NOTE: This Review was originally written to be recorded as part of a series of podcasts. The podcast never took off, so I'm posting the reviews as written here. They still work in writing...
Review of REEF ENCOUNTER
Hello! This is Fubar Awol with “Reviews for the Euro-snoot”.
Today, let’s look at REEF ENCOUNTER, a game by Richard Breese published by Z-Man Games.
As I lift the lid from the box, I find ALL the classy elegance that I’ve come to expect in the best Eurogames. There are FIVE game boards, TONNES of very attractively illustrated cardboard tiles, a CAPACIOUS cloth bag, and WOW! Look at these wooden bits! Cubes, Discs, and even LITTLE WOODEN SHRIMP in 4 player colors… INCLUDING PURPLE!
In addition, each player gets the following: a player screen to hide stuff behind, a think well-illustrated player aid card, and also another item with a parrot fish illustration on the side that consists of 4 cardboard pieces that you assemble into a little box. This box represents the belly of your parrot fish, and is the place you will store POLYP TILES that will be worth victory points at the end of the game.
Reef Encounter is just DRIPPING with Theme!
During the game, the players bring LARVA CUBES and POLYP TILES into the game from the OPEN SEA and place them on a one of up to 4 game boards called ROCKS. Groups of two or more orthogonally adjacent POLYP TILES form a CORAL that the player can protect with their very own LITTLE WOODEN SHRIMP. When a CORAL is at least 5 POLYP TILES large it can then be fed to the players PARROT FISH.
But the CORALS just don’t sit there wait for you to come eat them with your PARROT FISH and score victory points … oh no! They Attack each other, with DOMINANT CORAL types consuming the WEAK Coral… and just to mix things up, which ones are DOMINANT can be changed by the players! Therefore, at the beginning of your turn, your neighbor’s WHITE Coral mass might be stronger than your adjacent PINK coral mass, but if you can get ahold of an ALGE CYLINDER you can flip that relationship and make your PINK dominant over his WHITE, and then proceed to CONSUME your opponents WHITE Coral by expanding your PINK coral into the spaces occupied by his white chorals on the grid. Not only that, then you get to KEEP the WHITE Corals and use them yourself later! Talk about a game that encourages DIRECT player interaction!
If you don’t like games where other people can mess with your little kingdom then stay FAR AWAY from this baby!
These reefs are a rough neighborhood!
So, how does it all work? On your turn you are faced with choosing to do up to EIGHT different actions, restricted by how many POLYP TILES and LARVA CUBES you have in your possession and whether or not they are hidden BEHIND your player screen or IN FRONT of your player screen for all to see. Everyone starts the game with from 6-9 randomly drawn POLYP TILES, and 2 LARVA CUBES that they get to choose. POLYP TILES come in the SAME colors as the LARVA CUBES and in order to place up to 4 POLYP TILES on the board from BEHIND your player screen you MUST have a LARVA CUBE of the SAME color!
The easiest way to explain the game would probably be to walk you through what your first player turn might look like…. So let’s give that a try.
FIRST, you play one of your LARVA Cubes in a color that matches a group of POLYP TILES that you have on hand behind your player screen. This allows you to place those POLYP tiles on one of the game boards (ROCKS) in play.
After you place a group of up to 4 polyps, your second action you will place one of your FOUR CUTE LITTLE WOODEN shrimp in your player color, on top of one of the POLYP TILES that make up the CORAL MASS that you have just created. This SHRIMP will protect the POLYP TILE it is on, as well as up to four ORTHOGONALLY ADJACENT POLYPS from being CONSUMED by different color CORAL that is DOMINANT over that CORAL you just placed. Any tiles of your CORAL that are not right next to your shrimp, are NOT PROTECTED and CAN be consumed by any PLAYER as they expand or create NEW CORAL MASSES of their own.
THIRD and finally, you will replenish your supply of LARVE CUBES and POLYP TILES by choosing one of the FIVE PILES consisting of up to 3 TILES and 1 CUBE that are displayed on the OPEN SEA board. You get to choose which one you want, and hopefully there will be a PILE that has just what you need to improve your position on the next turn.
So what determines which of the 5 colors of Coral are DOMINANT over the other colors?
Well, Let me tell ya! At the beginning of the game, there is a group of 10 DOMINANCE TILES on the OPEN SEA board. One side of the tile shows say, YELLOW as dominant over PINK and the other side shows just the opposite: PINK dominant over YELLOW. So, the ability of one type of POLYP TILE to CONSUME another is depends on which side of the appropriate DOMINANCE TILE is face-up. As I said before, you can change this at any time during your turn – as long as you have a POLYP TILE available IN FRONT of your Player Screen.
So, on your first turn, you played a LARVA CUBE and up to FOUR of same-color POLYP TILES, and then plopped one of your shrimp on top of it. Well, if you were really being clever, then you took a glance at the DOMINANCE TILES and displaced one of that UNPROTECTED POLYPS of a color that you DOMINATE, snagging that little puppy and placing it IN FRONT of your PLAYER SCREEN, where you can use it for several kinds of future wickedness that I’ll list in a minute. THIS is the ONLY WAY to get POLYP TILES IN FRONT of your Player Screen, that is, to consume THEM with your DOMINANT Coral during your turn. Doing this is ABSOLUTLY CRITICAL to victory – because 3 of the 8 possible actions that you may perform on your turn, can only be done with POLYP TILES from IN FRONT of your screen so you must must must get them! And these THREE actions are probably the most POWERFUL actions in the game… Going out on a limb there…
On any turn that you have a POLYP TILE IN FRONT of your player screen, other action options open up to you.
Here they are:
ONE: You can exchange one of those violently acquired TILES for a LARVA CUBE of the same color. TWO: you can play ANY NUMBER of those tiles that are IN FRONT of your screen IN ADDITION to the four tiles you are allowed to play from behind your screen when you are placing POLYPS on the board to expand or create A coral. THREE: (and this is the really cool one) you can exchange the POLYP tile for an ALGE CYLIDAR which you use to flip a group of DOMINANCE TILES from one side to the other – thus altering the balance of power on the REEF and HOSING up all your opponents future HOSTILE CORAL-consuming plans. Sweeeet!
So, How do you win the game? Well, Let me tell ya! You need to build LARGE CORAL MASSES with your POLYPS and feed them to your PARROT FISH. Your PARROT FISH can only eat once per turn, and only as the very first action of the turn, so any CORAL MASS that you have created for his consumption has to SURVIVE through all the other player’s turns. AND THEN it needs to be at least FIVE POLYPS large, because the first FOUR POLYPS go back in the polyp supply bag and don’t count toward your score! The ones that do count go in your little Parrot Fish hidey-hole, where you keep them hidden from the other players view until the end of the game.
And then comes the tricky-dicky-do-dah part. At the end of the game, which comes when any one of the players has eaten FOUR times, each POLYP TILE is worth 1 victory point PLUS 1 additional victory point for each of the other POLYP types that that particular color has dominance over. So, since there are FIVE colors of POLYPs any one tile could have dominance over from 0-4 other types at the end of the game, so therefore, any single POLYP tile can be worth from 1-5 points! This is a MAJOR factor in who wins, so manipulating the dominance tiles to favor the POLYP colors you have collected is JOB 1 as you approach the end of the game.
Another spiffy feature of this RICHARD BREESE MASTERPIECE is a process that allows you to “lock in” the dominance of one color over another for the remainder of the game… when you can pull that off, and lock in the DOMINANCE of a color that your PARROT FISH has eaten a whole bunch of – it fills you with private glee – it’s a secret garden full of happy thoughts of victory.
One warning about this game: If any of the people you play with are subject to “analysis paralysis” then they are subject to going into full vapor-lock continuous loop shut-down mode, which has been known to cause permanent brain damage.
Here are the KEYS TO VICTORY in REEF ENCOUNTER:
ONE: Try and keep track of which LARVA CUBES each player has behind their screen, this will give you a CRITICAL INFORMATION about their future capabilities.
TWO: THINK both OFFENSIVELY and DEFENSIVELY. Yes! You want to build up your own corals so you can feed BIG HUNKY masses of them to your PARROT FISH, but, if you leave a large portions of your CORALS unprotected, then the other players WILL swoop in on their turns and munch your lovely corals down to piddly little nubs before you get a chance to eat them at the beginning of your next turn! The idea here is to use not just your shrimp (which can only protect a maximum of 5 tiles) but also the board edges and the DOMINANCE tiles to protect you from nearby ENEMY CORALS of a different color than yours!
THREE: DON’T feel like you have to place POLYP TILES and build up your board position on every turn! Sometimes, the best thing for you to do is to skip most of your turn and just draw tiles and a cube building up your capacity to take dramatic action on a future turn. The game rewards those who can place a LOT of tiles at one time and also PROTECT them. In order to be able to do that, you will have to “keep your powder dry” for a turn or two or three, building up the capacity to take offensive action in a particular color while you do nasty things with other polyp colors – perhaps consuming your opponent’s corals or establishing blocking positions to keep your opponent’s corals from expanding in a particular direction, or even perhaps even hemming them in completely, so they can’t expand even if they DO have the larva and polyps on hand to do so… Now THAT’S down right evil.
FOUR: Consume choral (even your own) whenever it makes sense to do so, and in this way, build up a supply of tiles IN FRONT of your screen that you can use to manipulate the DOMINANCE relationships and also to expand your tile-laying options. Nickel and diming away your in-front-of-screen tile supply is generally bad policy – taking dramatic action all at once is usually the better way to go.
So, WHO will like this Game? If you like thinking really, really hard, analyzing permutation, combinations, intended and unintended impacts, ancillary effects AND you like lots and lots of direct conflict, you will LOVE reef encounter. Besides, the theme is really well integrated. Hey, at this very moment, I’m on my sailboat anchored in the Bahamas, 50 yards from a beautiful coral reef at Exuma Land and Sea Park. Every time I go diving here, I see Parrot Fish munching on coral (yes, the do really eat that stuff) and it makes me want to come right back to the boat and break out a game of “Reef Encounter”.
Reef Encounter was originally self-published by Richard Breese in a very limited release that nearly sold out during that most hallowed of all events: the Essen Game Fair. If you managed to get a copy you were deeply embedded in a very elite and exclusive club of uber-snoots.
But now, since Z-Man Games republished it ANYBODY can get a copy! What’s this world coming too!
Reef Encounter is widely available at all of our favorite game retailers…
Tell ‘um FUBAR sent ya!
Very nicely done! Thanks for the detailed review. I recently purchased this game and am looking forward to playing it. However, before I teach my team of fellow gamers the rules, I wanted to know them backwards and forwards myself. Your review has helped me immensely. Thanks again.