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Subject: Sink or swim? - Aquarium Review rss

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Nick
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This review is available, with pictures, at http://www.gamesquest.co.uk/blog/sink-swim-aquarium-review/
Many thanks to Games Quest for kindly providing a review copy of Aquarium.


Set collection games are a popular and widespread genre. Their goals tend to be easy to understand and teach, and they appeal to the card player in us all. Whether you are collecting trees in Arboretum or professions in Guildhall Fantasy: Fellowship there is veritable mountain of excellent games out there that take this gotta get them all approach. Aquarium, the new publication by Z-Man Games, takes this concept and applies it to fish, placing its players in the position of fish collectors (yes, really) and asking them to collect sets of fish by bidding on what they find in the pet shop. Originally published in 2011, the latest edition of Aquarium also comes equipped with expansions designed to expand the player count to up to six players and offer different levels of play, so it has the potential to appeal to a wide market, but it needs to do something very special to compete with the big hitters of the genre.

The small box containing Aquarium is colourful and packed with goodies – an instruction booklet, six player screens, a decent number of cards, a central fold out board (rather like the one in Lost Cities or Blue Moon Legends) and a large packet of eighty translucent beads which will be used as currency. The artwork is characterised by genuine attention to detail and charm, and there are small symbols on some of the cards to mark that they should only be used in games with five or six players. The fish cards belong to different types, and are based on lanterns, origami, paint and kites rather than true to life species – it is a lovely touch, certainly friendly to younger players and fun for those with more experience as well, and there are also plant cards of three different types in the main deck.

Aquarium takes some setting up, as the deck needs to be split into six or eight piles, depending on player count, and the even numbered piles seeded with the Feeding Time cards, the final one of which will trigger the end of the game. Each player receives a screen, behind which they place their beads, and a set of action cards which will be used when any player chooses to buy. They also receive a small fish at random to begin their aquarium, and the player who can hold their breath the longest gets to begin the game of Aquarium.

The basic dynamic of a player’s turn is very simple to grasp. If there is nothing in the pet shop on the central display a card is turned over and added, and then the current player has the option to pass, in which case they take two blue beads (worth one each) and another card is added to the display. Instead of passing a player could instead choose to buy all the cards currently in the display, and it is at this point that the action cards kick in. Prior to the actual purchase there are two phases which determine the final content of the pet shop and the price that will be asked. Every non active player chooses a card for each phase, which are then revealed, and the pet shop is altered accordingly. In Phase One you can remove, replace, add or swap fish, while in Phase Two you can add to the overall price, subtract from it, double the final amount or halve it. Some of these options also come with an advantage attached to the player who chooses them, so if you opt to halve the final price it makes the contents of the pet shop more attractive to the buyer but the money paid would come to you rather than go to the bank. The used action cards are then discarded and the buyer then has the option to buy or not. Players are also able to pass in each Action Phase, if they wish, and the “Pass” card is returned to them.

When a Feeding Time card is revealed from the draw deck players must feed the fish in their aquarium. Small fish cost one unit, medium fish cost two and large fish cost three, but the final price is then multiplied by the number on a randomly drawn cost card. There are four of these, numbering 1, 2, 2 and 3, so three large fish could cost you as little as nine or as many as twenty seven beads to feed. To offset this slightly the plants available to buy in Aquarium, while expensive, will allow you to feed one of your fish for free. At the end of feeding any unfed fish are considered dead and are discarded, and all previously used action cards are returned to their owners. When the final Feeding Time is over it is time to score. Players gain points for the number of stars on their fish cards, plus bonus points for collection sets of fish, grouped either by size or by type. Different plants will also earn you bonus points at the end of Aquarium.

The advanced version of Aquarium throws in some more wrinkles, enabling a player to put one pair of identical fishes aside into a breeding tank, where they can earn money at the beginning of each round, and throwing in wild cards (Rainbow Fish) and other means for earning extra beads (The Fishybank). It all means that the level of complexity in Aquarium can be adjusted, based on whether players want more or less space in which to work out their route to success. The Intro game is certainly suitable for younger players and family groups, while the extra details added in the Normal and Advanced versions should appeal to seasoned gamers who want a greater challenge.

The good about Aquarium is that the artwork and the components are genuinely lovely. The beads used for currency look like the pebbles you might find at the bottom of a fish tank, and are of great quality, even if they have a habit of flying off the table if a player screen is accidentally knocked. The different types of fish are also beautifully illustrated, and the information you need to play is easy to pick up, especially as the scoring is detailed on the inside of each player’s screen. Aquarium also accommodates up to six players with ease, the only changes being a slight alteration to setup at some player counts and a dummy deck when playing with only two.

The bad of Aquarium does sadly outweigh the good, however. It is not a good sign when I and my fellow gamers long for the end of a game, worse still when some players go so far as to suggest abandoning a game mid-play. Unfortunately there are some fundamental issues with Aquarium that make it a frustrating and overlong proposition. The main culprit, and one that becomes obvious straight away, is the pricing of the food during the feeding rounds. This is set by drawing one of the four price cards at random, meaning that there is no way to anticipate what you might have to pay, and leaving the only safe and secure way forward to budget for the highest possible cost. Given that the highest price for food is three times the lowest price there can be some mad swings in the feeding rounds, and many times players will sit there passing time and time again in order to gain beads, building up their bead reserves and hunkering down against the forthcoming storm. Of course, when a purchase is made a player could halve the price of the display in order to gain more beads, but it hardly feels satisfactory, and even that price also fluctuates so wildly that at best it feels like fumbling around in the dark. The extreme fluctuations in food price are explained in the rule book as being down to the rarity of the food, but this is clutching desperately at thematic straws, and I would strongly suggest at least that the feeding cards in Aquarium are arranged in ascending order in order to iron out some vicious randomness, so 1,2,2,3 for a game with four feeding times, for example.

The buying rounds are also a bear to get through, becoming worse with more players. These are triggered when a player decides to buy, but giving every other player an opportunity to influence both the content of the shop and then the price means that once the whole process is over the shop can look entirely different from how it was at the beginning of the process, and can cost vastly more or less than the buyer might have expected. Theoretically, in a six player game, if five players all choose to double the pet shop price it can end up costing thirty two times the indicated price! More often than not in our games the buyer simply walked away at the end of the process, and thematically it makes no sense at all. Where do you go into a shop to buy something and then let other people decide what you will buy and how much you will pay for it? I think I can just about see what the designers have tried to do, but it adds yet more randomness to Aquarium, and makes no real attempt to dovetail with the theme.

Aquarium also takes a long, long time to play, grinding virtually to a halt during the buying rounds, and that sits badly with its presumed market. There is depth to be found in here, of course, and niceties of play to be picked up if you manage to get a few games in, especially at Advanced level, but be warned that you will need to stick at it. It all feels like a bit of a jumble of theme and mechanisms that only rarely feel as though they were conceived at the same time.

Somewhere deep in this jumble is a good game, and the components are there in the box for it to be salvaged, but it does need the rules to be rewritten from the ground up, especially as the aspects that mark it out as different from straight down the line set collection are its weakest characteristics. Sort out the feeding, make the buying process much, much leaner, ditch a whole chunk of randomness and there is something worth playing in here, but as it stands it is really crying out for a much taughter variant.

Very few of my review games stay in my collection, and most will get moved on, but sadly this is the only one that I feel has actually stolen time from my life, and one of my fellow players, keen to play having seen the components and art, took under fifteen minutes to describe it as “rubbish”. It is perhaps a harsh verdict, but we then ditched Aquarium and played Guildhall instead, which made everything better, and also highlighted the problem that Aquarium faces. There are so many excellent card games out there, covering all the bases that Aquarium tries to cover that a new release needs to be either stunningly original or phenomenally tightly designed to make an impact, let alone be considered for a discerning gamer’s collection. Sadly, despite the beautiful art and the great production, Aquarium does the important things only adequately, and provides a mediocre and thematically confusing experience in play. If you are really curious then it is perhaps worth getting this to the table, especially if you enjoy tinkering under the bonnet and think you can design a decent variant to salvage it, but you will not miss a hidden classic if you swim on by.
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