As others have noted, the rules to Kaivai are a bit confusing, but not overwhelmingly so, provided one spends the time to absorb them. We played the game twice during BGG.CON (both 4 player games) and, while I struggled with (Derk's presentation of) the rules in the first game, they became clear and easier to explain for our second game (once I had read through them myself and had one muddled play under my belt as a reference). And so on that note I will provide a rather detailed explanation of the game to better guide future players.
Kaivai is a game of expanding island nations in which each tribe survives on an economy based on fishing, using shells as currency and tokens to the gods for influence. The hex based board playing area consists of an ocean interspersed with multiple starting islands (brown spaces known as cult tiles). At the top edge of the board are circular spaces denoting the six potential actions a player can take on their turn. These include increasing your travel distance, building new huts, fishing, selling your catch, holding a festival to the gods, and taking an additional movement (a basic movement is included in the fishing, selling and building actions). Each player starts with a cache of three fish, three shells (with an initial value of 5 each), and three influence tokens. Players start by founding an island by adding a fishing hut and its associated boat plus one additional building of their choice (another fishing hut, a fishing god temple, or a meeting hut) . The second hut may be placed on the same or a different island.
Each player also receives a playing mat on which their turn order bid is tracked, movement range increases are tracked, and the value of the shell currency and freshness of the fish is recorded on a track numbered from 1 to 5. The three shells are placed on the 5 box and represent a total value of 15. As money is spent, change can be made but currency cannot be combined and upgraded (i.e. a 1-value shell and a 3-value shell cannot be combined into a single 4-value shell or repositioned as two 2-value shells). This all becomes relevant at the end of each round when all currency and fish are moved down one space on the value scale. (All 5-value shells become 4-value shells etc.) The fish don’t have any intrinsic value that they are losing, as a fish sold from any box would sell for the same shell value (5, 4, or 3), it’s just that if you don’t sell it before it ends up in the 1-value box it will slide off the end of the chart and be gone.
Throughout the game, players will bid for turn order, with each player selecting a unique bid in the range of 1 to 10. The amount bid influences the cost of building new huts and the distance one can sail. (Low bids have low build-costs and low movement range, mid bids have mid build-costs and maximized movement, high bids have high build-costs and low movement range). Thus, the balance between turn order versus desired action must be optimized to maximize one’s turn. The low bidder each round first gets to add a new cult tile to an existing island and move the communal fishing god token to the added tile (which must be on a new island) and all players who have built a communal hut on this island receive one influence token for each meeting hut of their color present. (This is one of the two ways to collect more influence tokens, the other is to immediately pass your entire turn when it is your first turn to select and execute an action each round. This nets you two influence tokens.) Then in bid order players select and execute an action. The first time an action is selected an influence token is placed on the action from the stock and it can be executed for free. The next player wishing to take the same action in the same round must add influence tokens from their personal supply equal to the number of tokens already on the action (Thus, the cost to take an already selected action doubles with each subsequent selection of the same action). Note, the number of influence tokens each player has is kept secret. Subsequent bids for turn order are executed by position on the victory point track, with low player going first. Ties are broken by shells then fish.
As I mentioned, the game’s economy centers on fishing. Fishing huts are the start point for the fishing boats. To fish a player must move their boat adjacent to a brown cult tile on an island on which they also have erected a fishing god temple. The actual fishing involves rolling special dice, 1 die for each god temple on the island (including the black god token if present). The dice have blue and white spots on them, one on each side. Blue dots represent a successful catch and the number of blue dots on a die diminishes with each additional die added to the roll allotment. If a player has multiple boats, each boat gets to participate in the fishing action separately.
Once a player has caught some fish, the fish can be converted into either money to fund the building of more huts or into victory points. The conversion process first involves selling the fish. Fish can be sold by sailing one’s boat adjacent to fishing huts or meeting huts (but not to fishing god temples). If sold to the huts of another player, the fish will generate shell currency at the rate of one 5-value shell for the first fish on the tile, 4 for the second and 3 for the third. Each hut tile can only hold three fish. Fish sold to other players remain on their tiles (and will eventually convert to victory points for that player during a celebration) and the selling player receives shell currency from the bank, which is added to their player mat in the appropriate boxes. If fish is sold (or donated, as no money is received) to a hut of a player’s own color then the fish are stored for a future celebration at which time they will be converted to victory points. Again, the limit of three fish per tile applies. A player can sell fish to multiple tiles on a single turn provided all tiles are adjacent to the boat from a single point – no mid-turn movement is allowed.
Celebrations are held to convert fish into victory points. By selecting the celebration action a player can choose any island on which a celebration can be held. Players then remove the fish and receive one victory point for each fish on their huts, plus the individual taking the celebration action receives one bonus victory point for every three fish used in the celebration. Victory points are tracked on the point track around the perimeter of the board.
Building new huts is similar to fishing in that the player selecting this action must sail their boat to a water tile adjacent to a brown cult tile near to their desired building site. That player can then build a new hut on any water hex adjacent to the same island as the cult tile and that is adjacent to the player's boat. The player must also pay the building cost which is the sum of the number of existing tiles on the island plus the building cost associated with that players turn order bid. Each of the building types provide game-play value. Increasing your fishing fleet allows your to fish more locations (provided you have fishing gods present) and permit expansion to other islands. Fishing god temples increase your fishing catch and locations for fishing. Meeting huts bring in influence tokens and increase your island size if you are the low bidder.
The game continues for 10 rounds and concludes with a final scoring. At this time all buildings are counted and score two points each for their owners. Plus each island is then reviewed for a majority presence with the player with the greatest presence on each island receiving one point per tile making up the island. In determining majorities, each boats adjacent to an island’s cult tiles count as a presence. Finally players can add to their final total by a closed fist bid of any remaining influence tokens which if successful are lost (and retained if unsuccessful.)
First, the box is huge given the components in the game. That is not to say it is oversized, as it is correctly sized given the components. It is really that the playing board only folds in half and not into quarters. Given the size of the board, this is significant, as it creates an awkward box size that would be unique in my collection and thus present storage delimmas.
I found the box art the board and the components themselves to be quite beautiful and functioned well during game play. There was never any confusion arising from the graphic design of the components. The huts are efficiently designed, making use of both sides of the tiles to represent all three building types (fishing god temples are fishing huts with a god token added to them) as are the 2 sided fish/shell pieces. The cardboard is nice and thick and the printing is of high quality.
Words of Wisdom:
End game scoring is significant. Over half the points received by the winning players in our second game were derived from the end game scoring. (In our first game we didn't know about the end game scoring until after the conclusion of our game and further review of the rules.)
Influence tokens are very scarce and care must be taken to use them wisely. In our games I think everyone passed at least once to restock on influence tokens for future turns.
The game is long. Both our plays tracked in at about 3 hours. I believe this is because the economy is so tight that turn decisions tend to be agonized over drawing out the playing time (that may have been a local trait of our group, but I think it would be common). Additional plays will likely speed up, but I do not see the game finishing in under two hours. I would love this game at 1 hour, it would be fantastic. At 2 hours it would be a good game that would probably see some regular play. But at the three hour range the game just seems to drag on too long and overextended it's stay on the table. That said I enjoyed playing Kaivai and found the decisions interesting. The mechanics work well together too. There is a lot to like here if one has a fast playing group. I am likely to still pick it up in spite of my fledgling group's lethargic playing time track record.
My Rating: 7