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Subject: Good, but not great experience. Again. rss

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Viktor Haag
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There are elements of this game that are very very interesting. I have only played it twice, but that's better than about half the games in my collection, and I'd probably be happy to play it again, and that's also better than about a fourth of the "played twice or more" games, too. But is this a great game? No, I don't think it is.

I like the uncertain scoring of this game. I like the intricate inter-relationships of the three kinds of resources (cubes, tiles, cylinders). I like the way that player interaction comes in furious flurries: it makes it vital in this game to plan for inevitable risk, and also to stay focussed on your real goal and avoid needless retribution. Reef Encounter is all about making strong combination plays, and about timing. It's very difficult, but not impossible, to make "big inning" plays in this game. It's so hard to protect your gains once they get past a certain size, and also, the turn structure prevents you from immediately capitalizing on a just-built strong position: every turn you give every other player a chance to hew away at your position before you can score it. Thus, it's very important to play with the a mindset of not getting too greedy, cashing in at the right time, not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Things I do like about the game:

• I like that it's important to find the synergy in combinations of actions during your turn. This is not a game about finding one optimal play at a time; this game demands that you find the sequence of plays that will provide the best synergy for you turn over turn. This is an attractive feature for me, but perhaps wouldn't be to the taste of all players: it can lead to lengthy player analysis and, thus, down-time. It can also lead to mystification as you wonder why you're not doing better than you are.

• I like that the game's ridiculously esoteric theme (the life of a coral reef?) is buttoned in so well with the mechanics. How did Breese devise this game? And it's mechanisms? It's a marvel.

• I like that there's several things you must do to ensure that you don't put yourself in a bad position: you must be thrifty, realize where the resources are in the game, and always try to have some on hand (tiles in front of screen are vital, and not having them can hamstring your progress, for example). Games with only one currency can, in comparison, seem flat by comparison.

• I like the tension between investment and cashing out. Alan Moon's comments about his Ticket To Ride succinctly described this tension as the stress between greed and fear, and there's a lot of that going on here. You cannot wait too long to cash out your corals. But, you only have four opportunities to do this in the game, so each one has to contribute something . I have a strong suspicion that the player with four middling cashouts is going to fare better than the player with two monstrous cashouts (at least, that's been the case in the two games I've played).

Things I don't like about the game:

• The rules are very poorly written; they're not as badly written as Siena, granted, but they are confusing to use as a reference and as a teaching aide (and dammit, game rules should at least be good at one or the other, if not both). This makes the teaching time for the game long and convoluted, especially if you're returning to the game after a long absence (or worse, learning from scratch with no-one to show you).

• The game is slow to start up. I don't personally see this is as a big drawback, but it is a niggle. In many games, time can be spent slowly building up a position which will carry you through the mid-game. In Reef Encounter, the bootstrapping part of the game is just lengthy, but by the nature of the game itself, your time spent in the early game won't necessarily contribute all that much to your overall position. I think this is because during the early game, you're really trying to do several things: you're trying to get your available liquid assets up to a point that's more flexible than you're provided off the mark (i.e. tiles in front of your screen, more than two cubes, a better set of tiles than you started with), and you're trying not to get completely hosed on your first collection (this is a combination of two things: you don't want to cash out too early, and you don't want to spend too long building up a huge coral and give others the opportunity to lock in scoring that will make that huge coral not worth much).

• The game finishes very abruptly. You only have four opportunities to cash out. And the minute somebody cashes out the fourth, then the game ends, giving every other player an opportunity to cash out one more coral collection at a reduced profit. This game ending can be brutally fast depending on the rhythms of turn order. It can make the difference between having three cashouts instead of two (as last player in the turn order, I got stuck missing that one turn that would have allowed me to get a viable coral onto to the board). The game ending mechanism makes it vital that all players (a) pay attention to how much time is left in the game (how many players have cashed out how many times), and (b) late in the game always have something on the board that's worth a few points just in case you get caught with your pants down.

Games that depend a lot on timing and combinations of actions (as this one does, heavily) demand to be played a number of times in order for you to learn the rhythms and warning signs. (It's one thing to intellectually understand the game's rules and say, "Oh, we only really have four opportunities to score"; it's quite another to be able to step back during the game and say, "Oh heck, I must get something on the board this turn or I'll be stuck having nothing next turn.")

And the problem with Reef Encounter is that I'm not sure it's a good enough game to get the table-time that it needs to learn properly. It has to compete with other games in the collection, and on that basis, I'm not sure it measures up. Contrast with Indonesia, for example, which has been our Old Huron Redoubt group's game of choice in the past few months: one that requires also an investment in table-time to really latch on to the timing and "laddering up" issues in the game. Indonesia has a significant portion of our group enthusiastic (still) to play. Whereas with Reef Encounter, our verdict is, "Yeah, I'd play again", but in that tone that leaves one knowing that there are other games we'd pretty much always choose instead. It's a "change of pace" game, not a steady demander for table time. And in the final analysis, then, there's probably better ways to spend your gaming dollar. It's a good game, but it's not great.
 
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jbrier
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A most thoughtful review and a real pleasure to read. It is funny how different it is in tone to my own review of the game (mine basically hails RE as a classic), and yet I feel like I agree with almost all of your criticisms of it.

Your comments on how one can really feel "mystified" at one's own failire to be in a dominant position (no pun intended) by midgame is really spot on, and illustrates one of the main reasons why the game can be so inaccessible, can fail to "light a spark" of interest with first-time players. I have a friend who classifies games by how many plays it takes to absorb what's going on for a non-gamer, e.g. Ticket to Ride is a "1"- I think Reef Encounter is one of the few Euro games that might be a 4 or 5 on this scale.

I think that if your group played the game more, you would find that in trying to end the game faster you surrender control of the situation on the board and with the dominance tiles, and that experienced players will make you pay dearly for trying a "blitz" strategy. In this sense I think your assessment that a person who eats 4 small corals will usually beat out a person who eats 1 or 2 large corals is a bit peremptory and you'll need further plays to realize why it's not true. But if the game isn't capable of capturing your attention until then how can I blame you?

After reading your review, I have actually started to have second thoughts about my own classifying RE as a "classic", so I definitely can commend you on writing a "thought-provoking" article
 
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Alan Reeve
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I was about to write the 'I disagree' response when I saw you criticizing one of my favorite games, but after reading I have to admit that everything you say is pretty accurate. Personally, I'm not at all surprised this isn't the big hit that I might think it should be. The rules are not terribly well written... and there can be a feeling of a slow start and an abrupt end... and it's a pretty complicated and twiddley little game.

What I love about this game is a) its originality and b) its depth. If one does take the time to play through several games of it and not only understand the rules, but also the intricacies of the game then I think they'll realize it's a masterpiece. But as to why they should if they don't like it after playing once or twice when there are so many other fun games out there... that I can't answer.

Good writeup, though!
 
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Viktor Haag
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Thanks, Alan and John for your kind comments!

I tried to be even handed, and not overly critical in my report. Because, really, we all liked the game. But quite often, with the size of my collection, games suffer from the effects of priority churn unfairly. They're just not interesting enough to grab the attention away from other "hot games". Which is sad. I can think of several games that I'd put in that category.

An interesting fundamental question then is this: should we buy these games? Or should we restrict our collections to only the "best games", those that fight their way onto our tables?

On the one hand, one could argue that, really, the ideal collection has 10 to 20 games in it, and that new entrants should only arrive when another one leaves. If you have El Grande, and Age Of Steam, and Ra (or Modern Art), etc, etc, then how will games like Reef Encounter, or Oasis, or Byzantium ever get the table time they deserve, and why should you spend your hard-earned money on them?

On the other hand, one could also argue that without that tier of B+ and A- games, the chances of having the A to A+ games reduces dramatically, and so dedicated hobbyists should responsibly make space in their collection for that "valuable tier of the second class of games" for their own edification, and for the general support of designers and the hobby in general. Presumably, it's the relative success of some designer's "B-class" designs that gives them the skill and experience and resources and industry clout to then provide the "classic" game which everyone must own.
 
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jbrier
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viktor_haag wrote:
Thanks, Alan and John for your kind comments!

I tried to be even handed, and not overly critical in my report. Because, really, we all liked the game. But quite often, with the size of my collection, games suffer from the effects of priority churn unfairly. They're just not interesting enough to grab the attention away from other "hot games". Which is sad. I can think of several games that I'd put in that category.

An interesting fundamental question then is this: should we buy these games? Or should we restrict our collections to only the "best games", those that fight their way onto our tables?

On the one hand, one could argue that, really, the ideal collection has 10 to 20 games in it, and that new entrants should only arrive when another one leaves. If you have El Grande, and Age Of Steam, and Ra (or Modern Art), etc, etc, then how will games like Reef Encounter, or Oasis, or Byzantium ever get the table time they deserve, and why should you spend your hard-earned money on them?

On the other hand, one could also argue that without that tier of B+ and A- games, the chances of having the A to A+ games reduces dramatically, and so dedicated hobbyists should responsibly make space in their collection for that "valuable tier of the second class of games" for their own edification, and for the general support of designers and the hobby in general. Presumably, it's the relative success of some designer's "B-class" designs that gives them the skill and experience and resources and industry clout to then provide the "classic" game which everyone must own.


hey! who said Reef Encounter was a B-class game! I said I was having second thoughts, not outright demoting it a letter grade!

this leads to my real point though, that your B-class game is someone else's A+, so I wouldn't worry about buying games that won't get table time just to support the industry. I've already had enough with these buy locally instead of online jokers...
 
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Dick Hunt
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viktor_haag wrote:
Thanks, Alan and John for your kind comments!

But quite often, with the size of my collection, games suffer from the effects of priority churn unfairly. They're just not interesting enough to grab the attention away from other "hot games". Which is sad. I can think of several games that I'd put in that category.


Amen, brother. This particular problem with my game collection has been driving me completely crazy of late. I have a large collection of games, most of which I love, but most of which fail to get anywhere near the table time that they deserve.

Problem #1 is that I'm part of a large gaming group that has people coming and going all the time. This has put me into the position of constantly teaching somebody who hasn't yet played the game we're breaking out. What I wouldn't give to dive into a 4- or 5-player game of one of my favorites and have all my opponents say "oh yeah, I've played this one several times." Instead, every stinkin' game I play lately adds an hour to its length because there's always a newbie at the table. Of course, not wanting to ever discourage a potential fellow boardgame addict, I smile and start explaining the game...

I'd love a group of the same four or five people who get together regularly (every twenty minutes or so would do) to play games together.

Problem #2 is the sheer size of my collection of games, which helps make it impossible for any of them to get their proper due. I've got dozens of games I could devote an entire day to playing. Six straight games of Reef Encounter? Five consecutive Haciendas? I'd be in heaven. Instead, my group is big enough to get 2-3 different games going at once, and as soon as the games finish, everyone wants to mix up the groups and change games. I can't ever get these bastards to play the same game twice in a row, and that's really frustrating given the newbie ratio of our group. There are so many cool games that simply cannot be easily grasped with a single play, yet I can never talk these slobs into playing anything twice in a row to make sure that the newbie has it down pat. That means that when we try to break the same game out a month later, the previous month's newbie sits there staring at it, desperately trying to remember how to play.

Problem #3 is that my collection is stuffed with games that only accommodate either 4-5 players at most, and I'm regularly faced with groups of six people who insist upon playing the same game, refusing to play two different 3-player games even though I have lots of games that are good for 3 players. Something about breaking the group into halves really bothers these people for some reason. As a result, I'm starting to get really tired of Formula De and Power Grid, although I do highly enjoy both of them. Reef Encounter and Goa both suffer badly from this particular problem. And Tigris & Euphrates? It hasn't hit the table in months. Hey, I don't need more 6-player games. I need less stubborn friends!

But no, I'm not a board game addict. I could give these things up any time I wanted. I just don't want to, that's all. Yeah, that's it.
 
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jbrier
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DSHStratRat2 wrote:
viktor_haag wrote:
Thanks, Alan and John for your kind comments!

But quite often, with the size of my collection, games suffer from the effects of priority churn unfairly. They're just not interesting enough to grab the attention away from other "hot games". Which is sad. I can think of several games that I'd put in that category.


Amen, brother. This particular problem with my game collection has been driving me completely crazy of late. I have a large collection of games, most of which I love, but most of which fail to get anywhere near the table time that they deserve.

Problem #1 is that I'm part of a large gaming group that has people coming and going all the time. This has put me into the position of constantly teaching somebody who hasn't yet played the game we're breaking out. What I wouldn't give to dive into a 4- or 5-player game of one of my favorites and have all my opponents say "oh yeah, I've played this one several times." Instead, every stinkin' game I play lately adds an hour to its length because there's always a newbie at the table. Of course, not wanting to ever discourage a potential fellow boardgame addict, I smile and start explaining the game...

I'd love a group of the same four or five people who get together regularly (every twenty minutes or so would do) to play games together.

Problem #2 is the sheer size of my collection of games, which helps make it impossible for any of them to get their proper due. I've got dozens of games I could devote an entire day to playing. Six straight games of Reef Encounter? Five consecutive Haciendas? I'd be in heaven. Instead, my group is big enough to get 2-3 different games going at once, and as soon as the games finish, everyone wants to mix up the groups and change games. I can't ever get these bastards to play the same game twice in a row, and that's really frustrating given the newbie ratio of our group. There are so many cool games that simply cannot be easily grasped with a single play, yet I can never talk these slobs into playing anything twice in a row to make sure that the newbie has it down pat. That means that when we try to break the same game out a month later, the previous month's newbie sits there staring at it, desperately trying to remember how to play.

Problem #3 is that my collection is stuffed with games that only accommodate either 4-5 players at most, and I'm regularly faced with groups of six people who insist upon playing the same game, refusing to play two different 3-player games even though I have lots of games that are good for 3 players. Something about breaking the group into halves really bothers these people for some reason. As a result, I'm starting to get really tired of Formula De and Power Grid, although I do highly enjoy both of them. Reef Encounter and Goa both suffer badly from this particular problem. And Tigris & Euphrates? It hasn't hit the table in months. Hey, I don't need more 6-player games. I need less stubborn friends!

But no, I'm not a board game addict. I could give these things up any time I wanted. I just don't want to, that's all. Yeah, that's it.


Amen brother!

I just hate it when a group of 6 insists on staying together... and as far as having to teach people new games, I hate both extremes of people- both those that ALWAYS have to play a new game and those that ALWAYS have to play the same handful of games. They both suck!!
 
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Michael Sosa
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I actually refuse to play new games when there are games I have recently played with the same individuals once or twice. I'm trying to make it a rule to play any game at least 3 times and not jump from new game to new game. I don't start to really appreciate and understand games until I've played them half a dozen times.
 
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Sebastian
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DSHStratRat2 wrote:

Problem #3 is that my collection is stuffed with games that only accommodate either 4-5 players at most, and I'm regularly faced with groups of six people who insist upon playing the same game, refusing to play two different 3-player games even though I have lots of games that are good for 3 players. Something about breaking the group into halves really bothers these people for some reason. As a result, I'm starting to get really tired of Formula De and Power Grid, although I do highly enjoy both of them. Reef Encounter and Goa both suffer badly from this particular problem. And Tigris & Euphrates? It hasn't hit the table in months. Hey, I don't need more 6-player games. I need less stubborn friends!

6 players is not even that bad... we were nearly always 7.
Still splitting up in 3 and 4 was often denied. "Can't we just play Bang! or maybe Citadels?"
Trying to organise only 6 players (can I bring a friend) or 8 (sorry have to miss this time) will always result in the "magical" number 7 again.
 
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