Oh, boy … this is going to be a difficult game to explain. Not because the rules are long, its just that they are interwoven together so intricately, that it is difficult to fully understand the game without playing it. But, I’ll try …
Reef Encounter is the latest creation from British designer Richard Breese. Departing from his recent “Key” series of games, this time Richard dives into the deep sea to bring us a game of aggressive coral reefs, flip-flopping algae and hungry parrotfish. Yes, the theme may be off-putting for some gamers, but that will be their loss. This is a superbly crafted game, filled with ample opportunities for those clever moves, which, upon completion, give you that satisfying feeling that you just did something incredibly smart.
The game is challenging and, in a fashion, puzzle-like, as players struggle to identify the correct combination of actions that will yield the desired result. This is a rich game, one that deserves equally rich accolades.
Each player receives a parrotfish, represented by a square container, several polyp tiles, two larva cubes, a screen and a player aid chart. The challenge is to form coral reefs by combining like-colored polyp tiles, protect these reefs from neighboring aggressive reefs, and eventually eat these reefs with your parrotfish. At game’s end, the player who has consumed the most valuable polyp tiles will rise to the top of the food chain.
Players will play polyp tiles and shrimp to one of the three or four coral reef boards, while the open sea board displays the current “dominance” situation of the various types of coral, as well as the polyp tiles and cubes available for drafting at the end of a player’s turn.
Each turn, a player has ten potential actions available to perform, although rarely will a player perform all of them on one turn. Some of these actions may be performed multiple times, while other may only be performed once. Generally these actions can be performed in any order, with the exception of the first and last action. The challenge is performing these actions in the proper sequences to achieve your objectives.
Examining some of the available actions may be useful in helping to understand the game:
1) Play Polyp Tiles. In order to play polyp tiles to the coral boards, a player must first play a matching larva cube. This allows the player to play up to four matching polyp tiles from behind his screen to the board, and as many matching tiles from in front of his screen. Tiles are played to open spaces on the boards, or can possibly replace (eat, in game parlance) an existing polyp tile. I’ll explain attacking in a bit.
This is one of the most common actions a player will perform during the game, and it may be performed twice per turn.
2) Place, Move or Remove a Shrimp. Shrimp? Sure. Each player possesses four shrimp. These are placed onto a polyp tile, and will protect all adjacent tiles in the same reef from incursions by aggressive reefs. They can be moved to other reefs, or removed from the board completely are returned to behind a player’s screen.
Shrimp serve another purpose. They “claim” a reef for that player, allowing it to eventually be eaten by that player’s parrotfish. Eating coral reefs is another possible action, but MUST be performed before any other actions are conducted on a turn. A player will only eat a maximum of four reefs per game, as the shrimp are discarded after consumption. When eating a reef, the first four tiles are returned to the supply, while the excess are placed inside the player’s parrotfish and will earn victory points at the end of the game. Thus, the idea is to greatly expand a reef prior to consuming it.
The positioning of the shrimp is important due to its defensive characteristics. A coral reef can only contain one shrimp, and as it grows, it becomes virtually impossible to completely protect it from incursions. This often necessitates the moving of the shrimp, and sometimes the complete abandonment of a reef shrinking due to outside assaults.
3) Exchange a Consumed Polyp Tile for a Larva Cube or an Alga Cylinder. OK, here is where we need to explain how polyp tiles are consumed.
On the open sea board, ten double-sided coral tiles are depicted. Each of these depicts one type of coral at the top, which is dominant over the coral depicted on the bottom. This means that a dominant coral reef can replace tiles of adjacent inferior coral reefs, provided those tiles are not protected by a shrimp. The player who causes reef tiles to be replaced places these tiles IN FRONT of his player screen. They have multiple uses in this position, and can be exchanged for larva cubes, alga cylinders or placed onto the board.
Due to their versatility, it is important to keep a steady supply of consumed tiles in front of your screen. This occasionally means you will consume tiles with reefs that may not improve your board situation, or perhaps even temporarily benefit your opponents. However, this is often beneficial to further your long-term aims. It is this versatility coupled with the wide variety of possible actions that helps facilitate a clever sequence of steps which can yield some very impressive and satisfying turns.
Since placing tiles requires the play of a matching larva cube, it is often necessary to exchange a previously consumed tile for a needed cube. Likewise, a cube can be exchanged for a tile of the same color. But what about those alga cylinders? What purpose do they serve?
Remember those coral reef tiles on the open sea board that determine which reefs are dominant? Well, they can be flipped, reversing the dominance of the reefs. To do this, a player can place an alga cube onto the open sea board. This causes ALL tiles depicting that colored alga to flip, reversing the dominance of the reefs depicted on those tiles. This, of course, can have tremendous impact on the various coral reef boards, and drastically alter the dominance situation. Talk about a sudden turnaround!
However, players can “lock in” those coral reef tiles in order to maintain one reef’s dominance over another. To do this, the player must first have consumed at least one reef with his parrotfish. This allows him to place that shrimp onto the open sea board. From that point on, a player may place an alga cube of the matching color onto a coral reef tile to lock it into place. That tile may no longer be flipped, allowing the player to better plan his future moves with a tad bit more security. Be careful, though, as doing this does cause all other tiles depicting the same alga to flip.
4) The final action of a player’s turn is to select one of the five groupings of polyp tiles, each of which come with one larva cube. Groupings will include one to three tiles, which are slowly replenished each round.
There are other rules, but this is the gist of it. Believe me, understanding the game from the rules isn’t easy. Even though I read the rules several times, I still didn’t feel comfortable attempting to explain it to our group. Stuart Dagger, Editor of Counter magazine, sent me a private e-mail outlining his method of explaining the game which greatly alleviated my fears and helped me overcome my hesitation. Although the rules do seem confusing, by the midway point through the first game the mechanisms became clear and the game flowed smoothly. I had no problem whatsoever explaining the game on our second playing, completing the task in less than 15 minutes. It is just one of those games that you have to play in order to get a grasp on the mechanisms.
The game can end in several fashions. The most common manner is when one player consumes his fourth coral reef with his parrotfish, or when all ten coral tiles are locked. In these instances, each player has one more chance to consume a coral reef with his parrotfish before victory points are tallied.
At game’s end, players tally the value of all of the polyp tiles that have been consumed by their parrotfish and are located inside the parrotfish container. Each tile scores one point, plus one point for EACH coral tile which depicts that type of coral as dominant. This is yet another reason to lock coral tiles into place, while attempting to flip coral tiles to the detriment of your opponents.
No doubt, this is a difficult game to properly explain, both to players and in a review. There are so many inter-related mechanisms, each of which can be weaved together in clever sequences, that it is difficult to convey just how they mingle together to form what is truly a very intelligent and intriguing game. Aficionados of games that challenge one to spot and arrange proper sequences of actions in order to accomplish a particular goal will find much to like here. As mentioned, there is ample opportunity for clever moves, which will even impress those opponents who find themselves harmed by the outcome. That’s a noteworthy achievement: being able to impress not only yourself, but your opponents with your moves!
A bit of advice: don’t let the theme or the somewhat confusing rules force you to bypass this wonderful deep-sea adventure. Reef Encounter is a rich game, one that will tantalize your noggin and keep your mind engaged. This is one game that is most definitely NOT found in the shallow end of the game pool.