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Origins Game Fair 2014 III: AquaSphere Game Preview, or Going Deep in Columbus, Ohio

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Publisher: Hall Games
Board Game Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
As is usually the case at the conventions I attend, at Origins Game Fair 2014 I played only a few games during the event and not all of those to completion. Time's a-wastin', after all, with lots to see in not enough hours, no matter how little sleep I get!

The only game that I was determined to see at Origins was the only game that I had scheduled to play in advance: Stefan Feld's AquaSphere, which is coming from German publisher Hall Games and U.S. publisher Tasty Minstrel Games before the end of 2014. Ralph Bruhn of Hall Games is overseeing development of the game, as he did for Pegasus Spiele's Istanbul from Rüdiger Dorn, and Pegasus (which is handling distribution in Europe) and Tasty Minstrel have worked together previously on Feld's Rialto, published in 2013. All signs look good to start with — now, what's the game like?

In short, AquaSphere is exceptionally Feldy, by which I meant pointy, by which I mean filled with points in many locations waiting to be recovered by you and the other players — but you probably already knew that. In game terms, players are in a research facility stationed below the ocean's surface, and they're doing what they can to explore the seas, record findings, and score points. (Take note in all that I write or depict that I played a single time on a game still in development. I'm going to gloss over numerous details since (a) a full rules breakdown hardly makes sense before the rules are locked in place and (b) I don't want to spend all day writing this. Images are of prototype components, and the finished game will likely have different bits.)

Board Game: AquaSphere

The game board represents the aquasphere, which has six spheres in it, with each sphere housing spaces where you can take the same seven actions. Why would you take an action in one sphere over another? Because the results of those actions will most likely differ depending on where you are; on top of that, you want to get credit for all the work being conducted on the aquasphere, so you're trying to ensure that your action cube is the last one visible in each sphere.

Board Game: AquaSphere

Here's a close-up of a player board, which again is a prototype. The little cubes represent bots that you will program to perform actions, and the seven actions are depicted across the top of the board. Each action space can hold only one bot, so if you've programmed a bot to perform the green bathyscape action (at top left), then you can't program another bot for the same action.

The big pieces are submarines, and each sub is linked to the space above it, as indicated by the arrows.

Board Game: AquaSphere

This is the combined action choice and scoring board. At the start of a round — with the game lasting four rounds — you place the action squares on the seven empty spaces on this board, then reveal a card for the next round so that you know where the squares will next be located. In theory, this allows you to plan better from one round to the next; in practice, you'll spend your first game of AquaSphere as you do in most Feld games: staring at your player board to try to grasp how you can possibly do all of the things that you want to do. This will be followed in game two by increased attention to the central game board, followed by more intensive monitoring of opponent's actions in game three and perhaps full-blown planning by games four or five. Think Trajan, Bora Bora, In the Year of the Dragon, etc.

All of the player pieces start in the box below the action spaces. On your turn, you take either an A or B action, as depicted on the individual player board. With an A action, you move your dude up the action board to the left or right and reserve the action on that space, in this case, get crystals or take a joker. On the next A action, you'd move up to either space to either take a research room or take time. On the third A action, you'd have your choice of the left and center actions (if you're on the left side of the action board) or the center and right actions); from left to right, these actions are place a submarine, build your bathyscape, and inspect octopods.

Instead of moving up your dude, once a round you can spend three time to reserve an action of your choice — but (important!) you can't have more than two actions reserved at a time. Thus, as in games like the aforementioned Bora Bora and In the Year of the Dragon, everyone starts out with the same possibilities available to them, but after the first quarter of the game, everyone's branching out in different directions based on what's available on the board and what others are doing.

Board Game: AquaSphere

The B action lets you use a reserved bot to take that action, and you can take it in the location where your other dude is in the aquasphere or you can first pay time to move that dude to another sphere. Problem is that you start with no time, so you need to pick some up in order to travel elsewhere. When you take the action, you place the bot in the center of the sphere, pushing any bot already in this space into the lounge(?) area. If the lounge gets too full, then folks get their bots back and that's not good.

So you take your action — collecting crystals (more later), inspecting octopods (i.e. scoring points), adding a research room to your pad (giving you a special power that modifies existing actions), expanding your bathyscape (which lets you hold more resources or claim credit for work done by others), placing a submarine (which scores points and can increase your round-end scoring), collecting time (which lets you move around, just like time in real life — space is a given, thankfully), or taking the joker action; each white joker space contains one of the six other actions, and by taking the joker in a sphere you reserve the depicted action. Thus, the joker can let you take the same action twice in a round (or actions located on the same layer of the action board) without needing to pay time.

Board Game: AquaSphere

In my game I grabbed an octopod-inspecting bonus research room, but then mostly left the octopod-inspecting to others due to reasons of timing, needing to do other things, and not being on the ball. My bathyscape shaped up nicely, though, with me being able to hold extra stuff and placing my cubes in spheres where I might or might not have worked.

When you can't go any higher with A actions, you can choose to move your dude to the lowest numbered space on the action choice board to reserve a prime position in turn order for the next round. Once everyone has passed, which is possible even if you have reserved actions, everyone scores for the round, which you can see at the upper-left of the image above. Players score for their highest empty action cube space on their player board that also has the associated submarine placed in the aquasphere, for having the most (or being tied for the most) action cubes most recently placed in the aquasphere, and for crystals in reserve; players then lose points for uninspected octopods in the spheres for which they are responsible. Slackers!

And here's where the crystals finally come into play. If you look back on the scoring track, you'll notice red lines in certain locations. If you can't pay a crystal when it comes time for you to move your marker past a red line, you must stop at that line. That's right — you need crystal in order to get high. Shame on you, Mr. Feld. (The red lines also serve as a safety net of sorts. If you'd lose points due to ignored octopods, you can't fall below a red line. Also note that you can discard a reserved action at any time for either two time or one crystal.)

Before the next round, you restock the spheres with crystals, octopods and time based on the central playing piece that randomizes where stuff will be each game. You then remove that piece to show what will be where the next round so that again you can (theoretically) plan for such things. The amount of points scored for claiming research rooms and placing subs escalates each round, but placing them earlier gives you a bigger advantage during the game itself.

After four rounds, everyone receives final points for the number of spheres they control, for time still in hand, and for placing all of one's submarines or completing your bathyscape. You then all contemplate the game and its many interlocking wheels and regret your poor choices.

Board Game: AquaSphere
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