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Jay Moore
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Webster Groves
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INTRODUCTION
So if you're like I was, you might be looking at Reef Encounter, thinking of the praise it's gotten here, but a little wary. I mean, it's a game about reefs. Everyone seems to be getting all hyped over parrotfish eating shrimp and so forth. How fun can that be? You're no grognard, but you like to roll dice and blow stuff up. A reef? Parrotfish? Shrimp?

Well, trust me, it's fun. I hope to give you enough idea of what the game's about that you can decide if it's really going to be fun for you, too.

COMPONENTS
Reef Encounter is a beautiful game. Every component is pretty, from the coral reef tiles that make up the bulk of the cardboard bits to the front of the box. When you're playing, it's easy to get mesmerized by the board, just enjoying all the pretty colors.

A few components are especially nice. Each player gets a screen decorated with a picture of a fish of their own color swimming through the ocean. The little wooden shrimp, complete with eyes painted on, have an intricate design that's not been matched by any other wooden component I've seen in a game. And the boxes that serve as the parrotfish, into which players place their consumed reef tiles, are sturdy and well-decorated.

All in all, the components get high marks from me. The "oohs" and "aahs" that I get when I start setting this game up for a group really make me happy.

THE RULES
Reef Encounter has lots of rules, and it's a little tough to summarize them without just copying the rulebook. I'm going to try and hit the highlights, and give you an idea of what gameplay feels like. I have no intention of giving every detail from the book, and certainly after reading this, you won't know how to play. But I hope that you'll get enough of an idea to know if it's your thing.

The game is about building coral reefs, guarding them with your shrimp, and then turning them in for points. Your primary action from turn to turn is placing new coral reef tiles, enabling you to grow your reef so that it's nice and big when you finally score it. You can just lay tiles out on empty spots to make your reef bigger, or you can eat up other reefs to help grow your own. When you grow a reef by eating up a different reef, you get to keep the consumed reef tile and hold it in reserve, later using those tiles for bonus actions of sorts. So it's always better to grow your reef by eating up another reef rather than just adding tiles to empty spaces - but it's not always easy.

The twist is that the hierarchy of which reef eats which changes as the game goes on. The hierarachy is defined by ten tiles that are placed on the common "Open Ocean Board." Each of these tiles shows two colors of reef - one on the top half of the tile, which is the dominant reef, and one beneath, which is the non-dominant reef. On the reverse side of the tile, the two colors are switched. So yellow might eat black, but if the tile is flipped, black will eat yellow. If it's flipped again, then yellow once more eats black.

Flipping these tiles is one way you can use the consumed reef tiles that you've collected. Every hierarchy tile has one of five colors of algae on it. On your turn, you can trade in a consumed reef tile to announce a color. All tiles with that color of algae are flipped. A second algae color appears on the reverse side, meaning that the same algae can't be played again to flip all the same tiles back over. Thus, the order of what eats what is never the same, and is constantly changing as players trade in consumed reef tiles to change the hierarchy.

See? You're intrigued already, aren't you? It's not really what you were expecting from a game about reefs, is it? Well, me either, and when I realized how the hierarchy would change from turn to turn, I knew this would be a fun game. But wait! There's more!

Your shrimp are really important to use properly. On each turn, you may introduce one of your four shrimp to a reef, or move any of your existing shrimp around. Your shrimp serve three purposes. First, they mark the reef as "yours," so nobody else can put a shrimp on that reef. Second, they protect the spot they sit on, plus the four orthogonally adjacent spaces, from consumption by enemy reefs. Finally, they make that reef eligible to be scored.

So what about this scoring? At the very beginning of your turn, and only at the very beginning of your turn, you may score a reef by feeding it, shrimp and all, to your parrotfish. You take four of the reef tiles and discard them back to the draw bag, and then take any leftover reef tiles and put them in your parrotfish. You'll score points at the end of the game for the tiles inside your parrotfish, so it's vital that you eat nice, large reefs. But since you can only do it at the beginning of your turn, you have to grow your reef and protect it until your turn comes back to you again. This means that placement of your reefs, the hierarchy of what eats what, and positioning of your shrimp all take on great importance for you to score as many points as possible.

At the end of the game, the reef colors are each worth from 1-5 points. Once you've eaten your first shrimp, you may spend a consumed reef tile to "lock" one of the hierarchy tiles into place. That tile can no longer flip for the rest of the game. The reef color is worth a base of one, plus one bonus point for each tile in which it has been locked to the dominant color. When the game ends (which occurs when one player has eaten four reefs, or when all the hierarchy tiles are locked), everyone reveals what's inside their parrotfish. For each tile you have, you get that color's point value.

IMPRESSIONS
Though there are many rules to explain when first learning the game, Reef Encounter plays easily and fairly quickly. New players catch on right away and are up to speed in a turn or two. However, the strategy continues to unfold before you as you play your first couple of games. Simple things, like the position of your reef tiles on the playing boards, matter so much more than it appears at first. Some really neat strategies reveal themselves as well, such as building up and protecting a reef that you fully intend to unprotect and consume with a different reef later on, which will score you even more points by the end of the game.

To me, the real heart of the game lies in the ever-evolving hierarchy of reef tiles. Because several reef tiles flip over at a time, improving your position in one regard often erodes your position in a different regard. It may be that your white reef, which you've been working on for the whole game, can be locked into place, making sure that you'll score lots of points for that reef. But doing so might wind up making a yellow reef dominant over orange, and suddenly your orange position looks very precarious. Timing is everything, and there are never enough resources to accomplish all you set out to do (which, in my mind, is the hallmark of the best games).

CONCLUSIONS
For some, the theme of Reef Encounter will be enough to purchase the game knowing nothing about it. There's something about undersea life and coral reefs that appeals to so many people, myself included. But for others, playing a game about a bunch of shrimp living on a reef might seem... well, a little boring. To those folks, I'd say don't let the theme put you off. Reef Encounter is one of the deepest, most strategic, and best games that I've played in the last year. The beautiful components just add to the experience, which is already fun to begin with.
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Andrew Young
Wales
Wellesley
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And if you never have, you should. These things are fun and fun is good.
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Great review. I just started "really" playing the game and I love it. At first it made my head hurt.


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Chester
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Temple
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Great review!

A couple clarifications of minor things that jumped out at me.
One end-game condition is that the tile-drawbag is depleted. When you eat a reef...4 of the tiles are 'discarded', but I believe they are not supposed to return to the drawbag.

Secondly, the points for any eaten tiles range from 1-5, with an extra point added for each open sea tile that favors that color of coral, even tiles that have NOT been 'locked' in position.

Am I anal? I'm anal aren't I? I knew it!
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Jay Moore
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Webster Groves
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George - Yes, this is the Z-Man edition. Sorry, I should have mentioned that!

Chester - You are correct about the scoring at the end of the game. However, the tiles from the eaten reef are put into the bag, not discarded from the game. This makes running out of tiles highly improbable, although it is an endgame condition should it happen. Another endgame condition is, as you know, running out of space on the play boards - something else that I think is likely to never happen, even though it's theoretically possible.

If you're anal for bringing this stuff up, I guess that makes me even more anal for answering it! Whatever.
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Chester
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Well, thanks for correcting my incorrect correction. Or something.

Perhaps if played with the advanced rules (remove FIVE tiles for an eaten coral reef or SIX on the last turn) you get bigger corals on the board, a longer game and more likely to either deplete the bag or run out of space. I'd like to try it that way next time I play, anyway.
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Tim K.
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Great review. And I think this is the first easy-to-understand explanation of how the game works because you took a top down approach (where everyone else goes bottom-up, like the rules) thumbsup
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