiles immediately adjacent to the tile on which it sits. This "protection" is necessary, because other players can "convert" your tiles, if they start a tile of a "stronger" color and walk over your "weaker" tiles.

So, there's a strength board, with ten dual-sided tiles (one for each color-pair, one side shows one color as stronger, and vice-versa), which you can flip up or down, or lock in place (preventing future flippings), at the cost of a tile you previously walked over from the board. When everything's scored at the end, the tiles you previously ate earn extra points for each "strength tile" that shows them in superior position.

Does that sound complicated? It is. Reef Encounter was probably too complicated for my tastes. Even just explaining the game here, I find myself inventing terms to explain some of the game states. Actually, the game has no lack of verbiage: "tiles" are "polyp tiles", your "scoring bins" are really "parrot fish", and so on.

I found the color matching of resources a bit frustrating, like a bad game of Scrabble, I often found myself staring at a handful of color tiles and no matching cube with which to play them.

And yet, in a way, it sort-of works. There's a nice tension as you build up your reef to a nice, edible size, while realizing that your shrimp won't be able to protect it as it grows. And once one player (me, last night) starts feeding tiles to his parrot fish, there's a rush to eat one's reef and keep up with the crowd.

I was attempting a "eat early, push the 'strength' tiles my way, and score on 'strength' instead of size" strategy, and found myself racing through the end-game trying to lock down strength tiles without falling too far behind my reef-gobbling peers.

And, hey, fish ! I mean, this is a seriously competitive game that manages to avoid any sort of violent or capitalistic themes (the shrimp do get eaten, so serious vegans might be offended, I suppose).

Overall, I'd say it was a little frustrating in the beginning, but that ought to lessen with further play-throughs, and I found the "race" aspects at the end sufficiently interesting. I'd definitely play again, but it's not something I'm rushing to add to my library just yet.

Alhambra

If Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride got together and produced some sort of boardgame progeny, it might look a bit like 2003 Spiel des Jahres winner Alhambra. As a big fan of both games, this is me saying that Alhambra has a serious pedigree.

Images from BoardGameGeek.

Like Carcassonne and Reef Encounter, Alhambra is a game of laying tiles. There are five basic kinds of tiles (buildings). In each of three scoring rounds, you earn points for having the most of a given kind of building, with some kinds of buildings being worth more points than others.

The tiles are laid on a "market" board with four wells, corresponding to the four types of "currency cards". The tiles are individually priced (in general, the more valuable tiles are more expensive, though the ranges often overlap), but the kind of currency depends on the tile's placement on the market board's various wells. The currency cards and tile wells are re-filled at the end of each player's turn.

So, you have three choices on your turn: Take one or more money cards (more than one if the total is 5 or less); Buy a tile; or, Re-arrange your city. If you can buy a tile with exact change, you can take another action (including buying another tile). Tiles that you buy must be placed in your city or a "reserve board" (where they don't earn anyone points). The tiles may have "walled" sides, which much match adjacent pieces when played to your city (and you will earn points for long walls).

In an interesting twist, there are three scoring phases: one at the end of the game, and two others determined by cards inserted quasi-randomly into the currency deck. When they are turned up, the game pauses while scores are added up, then resumes. The game ends when there aren't enough tiles in the bag to fill the "market board" (and remaining pieces get auctioned off, regardless of price).

I really like Alhambra. I like that the choices one makes (currency cards or tiles) are non-random, while their order of appearance is random. This keeps the game varied enough on repeat plays, while keeping random effects to a minimum. The benefits of paying with exact change are huge, but the rush to collect the most of a variety of building means you can't just "turtle" up around your currency for long and have a chance.

While it doesn't have Ticket to Ride's come-from-behind surprise victories, it's all still very much up-in-the-air until the final scoring. Last night's game, for instance, came down to a 6-point lead, 100% of which could be attributable to superior wall-placement.

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