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THE RIVER

Reviewed by Herb Levy

THE RIVER (Days of Wonder, 2 to 4 players, ages 8 and up, 30-45 minutes; $39.99)

 

The quest for land and the growth of settlements have been influences on human behavior for centuries and, in many cases, rivers running through them have been an essential component in that development.  In the new game from Ismael Perrin and Sebastien Pauchon, players will find themselves in that setting, competing for land and resources to be able to build and grow as they go up The River

As might be suspected, the focus of The River is the river that appears on each player’s individual “river board” snaking along, from top to bottom, for 12 spaces. Some of those spaces show icons representing production of some of the resources in the game: wood, stone and brick. A fourth resource, food (in the shape of “wild turkeys” [!]) is also present. Other spots along the river depict warehouses where resources can be stored. (Each warehouse can hold ONE of any resource.) Player pieces (workers called “pioneers”) come in the four colors of the game (black, blue, green and yellow) with four of them beginning on each player’s boat and one on the second space along the side of the player’s board. These pioneers will do their work on the main board of the game. 

The main board of The River has separate areas for each of the four resources, a spot for terrain tiles, a display area for cards representing building that may be constructed and another for constructing them plus spaces for switching tiles (more on that later) and claiming the first player marker. The first player is chosen randomly and then the first terrain tile for each player is selected. 

Six different terrain tiles can be found in the game: desert (yellow), badlands (red), forest (with green trees), meadow (light green), mountains (grey) and mixed (that show two different terrains). These tiles may offer resource production and/or warehouses or offer various resource bonuses or end game scoring Victory Points. One more terrain tile than the number of players is revealed and players, in reverse turn order choose one and place it on the first river space on their board. Now, starting with the first player, everyone will place their pioneers in a chosen area, one at a time, and do the associated action. 

When claiming a terrain tile, a player must place it on the next available space on the river. If a new tile covers up a printed icon on the board, that icon is no longer in play, replaced by any icons on the new tile. When claiming resources, a player gets the number of resources equal to the number of production icons of that resource (a picture of the resource enclosed in a circle) showing on his/her board. The first player to go to a specific resource area gets a bonus of an extra of that resource. Resources must be housed in a warehouse on that player’s board. If you cannot (or don’t want) to house it, it goes back to supply. You can also remove a held resource (returning that one to supply) so as to make room for the new one. Food operates a bit differently. While other resource areas are limited to only two placements in total, there is no limit as to how many players may claim ONE good with a pioneer. (No +1 bonus here.) The good news, as mentioned, is that food is “wild” and my be used as ANY resource. 

Constructing buildings is a major source of victory points and may be done in two ways. A number of face up building cards are available each round. By placing a pioneer in the “reserve” section of the display, a player may take one of these into their holdings to be built later. (A player may reserve no more than 2 buildings.) Although it will now take two turns to construct that building, it can be done at a discount costing one less resource. Alternatively, a player may directly place a worker in the building area, pay the stated resources in full and claim the building. In either case, the bought building is slid under the right side of his/her player board with the player taking the highest available bonus token and placing it (face down) next to it.  (Tokens start at a value of 6 and gradually fall to 0.) The second building you construct will earn you a second bonus token and, as a result, recruit another pioneer who goes immediately on your ship, ready to be deployed that round. 

When everyone has used all of their pioneers, the round is over. All players retrieve their pioneers from the main board and any empty slots in the building area with filled with new buildings and any remaining terrain tiles are discarded with new ones revealed. If no one claimed the first player marker, the player who was the first player maintains that position. 

As their rivers fill with terrain tiles, players will want to be cognizant of the terrain types they have. At the end of the game, two matching terrain tiles in the first two positions of a column are worth 2 VPs; matching terrain in all three slots in a column will score you 6 VPs! This is sizable and why the “Swap Terrain Tiles” area on the main board can be so important. 

When either someone has filled all 12 spaces on his/her river board OR has filled all five bonus token slots (due to building construction), the end of the game is triggered. That round is completed and players total up their scores. 

To all the points earned from buildings and bonus tokens, players add points generated from matching terrain in columns, any bonuses granted from terrain tiles on their rivers and, finally, collect 1 VP for every three resources of any type. The player with the highest score wins! Tied? Then the tied players share the victory!

There are many worker placement games out there so, for a game to separate itself from the pack, there has to be something different – and The River has it. In worker placement games, the goal is to increase the number of workers you have: more workers mean more options which means more chances to do what you want. But it’s just the opposite here! As your river develops, you LOSE pioneers as they opt to homestead and LEAVE, leaving you with fewer workers! This is a twist you need to brace for. And, of course, another difference is the powerful and important ability to switch tiles. As you add terrain to your board, it is helpful but unlikely that you will have them line up in just the way you want. Since the potential for large scores comes from having two and particularly three of the same kind of terrain, switching tiles can be critical. (Of course, it also calls for a bit of “suspension of disbelief” as land, in real life, doesn’t change so abruptly or so radically in the blink of an eye. This is a puzzle facet to the game that adds another layer to the basic worker placement mechanism and is, in fact, a nice addition.)

The River comes with a two-sided main board, one side for two players with the other side for three and four, and we have found that four players is the way to go as it offers more variety in the appearance of terrain tiles and increases competition for land and building contracts – and even for resources as all resources are limited and you can be shut out (albeit temporarily) at some points. Player boards are laid out a bit differently, all have one of each of the basic resources and five warehouses to store them, so that terrain tiles as added cause the abilities of each player to go in different directions. Player boards, like the main board, are double-sided – one side for two players, the other for three or four – but aside for bonus token spaces, the layout of each side is identical.

If building settlements is a theme that interest you and worker placement a game mechanism you enjoy, going up The River is a journey well worth taking. – – – Herb Levy


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