(This review appears with pictures at http://deathofmonopoly.blogspot.com.)
As it is Spiel des Jahres season, I decided to add a remake of a previous winner to my collection. The winners are almost always guarantees of fun, intelligent games with relatively easy rule sets. Michael Schacht's Aquaretto is no different and has actually turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. It is based on the system from Zooloretto, which I have not played, which is based on the card game, Coloretto, which I quite like. Here's why I love Aquaretto...
This game is completely made up of cardboard bits and some wooden markers. Every player gets their own enclosure to build their Sea World-like park and a few small expansions to possibly add later. There are wooden coins, some little wooden meeple workers (think Carcassonne), and a set of simple wooden trucks which are really just tile trays. And then there are the tiles. Lots of tiles. Eight different types of animals, eleven each, and two babies. Everything is of a great quality and the animal pictures are nice. My only complaint is that differentiating between the tiles takes a little getting used to. But after a couple rounds and some good lighting, we had no issues. All in all, totally functional and very cute. Verdict: Very good.
Anyone familiar with Coloretto will pick up the main mechanism of this game fairly quickly. The majority of turns you take will involve picking up a tile and placing it on an empty space on a truck or taking a truck with at least one tile, playing all the tiles on it, and then sitting out the rest of the round. There is one truck per player so every player gets a truck and the next round starts. Most of the tiles are animals which you must play in your enclosure immediately, if you can. AT the end of the game you get a point for each animal tile in your enclosure. You can have three different types of animals at the beginning and you have to group them together on your board whilst keeping the different groups of animals from touching. I guess you don't want alligators and polar bears in the same pen as penguins. Go figure. If you can't place an animal right away then it goes at the top of your depot pile. At the end of the game you lose points for each type of animal left in your depot. Nasty.
So if that were it this would make for a fun, light little game very similar to the original Coloretto. What takes this game to another level of depth are the coins and workers. Every third animal in a group gives you a coin (as do the trucks sometimes). Coins let you do many things - build expansions to your park sometimes allowing more types of animals, move animals out of your depot, buy animals from other player's depots (very interesting...), and even move the workers. How do you get workers? Every fifth animal in a group yields a worker which you must employ immediately. Workers give various bonuses at the end like for having certain types of animals or for having coins at the end. They can even halve the points lost from your depot or train certain breeds of animal. Aha! So now we've suddenly got a real Eurogame with tricky decisions and endgame bonuses and this game really starts to shine.
All of this is presented in a fairly easy to follow rulebook. Having taught this a few times now, I can say learning the game is fairly intuitive for most players. Verdict: Intuitive. Easy-to-learn. Lots of choices.
So there's a mish-mash of different mechanics going on here but they all seem to come together brilliantly. The majority of the time you will be drawing tiles and placing them on trucks. And this is where the trickiest decisions usually are. Should you place the dolphin with the turtle? The next player is collecting both and might just take the truck and sit out the rest of the round. But if you put the dolphin with the polar bear, you might get stuck with it later and have to store it in your depot for minus points. This Coloretto mechanic is now classic and so much fun. You can be vicious and nasty with your truck choices and it can often come back around and bite you in the ass. But this game doesn't feel too nasty for some reason, probably because you usually get a couple good tiles with the bad.
Tacked onto this, you've got some fun tile-laying as you watch your families of animals begin to grow. In fact, every type of animal has a male and female and if you get them both you are rewarded with a baby. Very satisfying as it is an extra point at the end and the babies are just so damned cute. So your animals grow and you eventually expand to fit more and new types of animals. It is all quite satisfying and a whole lot of fun and you really do feel like you are creating a sea animal park. Verdict: Quite amusing and surprisingly addictive.
This game strikes just the right level of depth for our gaming group whilst playing for just the right amount of time. The truck loading choices are challenging as are the choices of when to take a truck and when to wait. Combine this with the tile laying aspect on a board that's far too small and you are constantly making small but important decisions. Adding the workers into the mix yields some long-term decision-making to the tile collection and tile play. And all in under an hour! It's not brain-burning but I'd definitely put it around the level of complexity of games like Thurn and Taxis and Alhambra, both other game of the year winners. Verdict: Lots of interesting and meaningful decisions packed into a relatively short playing time.
I must say, I am not a person who buys a game because of theme. I'm a big Reiner Knizia fanatic and I think good mechanisms in a board game trump everything. Having said that, I think with this game the theme is what makes it so great. It is thoroughly integrated in the mechanics and feel of play and is what makes the learning of the game so intuitive. The ideas that animals can't share the same water basins and you lose points for storing animals you can't use both make sense. Even more, you earn money (coins) and have to hire workers when you get more animals and this makes sense to people playing the game. Even breeding a boy and a girl animal to get a baby seems reasonable. And this is one of the main reasons this game is so much fun as it makes you feel like you are actually building a sea park. Verdict: Excellent. The highlight of the game and the reason it all comes together so well.
As you can see, I quite enjoy this game. It is fun, full of interesting decisions, and even a bit nasty. And it's short enough to play a couple games in a row. The biggest bonus it actually feels like you're creating an attraction for people to visit. This one is definitely worth the purchase and I'm already reading up on the expansions....