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Game Preview: Whale Riders, or Pearls Before Orcas

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Whale Riders
Whale Riders from Reiner Knizia and Grail Games is an early 2021 release that's being funded now on Kickstarter (KS link), but the game is new only in the sense that it hasn't existed previously.

What I mean by that is that the game feels like a Knizia design that could have been released at any point during his career. Knizia game designs often reference other games that he's released in the past, but if you removed the names and publication dates from his games and presented them to people who are unfamiliar with his work, they likely could not deduce which titles were released in which order. Lost Cities feels old to me only because I've been playing it for almost twenty years; the design feels timeless, however, because the gameplay is as much as what you bring to the table as it is the game itself.

Knizia designs feel like they're all being pulled from the same point of origin — which, of course, they are — and they largely share characteristics from the same pool of game design elements: simple choices, a slow progression toward goals, a shared game space in which your choices impact what's available to others, and the occasional radical event (under a player's control) that changes that game space.

Whale Riders does this by putting players in competition for goods laid out at ports along the coast. Over the course of the game, you will ride your whale from the sun port at the top of the board to the lobster port and back, buying tiles along the way in order to complete contracts. Each player has a hand of three contracts, and when you complete one, you receive coins immediately — which can help you buy more stuff and therefore complete more contracts — and pearls at the end of the game. Pearls are points, and that's all that matters in the end. No points are scored for stylish whale riding, alas.

Board Game: Whale Riders

Each turn in the game you take two actions from the five actions available to you, repeating actions if you like:

• Move one port. You cannot backtrack, but must move toward the lobster port, then back.
• Buy one tile at your current port.
• Take a 1 coin from the bank.
• Discard 1-3 contracts from your hand.
• Complete 1-3 contracts, discarding tiles to satisfy the demands of each contract individually.

In the image above, you can see a contract requiring two pieces of pottery and two slabs of tuna. If you discard tiles having at least that many items, you then collect the coins and set the card aside for scoring at the end of the game. No change is given, so you want to be efficient with your contract fulfillment, but occasionally you're going to toss extra goods because what's one blob of kelp here or there.

At the end of your turn, you slide tiles on the board to fill empty spaces, then draw new tiles from the bag to fill gaps, sometimes placing storm tiles that simply take up space. Eventually those tiles will slide into the 0-cost slot at a port, permanently blocking that space and making 1 the minimum cost for a tile. You also refill your hand to three contracts at the end of a turn.

Board Game: Whale Riders

The game is about efficiency and cycling, as many games are, with you trying to complete contracts to gain coins to buy more stuff to complete more contracts — all while keeping an eye on what opponents are doing so that you don't dump three shells in the lap of an opponent who's been collecting shells for 0 coins or allow someone to grab two crystals (which can be any non-pearl object).

Whale Riders ends when all the pearls in the sun port have been purchased, so the clock of the game depends on what players do: Are you cycling through tiles in a port without moving? Are you racing down (or up) the board so that you don't have to compete with someone else? Are you in the lead and want to head to the sun port to end the game? Are you giving up opportunities to complete contracts if you do?

I've played Whale Riders twice on an advance production copy from Grail Games, once with two players and once with three, and the game feels like a classic Knizia design, with lots that you want to do each turn, but only little that you're allowed to do, with others getting in your way, taking the things you need, and forcing you to make adjustments. The victory margin in both games was relatively close, and I can see how the games could vary greatly depending on what players choose to do and how many people you have at the table and who those people are. Ideally I'll be able to get more whale riders around the game board in the future once it's safe to ride whales together again...

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