"Like Chess and Go, but I can understand what's going on"
Despite the light-sounding name, this is a brain-burning, zero-luck game for 2-4 players, compressed into a 15 minute time-slot. This amazing game is my favorite filler - but enough gushing. Let's look at the game - I'll be talking about the Phalanx/Mayfair NorthAm/English release and giving my thoughts in detail.
The first thing you notice when you pick up the box is the ridiculous sounding name. "Hey, that's my fish!" sounds like some light kid's game, and although the rules are simple enough, the actual game itself will make adults sit up and pay attention. Turns out that versions were simply in other languages translate to "Penguins", but I just noticed that FFG are releasing a game called "Penguins", so maybe that name isn't available in North America.
Moving along, the box itself is fairly large - it's about the same dimensions as FFG silver line boxes (Colossal Arena, Citadels), except maybe a touch thicker. A big strike against it is the lack of any photographs on the back of the box of the actual pieces - I'm sorry, but an artist's rendition of a game in progress just doesn't inspire confidence about the contents of the box. I remember picking up the box, looking at the back and thinking - "the pieces must be pretty bad if they're not willing to show what they look like" - and that decided me against buying it, despite knowing that this game made Bruno Faidutti's game of the year. It took a play on BSW to convince me that the game was incredible, and a quick peek on Boardgamegeek will let you see the actual game pieces before you buy.
Talking about the the pieces, when you open the box you're greeted by several cardboard sheets with a total of 60 hexagons to be punched out (representing ice floes) and a bag of wooden penguin meeples, 4 in 4 colours (gree,blue, red and yellow) sitting in a plastic insert. The cardboard is pretty thick, and the meeples are thick, wooden side-view cutouts of penguis with black ink detail. The box is definitely far too large - all the components could have easily fit in a box less than 1/4 of the size, which would have made it much easier to carry around. Right now, I keep the penguins bagged, and put the icefloes in a plastic card box for 100 cards.
The components are good and sturdy, but I can't help thinking that the game is a touch expensive - in Canada, this cost $30 (about $26 US) and I can't help thinking that I should have gotten "more" with the game at that price point. Coming from BSW and its 3D CG-rendered penguins, I'm convinced that cute plastic penguins (like the Don't wake the Dragon penguins...), and interlocking plastic ice floes would kick this up a notch. Tha said, the wooden meeples have grown on me, and I find them almost adorable now. Colour-blind friendliness is only fair - each player has a set of penguins, and these are identical other than the colour of the wood. In a pinch, it would be easily possible to mark the penguins of each colour in a unique manner, or find different tokens for each player. Really, they should have provided a different pose or look for the penguins of each colour.
Final Verdict on Components: Completely Average. The pieces will do the job, but they're nothing special.
Lots of reviews go over the rules, so I'll only gloss over them briefly. The only randomness occurs at the beginning, with the ice floes being arranged randomly in rows. Note that this means that you'll need some kind of flat surface to play on, since the hexes can't be allowed to move much, and you'll be putting the penguins on top of them. This is actually one of the slowest parts of the game, putting down rows of hexagons. It's best to have all the players help out with setup, but you'll have to warn them not to pack the tiles too closely since the tiles will be picked up during play. After the board setup, the game is completely determined by player choices.
Players alternate putting down penguins, then alternate moving one penguin at a time. Penguin moving is easy - they can move in a straight line, in any direction. They can't jump over empty space in the board or other penguins. After moving, you take the ice floe (hex) the penguin is standing on (creating empty space). Rinse and repeat. Your score is the fish on the ice floes you've collected - whoever has the most fish wins!
Rules explanation takes no more than a couple minutes - this includes questions, and emphasizing each rule twice. Playing the game usually takes about 10-15 minutes, and is dependant on how long your players spend thinking about their move. One of the toughest parts is doing the math for your score at then end!
The gameplay, when played with serious gamers, turns into a cut-throat affair, with a heavy brain burn element. To me, part of the thinking is similar to Chess. All the pieces here move the same way, but you can do the tactical "looking ahead" - If I move here, then he will have to move there or there to block me, which means I can move there... The important aspect in all the thinking aspects, and especially in this looking ahead, is the limited number of pieces, and the limited board size.
Removal of the ice floes brings in a "Go-like" area blocking-off element, to a non-Go player (me). There's an element of "keeping penguins alive" - although you cannot technically capture a penguin, you can completely neutralise a penguin by blocking it by stranding it on a small number of ice floes. This is juxtaposed by wanting to separate large chunks of ice floes for your personal use. This is all due to the removal of ice floes - as the game progresses, barriers in the form of moving penguins and disappearing ice floes keep on increasing and changing.
There is also a good mix of strategy and tactics. Strategies have to be able to account for the random layout of the board, as well as the unpredicatable nature of the opponents. You can go after the large value ice floes, or concentrate on walling off your own territory, or aim to block the movement of the other penguins, or simply keeping your penguins moving...there are a lot of options. There are also no lack of tactical puzzles - the limited number of penguins makes it very possible to see everyone's potential moves, moreso as the game progresses and everyone's options shrink.
If you look closely at the comments I've made so far, the game scratches the "abstract itch" - the thin veneer that is the theme (penguins getting fish) hides what can be thought of as a neutered Go or stripped-down Chess. However, it is the very fact that the rules are a bare minimum and you only worry about a couple pieces that really makes this game special. In some sense, it is able to cut right to the "good stuff" - forget about strange openings from a book. Right from the get-go, you can start blocking other penguins, and a single wasted move can easily lose you the game. And, I have to admit, the reduced number of pieces makes it possible for mere mortals like me to think ahead without holding a brazillian combinations in my head. And though my brain burns, it's kept manageable, and never lasts soo long that I go comatose from the effort.
The game handles 2-4 players - with 2 players, you have hard-core abstract mini-Go/Chess, with more players you get more chaos and less ability to plan ahead, and some diplomacy in deflecting attention to "that other colour penguin which is obviously winning", however, bash-the-leader is pretty minimal since you have fewer pieces to work with more players, and usually the best way to bash leaders is to help yourself - the game is decided by points, and there is no way to lose points once they've been acquired so usually, grabbing points for yourself is the best idea. I've also played it once as a team game, which worked great for that game. Regardless the number of players, games can play out completely differently. Sometimes, people are quite effective cutting out sections of ice floes, and you're trying to make yours as large as possible. Sometimes, penguins will be blocking each other like crazy, and you'll be struggling to avoid being boxed in.
So, to sum it up - this is easily my favorite abstract game. The components are unexceptional, which is a pity because the game itself is so incredible. With no luck, this is definitely a thinking man's game, and it is possible to trounce newcomers. However, a trouncing means the game will end even more quickly, and they'll be able to ask for a rematch. Despite the no-luck nature and simple rules, there are many options and approaches that can be taken, making this very replayable. I recommend this especially for those looking an ultra-rules lite, ultra-fast Go/Chess/abstract game, but still filled with heavy goodness, all squeezed into 15 minutes.