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TONGIAKI

Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser

(Überplay, 3-6 players, ages 10 and up, 45 minutes; $24.95)

This is another of the multitude of new Überplay releases that have hit the shores of the United States this year. The designer is Thomas Rauscher and from all appearances, this is his first published game.

The game is set in 300 A.D., with the Polynesians setting sail to explore the surrounding seas and multitude of Pacific islands. The journeys across the open seas are often perilous, with fate dealing a cruel hand with great frequency. The ultimate objective is to have your clan establish a presence on as many of the islands as possible.tongiakibox

The game board is a work-in-progress, being built during the course of the game by placing large 3 ½” hexagon-shaped tiles. These tiles are very colorful, evoking a festive, tropical island feel. 16 of the tiles depict islands containing various numbers of beaches, while 16 are open water. The tile depicting Tonga is placed onto the table as the starting base for the players’ ships, while the remainder of the tiles are mixed and kept face-down in stacks. Players will draw tiles from these stacks when embarking on expeditions.

The game begins with players each placing two of their 15 boats onto the beaches of Tonga. Each island will possess 2 – 3 beaches, with each beach having moorings for 2 – 5 boats. The exception is the starting isle of Tonga, which has six beaches, each with three moorings. Each beach will have 1 or 2 piers emanating from it, which indicates the direction an embarkation may take.

A player’s turn begins by expanding the number of boats he has on one island. The player chooses an island and places as many new boats onto that island as he already has present … but no more than the total number of beaches on that island. The player may only add, at most, one boat to each beach.

After placing new boats, if any of the beaches on that island are filled to capacity, a migration will occur. If not, the player’s turn ends and the next player repeats this process.

Let’s talk about migrations, which are at the heart of the game. As mentioned, when a beach is filled to capacity (all moorings are occupied by boats), these boats will set off on a journey of exploration. The active player reveals one of the tiles from the stacks and must place it adjacent to the filled beach. Each tile has a red emblem, which is the side of the tile that must be placed adjacent to the pier emanating from that beach. If a beach has more than one pier, the player can choose which one to use. However, this decision must be made BEFORE revealing the tile. So, the tile that is revealed is a matter of luck, and the player has very little control over where it is placed once a beach is filled. Of course, a player can somewhat manipulate the order in which beaches are filled, but once that occurs, what happens next is pretty much a matter of luck.

If the newly placed tile is a new island, all of the boats sail to and land on the new island. The active player distributes the newly arrived boats as he sees fit, following certain guidelines. All beaches must receive at least one boat before any beach can receive a second boat. After each beach receives one boat, the remaining boats may be distributed in any manner desired by the active player. If there aren’t enough moorings to accommodate all of the arriving boats, the excess boats are returned to their owners, the victim of an unexplained disaster. If any beaches become filled, a new migration will once again occur.

It is the placement of boats on the islands when making landfall that seems to offer the greatest level of strategy in this game. A player can position the boats in such a fashion as to give himself greatest possible expansion routes, while restricting the possible expansion routes of his opponents. Of course, it is important to make sure you are moored at beaches with several different opponents present in order to increase your chances of a future successful migration. Too many failed expeditions will result in few boats on the board, which is a killer in terms of future expansion potential and, ultimately, victory points.tongiakigame

If the newly revealed tile is a water tile, it to is placed so that the emblem is adjacent to one of the footpaths of the filled beach. The water tiles depict three foam paths, most bearing a number from 2 – 4. Some, however, do not have a number. The number is important as it dictates the number of DIFFERENT COLORED BOATS that must be present in order to successfully traverse that tile. So, if the number is three, there must be at least boats from three different players setting out from the filled beach. If not, all of the boats are lost at sea and returned to their owners. If, however, this requirement is met, all of the boats successfully traverse the tile.

Voyages cannot end at sea, so if the ships do successfully navigate the tile, a new tile must be revealed and placed at the end of the foam path being traveled. This may be an island, in which case landfall is handled as discussed above, or another water tile. If it is a water tile, then the same water rules must be obeyed, lest the journey fail. Eventually, all of the boats will either be lost at sea, or will make landfall at an island. The lesson here seems to be to travel in excursions with numerous other opponents, thereby increasing your odds to successfully complete a journey and reach the safety of an island. Of course, since players cannot rotate the tiles once revealed, success or failure is largely a matter of luck.

A player’s turn ends once there are no more completed beaches in which to continue this chain of migrations.

Instead of taking a normal turn of expansion and possible migration, the player may elect to found a “Royal Island”. To do this, he must be the only player with boats present on an island. The player then places one of his boats on the center of the island and returns his remaining boats moored there to his supply. Henceforth, no player may send boats to that island. A player may only found a maximum of two Royal Islands during the game, so it is best to choose the islands with high victory point values whenever possible. Claiming a Royal Island not only scores that island’s points for the player, but it also can create a block which makes it difficult or impossible for opponents to reach areas beyond that island. This can prove quite beneficial … and frustrating to one’s opponents!

Another option a player has instead of taking a normal turn is to remove ALL of his boats from the board and place a single new boat onto a new island. The new island is found by revealing and placing tiles until an island tile appears. This is the island onto which the player places his boat. This option is usually only taken out of desperation; i.e., if a player has few boats on the board and has been hemmed in on an internal island with little hope of expanding further.

This entire procedure continues until the 16th island or water tile is placed. That turn is completed, with the tallying of victory points following. Players score points for each island on which they have at least one boat. Each island, other than Tonga, depicts a value of 2 – 5 points, so getting to the higher valued islands can be important. Naturally, the player with the greatest total of victory points is master of the high seas and declared the winner.

It bears mentioning that several special situations can arise during the game. These include (a) having no boats on the board, (b) having ALL of your boats on the board, and (c) forming an endless loop. Fortunately, all of these situations are dealt with in the rules.

As with many if not most exploration games, there is a significant element of luck involved here. Players are forced to place tiles at specific beaches AND in a specific orientation. If water tiles are revealed, the numbers on the trail will dictate the success or failure of a journey. At first glance, a player has no control over this outcome. However, with repeated playings, it became evident that there are various tactics a player can employ to manipulate the growth of the board in his favor. It is possible to provoke multiple migrations and chain reactions, drastically altering the face of the board and getting your boats to far-away islands very quickly.

The safest bet is to get your boats onto beaches occupied by at least three other players in order to insure a successful migration. Of course, not all beaches can accommodate four boats, and you will often not have the luxury of placing your boats onto the islands; the active player has that privilege. The lesson is to try to be the player who fills a beach and triggers the migration so you can have this privilege. Of course, in multiple player games, this is much easier said than done. I’ve found that the game works best with 4 or 5 players. Six players is far too heavily laden with luck as the board changes far too quickly between turns.

I don’t want to make the claim that the game is all luck. Certainly, you can try to manipulate the situation by your placements, both boats and tiles, so that you keep your expansion possibilities wide, while restricting these same possibilities for your opponents. You can also attempt to force situations wherein opponents’ ships will be removed from the board. However, one must accept that this is not fully in your control.

My first playing was with six players and my initial reaction was not very positive. The game was far too luck-based, with players having little control. However, repeated playings with fewer players significantly improved my opinion and raised my awareness of the tactical options at one’s disposal. Yes, it is still possible to get sucked-up in a string of bad luck or actions that are beyond one’s control, but this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. I have found myself increasingly engrossed by the possibilities for clever maneuvers that the game system allows. Although Tongiaki will likely never be mentioned in the same breath as games such as Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA REPORT) or Princes of Florence (Fall 2000 GA REPORT), it is most certainly a pleasant diversion and a journey well worth taking. – – Greg J. Schloesser


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