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REEF ENCOUNTER

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(R&D Games, 2-4 players, ages 9 and up, about 2 hours; about $100)

 

Inspiration can come from many sources – even television! The evidence? It seems that a BBC television documentary on coral reefs and the lifestyles of the creatures inhabiting them was the inspiration for Reef Encounter, the latest offering from Richard Breese (whose Keythedral was featured last issue).

Reef Encounter comes boxed with a host of components: 5 Game boards, 50 wooden larva cubes, 200 polyp tiles, 16 wooden alga cylinders, 10 coral tiles, 16 wooden shrimp, 4 parrotfish, 4 player screens, 4 turn action cards, a cloth bag and rules in English and German. The object of the game: feed your parrotfish the “tastiest” (meaning most valuable) polyps. The player with the highest score wins!

The play area consists of five game boards: four of them representing coral reefs and one of them serving as a sort of “replenishment/dominance” center. Each player receives four wooden shrimp in his color, a turn action card, a “parrotfish” and a screen (to hide some of his holdings including his color-coded shrimp).

First off, you need to understand some of the terminology to get a grip on what you creefencounteran and cannot do. “Polyps” are tiles. These tiles come in five colors – white, gray, yellow, orange and green. “Larva cubes” are wooden cubes in the same five colors. “Parrotfish” are the “secret stashes” of tiles that players accumulate as they “eat” throughout the game.

The quest for environmental dominance begins as all players draw tiles (the number determined by the number of players) and drop one of them into their secret stash. (This is your first “score” but scoring only occurs at game’s end.) Now, in turn, players take actions, choosing from an extensive menu of options.

The first option – and the option that MUST be done first if you plan to do it at all this turn – is to feed
parrotfish. This is done by removing a particular group of tiles that you control. The first four tiles “eaten” are removed from play. The remainder go into your secret stash to be scored later.

After that, the next set of possible actions are NOT compulsory and may be done in ANY order. You can use a larva cube of any color to place tiles of that color on any single board. (This can be done one or two times per turn.) Tile placement is restricted as you can play as many as four from behind your screen although you may play as many as you want – or have – from behind your screen. (How tiles get to the front or back of your screen you’ll discover if you keep reading!)

The trick here is to “grow” your colony of tiles. Once two tiles link together and are under your control, that group may attack other groups bordering them provided the attacker has “dominance”. (Dominance is determined by the dominance tiles placed on the fifth board. These tiles show one color “above” or “dominant” over another – with the flip side of the tile showing the reverse!) Attacks result in the tiles of the attacker’s color replacing and occupying spaces previously held by the defending tiles. All tiles “eaten” (removed by the attack) are placed in front of your screen. To show you’ve eaten, one of your shrimps is placed on the replenishment/domination board.

The next option is to claim a group of tiles by placing one of your shrimp (represented by toy-like wooden tokens with eyes!) onto them. This gives you control of that group AND offers some protection for that group from attack. Specifically, the tile the shrimp occupies as well as the four spaces bordering it are protected. (Other tiles in the group MAY still be vulnerable to attack.) You may also move shrimp from one space to another without restriction.reefencshrimp

Another option is to spend a tile from in FRONT of your screen to buy an alga cylinder of ANY color to flip over dominance tiles showing the same color in the lower left hand box of the tile. For example, if you choose “blue”, ALL dominance tiles with that blue color flip! Once you’ve placed a shrimp on the fifth board, this action gives you yet another choice. You may choose to LOCK IN one of the dominance tiles so that it will not be able to flip again! (Other dominance tiles of the same color, however, WILL flip!)

Other player possibilities include trading a tile from in front of your screen for a cube of the same color or trading a cube for a tile of the same color. Of course, you do not have to do ANY of these actions if you so choose.

The last and REQUIRED action of a player’s turn is replenishment. Sharing the board with the dominance tiles are five spaces containing ONE cube (each space having a different color cube) and from 1 to 3 tiles. The cube and tiles chosen are placed BEHIND the player screen and the board reseeded. Then, the now empty space is refilled with the same colored cube and ONE tile randomly plucked from the bag and placed in that empty space. In addition, any of those spaces with less than 3 tiles receives one more.

The game continues until ONE of the four possible game ending conditions are met: all dominance tiles have been locked in, one player has used all of his shrimp, three of the reef boards are so jammed that further tile placement on them is not possible OR not enough cubes remain to replenish the fifth board. At that point, every player (except the player who triggered the ending condition) gets ONE more chance to score. They may now “eat” for a final time. But instead of four tiles being discarded, FIVE tiles are! (This may not seem like much but, when the smoke clears, this is big!)

Now, players reveal and score their secret stash of tiles. Each tile is worth 1 point (no matter what color it is) PLUS 1 point for each dominance tile where that color is dominant. So, for example, if the yellow tile is dominant on three tiles, each yellow tile would be worth FOUR points! The player with the most total points wins!

Reef Encounter presents some interesting challenges. For example, do you eat a reef immediately or wait (and hope) that you can grow it larger (and score higher) without falling victim to other players? The balance between picking cubes which allow you to play certain tiles vs. tiles available on that cube’s space can be both frustrating and rewarding. The neatly constructed device of variable dominance of the different tiles which can be reversed or frozen adds yet another layer of strategy to the proceedings. And, of course, the use of cubes to place tiles to maximum advantage is tricky.

For all of its good points, Reef Encounter does have its flaws. The potential of one play to influence an entire range of subsequent plays makes the game prone to “analysis paralysis”. (Think of a world class chess match WITHOUT a timer!) Because of this, despite what the box says, Reef Encounter is not a brief encounter. It is not unusual for a game to last a solid 2 to 3 hours. The terminology used in the game doesn’t help. Polyps? Corals? Shrimp? The gaming frame of reference is not there. This makes the rules a bit hard to wrap your brain around. The game is not difficult but the terminology obscures the obvious. Blame this on making the theme fit the game. Despite using different symbols on the tiles, the gray and white tiles are much too similar and can sometimes cause a little confusion. Finally, as the game was produced in an edition of just barely 1000 games, the issue price of 40 Euros soon translated into a price on this side of the Atlantic to about $100. It has been suggested that a (less expensive) second edition of the game is not possible due to the amount of components. I’m not convinced that that is an insurmountable obstacle in getting a more reasonably priced copy in the hands of the many gamers who would enjoy it.

Reef Encounter is a game that cries out for a second and less expensive edition as it is deserving of a wider audience. This new Richard Breese design offers gamers the chance to enjoy various options interlocking seamlessly to create a rich, rewarding and challenging gaming experience. – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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