Reviewed by: Greg J. Schloesser
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Stefan Feld has developed quite the reputation for designing highly intricate games that contain a multitude of mechanisms, many of which are original and very clever. His designs are typically aimed at the strategy gamer rather than the family market. As such, dedicated gamers usually eagerly anticipate his new designs and rarely are they disappointed. Titles such as Notre Dame, Trajan and Macao have become favorites in gaming circles.
Feld’s latest is perhaps his very best. Bora Bora combines a highly original and clever dice mechanism with numerous others in creating a game that is tense, exciting and extremely challenging. It does contain the often mind-boggling assortment of earning victory points, which my good friend Dale Yu has described as a “point salad”, but for once the theme actually feels connected to the mechanisms and the game itself. Feld is not known for this close connection between mechanisms and theme, so Bora Bora is a refreshing break with the past.
With the enchanting islands of Bora Bora as the setting, players are faced with a myriad of tasks: building huts where men and women can settle, discover and harvest rich fishing grounds, collect shells to acquire valuable and prestigious jewelry, collect resources to erect buildings, send priests to the temples and make offerings to appease the gods and win their favor. All of these tasks are done in keen competition with opposing tribes, each of which is attempting to rise to prominence.
The main board is surprisingly uncluttered, with the five islands providing space for the building of huts and claiming of fishing grounds. Most of the board provides space for items that can be acquired, including jewelry, men and women, and task tiles. There is also the status and temple tracks, whereupon players compete for status and victory points and attempt to win the favor of the gods. A victory point track runs along the edges.
The player boards, on the other hand, are quite congested, and at first glance are difficult to decipher. Each provides space for a player to store his huts, men and women tribe tiles, construct buildings, and store god tiles, task tiles and jewelry. There are also numerous charts and icons that help explain game play, various options and the various methods by which victory points can be earned. It is quite cluttered and cryptic, and it takes awhile to properly decipher the iconography and understand the conglomeration of information.
Each player begins the game with an assortment of huts, building tiles, priests, offerings, god cards and four dice. The main mechanism of the game is the rolling and placing of dice, which determines which actions a player can take. With a full contingent of four players, there are seven possible actions, each represented by a placard. Players will alternate placing dice on the tiles in order to perform the respective action.
It is the dice placing mechanism that is so clever. All players roll their four dice and in turn order—which changes based on the status track—place a die onto one of the action tiles. They do this until all four dice are placed. The critical rule is that in order to place a die, its value must be LESS than all other dice already on a tile. So, if Ian places a die with a value of “4” on the “man” action tile, the next player that desires to take that action must place a die depicting a value of 3 or less. With each subsequent die placement, following players must place dice with lower values than the lowest-valued die on the tile. Thus, conserving dice with low values is wise.
However, a die with a higher value generally gives the player more options when taking an action. For example, when placing a die on the “Helper” action, the player has as many action points to spend as the value on the placed die. So, if Jim places a die with the value of “6” on the Helper tile, he has six action points to spend on the available actions. Placing a die with a value of “2” on the tile would only give Jim two action points to spend.
The dilemma of when and where to place a die produces considerable angst and tension. Waiting too long to place a die on a particular action tile may result in an opponent placing a low-valued tile there first, thereby making it impossible for a player to place there. So there is a clear and present danger of waiting too long to place a die on a desired action, and as with most good placement games, there are more actions a player desires to perform than he has actions to spend. Further, the player may be unable to perform certain desired actions due to the placements of his opponents.
The actions drive the game. So what are these actions?
Expand (Land or Water). Players begin the game with a hut on an island territory. Expanding allows the player to place a new hut in an adjacent territory, collecting the corresponding resource (sand, stone or wood). In order to expand, however, the player’s die on the expand tile must have value equal to or less than the value printed on the board by the territory into which a player desires to expand.
Erecting huts gives numerous benefits, including possible fishing and objective points. It also makes space available on the player board for acquiring men and/or women tiles. Expanding later in the game is advantageous, as the last player to erect a hut in an area controls that area’s fishing grounds, earning victory points at game’s end.
Acquire a Woman or Man Tile. There are six men and six women tiles available each turn. A player may acquire one of these tiles by placing a die on the respective man or woman action tile. The tile he may acquire must be in the position that is equal to or less than the value of the die he placed on the action tile. Since tiles have special abilities and benefits, placing a higher-valued die gives the player more options when choosing a tile. Note that there must be space on the player’s board to place the man or woman tile, so erecting or moving huts is essential.
Each tile has two special abilities. One is a one-shot ability that usually grants status points (used to determine turn order) or cowrie shells (used to purchase jewelry), while the other can be used once-per-turn if the player chooses that tile to activate. These powers can be quite useful, and there are incentives to collect specific tiles based on the task tiles a player may obtain.
Enter the Temple. The player may place one of his four priests into the temple. Again, the value of the die placed on the Temple action tile matters, as it will dictate the spaces in the temple onto which the player may place his priest. A high-value die gives the player more options.
Priests in a temple give an immediate “fire” bonus, which allows the player to choose a god card or offering tile and a status point or cowrie shell. Further, priests award victory points each round, which increases as the game progresses. Further, the player with the most priests in a temple earns a god tile which is extremely valuable. The temple can be a fickle place, however, as veteran priests can be shoved down the track and eventually be removed as new priests enter.
Build. Resources collected during the expand action are generally placed onto the corresponding ceremony spaces on a player’s board. Two adjacent resources are required before one can construct a building tile. Once this is accomplished a player may take the build action and place one of his building tiles onto those two spaces, returning the resources to the general supply. Again, which tiles are eligible to be constructed is dependent upon the value of the die placed on the Build action tile.
Constructing a building tile earns a hefty ten victory points in the early rounds of the game but this dwindles to four points in the latter rounds. A player also earns a “fire” bonus as well as possible end-game bonuses.
Helper. Placing a die on the Helper tile allows the player to take numerous actions, the number being dependent on the value of the die placed on the tile. The variety of actions cost one or two action points. These actions can be used to:
1) 1. Use the once-per-game powers of a man and/or woman tile, which will earn either status points or award the players cowrie shells.
2) 2. Earn a victory point.
3) 3. Acquire a god card. There are five different gods, each of which conveys a special power. These powers can be incredibly handy, such as the ability to place a die onto an action card in violation of the normal placement rules or score victory points for an objective tile even though all of the requirements have not been met.
4) 4. Acquire an offering token, which must accompany a god card in order to evoke its special ability.
5) 5. Acquire a resource, which can be handy to aid in the construction of a building tile or meeting the requirements of a task tile.
6) 6. Move a hut. As mentioned, there must be empty space on a player’s board in order to acquire men and/or women tiles. Moving a hut allows the player to create space by moving a hut to a holding area before possibly constructing it on a later turn.
The Helper action is always extremely valuable and the more action points a player has to use when taking this action the better.
Fishing. The player may always place a die—regardless of value—in the fishing space in order to earn two victory points. Thus, a player can always place a die and earn something valuable.
Once all players have placed their dice and taken the respective actions, each player may then utilize the special ability of one man and one woman tile in their possession. There are a variety of special actions, including erecting new huts, acquiring a new man or woman tile, erecting a building tile, earning victory points, and more. If a player has multiple identical tiles, he may execute the action of all of those tiles. Thus, there is an incentive to collect identical tiles.
At the conclusion of each round, the board is assessed to determine and award the following:
1) 1. Turn order is determined by the status track, which also grants players victory points. If a player concentrates on gaining status during a turn, he can earn up to a staggering 15 points. Tokens on the status track are reset each round, so the battle for turn order is an ongoing struggle.
2) 2. Players score points for their priests in the temple and the player with the most priests present earns a god tile. These god tiles can be used as any god card and do not require the expenditure of an offering. Being the high priest has its benefits!
3) 3. Each player may purchase one of the five available pieces of jewelry by spending the required number of cowrie shells. Jewelry earns victory points and certain types and amounts are required by various task tiles.
4) 4. Players may—if they meet the requirements—complete one of their three task tiles. Success earns the player six victory points. Players will have the opportunity to complete up to nine tiles during the game (three additional tiles in the final round), which can yield up to 54 victory points if successful. In turn order, each player must then draft one new task tile from the available array of six tiles.
Between rounds the men, women and task tiles are all discarded and refreshed, providing an ever-changing assortment. Six rounds are conducted in this fashion, after which final victory points are earned. Bora Bora provides no exception to Feld’s penchant for providing a wide variety of scoring methods, as players earn points for unused god tiles, fishing ground adjacent to areas they control and jewelry. In addition, bonus points can be earned for completing all nine task tiles, possessing six pieces of jewelry, erecting all six building tiles and/or huts and acquiring twelve men and/or women tiles. These tasks are not easy, but the rewards are handsome.
As one would expect with a Feld design, there is a LOT going on in Bora Bora. While there is a tendency for folks to suffer from rules overload when the game is being explained, the game actually flows very smoothly and logically. Most players understand the flow and objectives after a turn or two even though effective strategies may be elusive for some time. While I do believe there is a danger of overloading games with too many mechanisms and too many methods by which victory points may be earned, I don’t believe Feld has crossed that line here. He is close—and perhaps even straddles the line—but for me he has not stepped over it.
I appreciate that there appears to be a wide variety of strategies that one can employ and pursue that all seem viable. While the temple strategy seems powerful—some have claimed too powerful—I don’t think it is invincible. I have seen other strategies lead to victory, including building, jewelry and huts. Having this variety of viable strategic paths to pursue helps keep the game fresh and exciting.
There is little doubt that Feld is a master of complex, highly detailed games that are filled with an assortment of intriguing mechanisms, many of which are very clever and often original. Even though the adhesive between game play and theme is often quite thin, I have a great admiration for his ability to create intricate designs that result in tense and intriguing games. Bora Bora is one of his best designs, if not his very best. That is a great achievement with such an impressive design history to his credit.
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