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Reef Encounter (R & D Games, 2004 - Richard Breese) usually inspires two reactions in new players. They are often dazzled by the spectacular beauty of the game (it’s the prettiest game I own) but a little dazed by the rules explanation. Indeed, the game is visually stunning; and while the game play only faintly alludes to the theme, the idea of a reef barrier is realized by the artwork of Juliet Breese. The beautiful background is but a sham, however, as there is a raging conflict of reefs in the game play.
The game plays extremely well - it’s one of the best games of 2004 without a doubt. Of course, this being a Breese game made that almost a certainty- I ordered a copy of the game without even finding out any information. There’s a steep learning curve to the game - after about ten plays, I find myself easily beating newcomers - but it’s not insurmountable. For some reason, the game reminds me of Tigris and Euphrates - the direct confrontation and the tile laying have some sinister similarities. And yet Reef Encounter is a bit gentler, and because of the theme a bit easier to find opponents. It’s definitely a game of skill and tactical placement, and I haven’t found a sure strategy to win. It makes for a very good three or four-player game, and an excellent two player bout. Richard Breese has produced a masterpiece, hindered only by a slightly problematic rulebook and limited production.
One playing board is placed in the middle of the table for each player in the game (up to four). Each board has thirty-three squares in a grid of some sort. Five of these squares are starting spots for five different colored corals, and a “polyp” (tile) of each type (gray, orange, pink, white, and yellow) is placed on those spots. Each player takes a screen of their color, a small container (the parrotfish), four shrimp tokens in their color, and a bunch of polyp tiles randomly drawn from the cloth bag (number determined by player order number). An “open sea” board is placed on the table, with ten coral tiles placed on it. Each coral tile shows a combination of two of the reef types - one double, and the other single. The coral tiles also have either a red, blue, green, or purple flower printed on them. A pile of larva cubes (matching the coral types) is placed near the board, as well as a pile of alga cylinders. Five spaces on the open-sea board, one for each color of reef have a cube of that color placed in them, as well as one to three random polyp tiles (detailed in the rules). Each player then does two things: takes two cubes of their choice - putting them behind their screen, and placing one of their polyp tiles secretly into their parrotfish. The player who is chosen to go first begins, with each player following in clockwise order.
On a turn, a player has three phases. In the first, they have the option of “eating” one of their corals (explained later.) They then enter an action phase, where they can perform the following actions in any order:
- They may play a larva cube from behind their screen and place matching polyp tiles of that color from behind or in front of their screen onto the board (up to four). Tiles may be placed pretty much anywhere the player wants, but cannot be placed so that two groups of the same type of reef would join. If the player places a tile next to an “extra growth” space, they may place a bonus tile of that type for free there. This action may only be done twice on a turn.
- When doing the above action, the player may “attack” one coral type when placing polyp tiles. They must first check the open-sea board, looking at the coral tile that matches the combination of attacker/victim. The attack can only occur if the attacking color is the double coral on the coral tile. Attacks can also only be made from reefs that are two or more tiles large. The tile(s) are eaten, and placed in front of the screen of the attacking player.
- They may place one of their shrimp on any coral group on the board that doesn’t already have another shrimp on it. Shrimps protect the tile they are on from attack, as well as the four tiles orthogonically.
- They may move one of their shrimps to another coral group without a shrimp, or behind their screen.
- They may exchange one of their “eaten” polyp tiles for a larva cube of the same color, placing the cube behind their screen.
- They may exchange one of their larva cubes for a polyp tile of the same color.
- They may exchange one of their “eaten” polyp tiles for an alga cylinder. The player discards the tile into the bag and places one cylinder of any of the four colors onto the open-sea board. This causes all larva tiles with a flower of that color to flip over, reversing the power struggle between those two colors. (Instead of yellow being able to eat orange, now orange can eat yellow!)
After a player has taken all the actions they want to (or can), they pick one of the larva cubes on the open-sea board, taking all the polyp tiles with it, placing all of them behind their screen. The larva cube is replenished on the board, and all of the spaces that have less than three polyp tiles have one randomly added. Play then passes to the next player.
At the beginning of each turn, a player has the opportunity to consume one of the corals upon which they have a shrimp, as long as it consists of at least five tiles. Four of the tiles are returned to the bag, with the remainder being placed inside that player’s parrotfish. If this is the first coral a player has eaten, they place their shrimp onto the open-sea board. From now on, when that player takes an alga cylinder, they may place it directly onto one of the coral tiles, locking it into place (this can only be done once per turn.) Future shrimps are placed into the parrotfish, so as the player devours corals (only one per turn), they slowly lose their shrimp. The game ends when one player has eaten all four of their shrimp or when all the coral tiles are locked by alga cylinders. All players, other than the one who precipitated the end of the game, get one extra turn, in which they can only consume a tile group (although they must pay five tiles to the bag instead of four).
All players empty out their parrotfish and count up the value of the tiles they’ve eaten. The coral tiles on the open-sea board are consulted. Each coral type is worth one point, plus one point for every coral tile that they have a double tile presence on. Therefore, polyp tiles are worth one to five points. The player with the highest score is the winner (tiebreaker in the rules.)
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: Reef Encounter was done with a professional touch, and this difference can be really told by the box - which is of tremendous quality when compared to previous R&D games, like Keythedral. The rest of the components are sterling, also. The cubes and alga cylinders are easy to handle, but the neatest wooden components are the little wooden shrimps with painted on eyes - easily the most unique component in the game. Speaking of unique, EVERY SINGLE double-sided polyp tile is drawn slightly differently. This may not be a big deal to some, but it really enhances the over all appearance of the game. When the tiles are placed on the gorgeous boards, that really do look like a photograph of the crystal clear water of a reef, the effect is tremendous. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and the time spent into putting it together shows. The shields have nice artwork, as well as the parrotfish (which stand up like miniature Castillos from El Grande), and everything is just a joy to play around with - tons of little goodies. The only problem I had was that the gray and white polyp tiles were occasionally confused by players, but this was easily noticed and fixed.
2.) Rules: The twelve-page rulebook is just as beautiful as the game, with many beautiful illustrations and examples. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do as good of a job as explaining the rules as it should. Reef Encounter has several more rules than your typical “Euro” game, and the layout and order in the book was fairly confusing. Some reference cards are included, but they really don’t do a good enough job and almost can be as mystifying as the rules. When teaching the game to newcomers, I am very quick to explain strategies, and such; but the game is really only taught by doing, rather than explaining. After teaching several groups of players how to play the game, I finally have a system down; but it’s a bit “heavier” than your average game.
3.) Scoring: I always mention scoring first, as it is a crucial factor in the game. Players should take care to watch which corals they eat, as well as how valuable those polyp tiles become over the course of the game. One must take care not to put all of their eggs in one basket, so to speak - I have yet to see a player win who concentrated solely on one tile group. I thought that the mechanic of putting one tile in the parrotfish at the beginning of the game was quite clever - as it prevented players from having perfect knowledge, but allowed them to still have a great deal of information.
4.) Players: The game plays well with three and four, and the attacks players make on each other are fun, keeping interaction high. But I think that I enjoy my two-player match-ups the most. The game becomes very strategic and interesting, and downtime is very minimal. In a four-player game, especially if you have a slow-moving thinker, the possibility for some analysis paralysis presents itself. But in a two-player game, your turn comes up so often that you don’t mind; and therefore, I think this has become one of my favorite two-player games.
5.) Strategy: There are a lot of decisions to make during the game. Just how fast should one consume their own polyp tiles? I’ve seen one player rush to eat them as fast as they could, hoping to end the game quickly; but they went too fast, not gaining enough points. Others grow huge coral reefs that become too big of targets for others to attack. One must find a balance, and know just when to consume their own coral reefs. Sometimes all a player does on their turn is just take a cube and tiles and slowly bide their turn for a few rounds, building up for a sudden attack. The tactics in this game are many and varied, and for some reason remind me of the same mindset I get in Tigris and Euphrates.
6.) Availability: Sadly, Reef Encounter is hard to find. I was fortunate to have someone pick me up a copy at Essen for a reasonable price, but now the game is few and far between, with outrageous prices (I’ve seen it going for $100). It’s a good game, but probably not THAT good. Hopefully a large company will pick it up for wider distribution - it’s certainly a worthy candidate - so that everyone can get it. I would say to pass on the price for now; but if you can find a good deal, then don’t hesitate.
7.) Fun Factor: The game, with the neat theme and terrific strategy, is sort of a vicious game, with players attacking other player’s corals, or using them to their advantage. Players will even attack their own corals, just to get the polyp tiles to exchange for alga cylinders. Some people may be uncomfortable with this level of aggression, but I found that the game had a nice balance so that the aggression-happy people were satisfied, as well as those who would rather just play a non-aggressive game. The shrimp allowed people to protect their corals fairly well, and with some good positioning, you could fend off most attackers. Still, sometimes I saw (or did myself) a tactic that just impressed me with its brilliance. The game allows a player so many neat tricks that it’s just a joy to play.
If you find this game for a decent price, buy it quickly, without thinking. It’s Mr. Breese’s best game to date, and that’s an impressive statement. Everyone I’ve played it with has enjoyed it; and although some of the players were a little dazed their first time through (I was), further playings showed the true strategies and tactics of the game. Sadly, the game is currently out of the price range of most people, and unless a reprint occurs, will stay that way. That’s a shame, as this game is a truly tremendous game, with a unique feel that I’ve gotten from no other.
“Real men play board games.”
Jeffrey D Myers
"Always rely upon a happy mind alone." Geshe Chekhawa.
Great review, Tom, of a great game! I had just finished reading the rules when your review popped up, and had a chance to play two-player for the first time just after. There's a lot going on, and the game should improve with 3-4 players (and a lot more going on).
Some reference cards are included, but they really don’t do a good enough job and almost can be as mystifying as the rules.
The reference card for game actions is actually pretty good. My only qualm with it is that it should have broken Alga cylinder placement into two seprate boxes.
The first Alga cylinder box should have had an X1 (very important) plus an icon for a shrimp on the board (nice but not as essential) to show the limitations, then showed the action of placing an Alga cylinder onto a tile to lock it. The second would appear without the X1/shrimp notation, and shown an Alga cylinder going onto the open sea board.
This would reduce confusion that can somtimes occur during game play, when one relies on the Action board to perform their turn. It seems that one of the easiest mistakes to make in this game is to lock multiple coral tiles on their turn.
One additional component that would have been useful is a set of markers to place on the X1 actions, to show that these have already been taken once. We have a few extra black cubes that we use for this purpose.