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Subject: Kaivai: Island Hopping for Fun and Profit rss

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Geeky McGeekface
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It's time for baseball, people! Pitchers and catchers report soon and the national pastime is with us again!
[This review originally appeared on the Boardgame News website]

Kaivai is a 2005 game designed by brothers Anselm and Helge Ostertag and published by their own company Pfifficus Spiele. As this hasn’t gotten too much buzz yet, I thought I’d give a brief (for me) review, outlining the mechanics and components.

The brothers Ostertag have only two other little known card games to their credit (although one of them, Desperados, looks like it has some good ideas in it). In other words, we have yet another new Essen game by an unknown designer. I continue to be amazed at the design and production quality many of these new names come up with. With this kind of new blood entering gaming every year, I have to think the state of the hobby is quite healthy indeed.

Kaivai is a three or four player game with a Polynesian theme (so Günter Cornett no longer has a monopoly there) and is set amongst the islands of that part of the world. The first thing you’re likely to notice about the game is its very large and awkwardly shaped box. This is due to the long playing board, which probably should have been folded into quarters instead of just in half. Other than that, the components are very nice and professionally done. All you have to do is figure out how to store the thing.

The game is played on a hex grid representing a portion of ocean and which contains six to eight islands. Initially, each island consists of a single hex called a Cult Square. The game revolves around the way the players use their ships to interact with these islands.

The object is to collect the most Glory Points. Glory Points are obtained by constructing cottages, having the most influence on an island, and by consuming fish at celebrations. Woo hoo, partying and gluttony! Finally, a game which emphasizes the important things in life!

Everyone begins the game with some shells (the islanders’ currency), some fish (which can be sold to obtain shells), and some influence counters (more about them later). You also get to build two cottages before beginning play. There are three types: Fisherman’s cottages (which allow you to bring an additional ship onto the board); Meeting cottages (which help get you more influence counters); and Gods Shrines (which make it easier to fish). When cottages are built, they occupy the sea spaces next to Cult Squares. In this way, the islands become bigger in size as the game goes on. However, islands can never merge.

Each turn begins with the players sequentially bidding for turn order. This works much like it does in New England, in that players cannot repeat bids made by earlier players. A player’s bid not only determines his player order, but also gives his base cost for building cottages that turn and determines how many spaces each of his ships can move that turn. For bids of values 1 to 5, the movement allowance is equal to the bid, but it then becomes lower with each higher bid, until at the maximum bid of 10, ships cannot move at all! This is a clever mechanic and makes the bidding decision a difficult one. To give the players even more to think about, the player with the lowest bid gets to decide which island the local god will bless. Every player with a meeting cottage on that island gets an influence counter (which, as we will see, are very important). The low bidder also adds a Cult Square to that island, making it more valuable at the end of the game.

The heart of the game is the way the players choose their actions. The system borrows the innovative “limited action” mechanic first seen in Splotter’s Bus and Martin Wallace’s Way Out West (and surprisingly unutilized since), but adds a very clever twist to it. There are six possible actions and players go around the table choosing one and performing it until all of them pass. The first time that someone does an action, it costs them nothing. The second time that action is carried out, it costs that player one influence counter. The third time, the cost is two counters and the cost keeps doubling with every successive use. Influence counters are very hard to come by, so even a two counter cost, assuming you have the counters to do it, is gut wrenching. If a player can’t or doesn’t wish to do any more actions, she passes, ending her participation that turn.

Four of the actions allow the players to move their ships while carrying the actions out. For example, to fish, you move your ships next to the Cult Square of an island and roll a die for every Gods Shrine you own on that island. A fishing roll is made for each ship that can be legally positioned. Cleverly, each successive die in a fishing roll has less of a chance of reeling in Charlie the Tuna.

Fish can be turned into cold, hard, uh, shells via the sell action. To do this, you move your ships next to cottages and place any fish you caught earlier on cottage counters. If you sell to opponents’ cottages, you get shells from the bank (each successive fish sold to the same cottage brings you fewer shells). You can also sell to your own cottages, which doesn’t bring you any money, but can add to your Glory Point total later on.

Shells are used to build. Again, you need to maneuver your ships next to a Cult Square, which allows you to place a cottage in an empty space next to your ship. The building cost is the amount of your bid plus the number of hexes that make up the island. So building becomes more expensive as the game goes on (you may have noticed that there’s a lot of diminishing returns in this game), encouraging players to seek out smaller islands to build on.

The last action that allows ships to move is the move action. This allows the player to move his ships without worrying about them carrying out actions after they move. It’s often a cheaper action that allows players to position themselves for the future. Players can also use this action to sink other players’ ships, but it costs them Glory Points to do so.

Ships don’t move during the other two actions. To celebrate, the player points to an island and all the islanders there indulge in a wild fish-eating orgy. In game terms, this means that each player with one or more fish on their cottages there scores one Glory Point for each fish. In addition, the active player scores a bonus Glory Point for every three fish on the island, no matter whose cottages they were on.

Finally, the players can improve their ships. Every time a player performs this action, she moves her marker up one level on the ship movement scale on her player mat. For every two levels or so, the player adds an additional space to the movement allowance of all her ships in future turns. By the end of the game, your island canoes may very well be moving like power boats!

The fish-sell-build/celebrate cycle is comparable to the cycles found in Puerto Rico that allow players to build and earn VPs. Complicating the task in Kaivai is worrying about turn order, building costs, ship movement, and influence counters. Getting it all to work smoothly is quite a challenge.

After all the players have passed, everyone’s shells lose some of their value, using a nice clean aging system. A new turn then begins with the player with the lowest Glory Point total bidding first (which can be a nice advantage). After ten turns, the final scoring (which is where most of the points come from) occurs (with points awarded for buildings and island ownership) and the player with the most Glory Points wins.

In my one game, we all made so many mistakes that it wouldn’t be fair to give my final verdict on this one yet. But we all enjoyed it. The action system works very well and there are a number of other clever ideas in the game. There’s a good deal of player interaction, in the increasing costs of the actions, the competition for the islands, and anticipating what your opponents will do. There’s a bit of a learning curve, as it’ll probably take you about a game to figure out how to properly handle the economic cycle. In addition, the game can be quite unforgiving (although the fact that you can pass all your actions in a turn and take two influence counters definitely helps players who’ve worked themselves into a tight spot). But all of this adds to the allure of this challenging game for me. The components and fidelity to theme are also plusses.

The only real luck factor in the game comes with the dice you roll for the fish action. However, the die you’ll be rolling most often gives you a fish five times out of six, so you’ll be successful much more often than not. In addition, if you’ve planned it correctly, you’ll be rolling as many as ten dice per attempt, so lucky and unlucky breaks should even out. However, in our game, we all rolled abysmally! Instead of 5 out of 6, we only managed to hook Nemo about 50% of the time — no exaggeration! It got to be a joke after a while. Fortunately, we all rolled equally poorly, so it didn’t have much of an effect on the game. But you may want to use a better brand of chum when you play.

One of the concerns I’ve seen mentioned about Kaivai is its playing time, with a few players complaining about three hour long games. The box gives a playing time of two hours and that’s just about how long our three-player game took. 90 minutes would be ideal for this game, and with experience that might be attained, but two hours works perfectly well and I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to manage that in our future games. The four-player game might take a little longer, but probably not that much more, as there will be more competition for actions, meaning that each player will likely take fewer actions per turn. So I think two hours is a solid estimate. There really shouldn’t be too much opportunity for Analysis Paralysis, as the choices each turn are fairly limited.

So we have a game by a relatively new pair of designers with nice components, an attractive theme, and absorbing and innovative gameplay. The size of the box is a definite issue, but other than that, I think those who like planning games where you build and manage an infrastructure will enjoy this. Plus, it has considerably more interaction than many games of that ilk do. It’ll probably take a few games before I completely make up my mind on Kaivai, but my best guess is that I’ll wind up rating it an 8, which for me is a very good game that I’ll always play and will frequently suggest. I’ll also keep my eyes open for future games from the Ostertag brothers.
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Larry Levy wrote:
One of the concerns I’ve seen mentioned about Kaivai is its playing time, with a few players complaining about three hour long games.

This concern (among others) was addressed in the rules changes to the original game that were published in the rulebook to the expansion; which are:

- the game lasts 8 rounds, not 10.

- during the island-village scoring at game end, ALL players lose their influence bid, not just a player who wins.

- when fishing, the god confers an automatic fish; the dice only need to be rolled for your own shrines.

That being said, after 15+ plays with both the old and new rules I feel the original rules are best, so personally I choose to disregard these rules changes and play the game 'out of the box'.

Doubtless, Kaivai is a 2-3 hour game, and even with experience that won't change. But I find that there are many subtleties to the game that with repeat plays can be appreciated. I have personally never felt the game to have a low meaningful decision to playing time ratio, but for those who have (but otherwise like the game) I recommend playing more as there is definitely a lot to think about beyond what meets the eye.

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