Category: Hand Management
Designer: Ivan Tuzovsky
Publisher: Cosmodrome Games
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 30-60 minutes
To Play or Not To Play: Don't Play
Go scroll back up a little and take another look at that box art. I LOVE this box. The way the moonlight filters through the water and illuminates submarine structures, sunken ships, and strange creatures fills me equal parts wonder and fear at the majesty of the deep. The shading draws your eye to the top and the bottom of the box. This is the kind of box that if you see it on display, you'll want to take a closer look. Full marks to the team of impeccable illustrators: Irina Kuzmina, Andrew Modestov, Oleg Proshin, Artur Varenyev, Marat Zakirov. Let's see how the rest of the game stacks up as I review Aquatica.
Let's open this beautiful box and gaze upon the wonders within:
We've got a large central board and four smaller player boards, a number of beautifully illustrated cards depicting submarine landscapes and humanoid aquatic denizens, and a pile ray tokens with different symbols and colors. The production values of the components and art are so good! But how does this game actually work?
In the world of Aquatica, each player controls a marine kingdom competing for resources with its neighbors. Each player starts with a small deck of 6 starting character cards which you will use to gain control over Locations, raise those Locations' resources from the depths, and score victory points. You'll also start with four Trained Rays that match your color. These Rays give you bonus actions, but after you use them once they get tired and must rest before you can use them again.
The game is actually rather simple. On your turn, you pick a character card from your hand and play it. That character card will grant you some sort of effect, which you resolve. You can also use any number of your rays for their effects. When you're finished, you flip any used rays to their tired side and discard the character card. Then it's the next player's turn. Sounds pretty simple, and it is.
The key to this game are the effects on your character cards. For example, the Blue Water's Agent lets you recruit a new character from the ocean board. These new characters are more powerful than your starting characters, so adding them to your hand will be very helpful for the entire game.
The Sealord provides coinage to purchase locations, while the Legioner and Sea Horse characters provide military strength to conquer locations. Each Location card has both a strength and a coin cost, and you can claim a location by fulfilling either cost. Some locations are easier to purchase while others are easier to conquer, and you'll probably do a fair bit of both during the game.
When you claim a location, it slots into your player board:
These locations often have resources, and you can raise the location up one slot to gain the specific resource shown in the bubble on the left-hand side of the card. So in the example to the right, if you are planning to conquer a new location, you can slide up the left-most location one notch to get +1 military strength for a conquer action. You have to use that bonus that turn, though. You don't get to stock up on military strength or coinage to save for future turns!
Once a location has been fully raised, you can use your Wave-teller, or another character with the score effect, to score the location. That means taking a depleted location out of its slot and placing it in your scoring pile just above your player board. Locations that are still slotted into your player board at the end of the game are not worth any points, so be sure to exploit your locations as quickly, yet efficiently, as possible!
The Matrona brings your used character cards back to your hand and rests all your Rays. Like many other hand-management games, timing when you play the card that returns your cards from the discard pile is essential to victory.
The game ends when one of three conditions is met: when the Location deck is exhausted, when the Ocean Character deck is exhausted, or when one player has claimed all four goals. To claim a goal, you must place one of your Trained Rays on the left-most available space next to the goal. The first person to claim a goal earns 8 points, the second earns 5, and any subsequent players earn 3. Accomplishing goals early is a good way to get a sizeable lead, but you're also sacrificing your access to bonus effects by giving up your Rays.
You can only claim each goal once, so you'll have to diversify your strategy to stay in the running. And don't worry about your Rays, there are plenty of Wild Rays that you can tame by fully raising certain locations (like the one on the right in the picture above).
Once a player fulfills one of the game-end conditions, everyone (including that player) gets one more turn, and then everyone counts up their score. You get points for claiming goals, for any locations in your score pile, and you also get one point for every card in your hand at the end of the game.
The game comes with a few advanced rules once you have a handle on the mechanics. There are advanced goal tokens you can use to change up the goals each game and increase the variety. There's also a deck of 8 King character cards you can use to make the game slightly asymmetric. These cards add to your starting hand. Some have powerful one-time-use effects, others function as standard characters that you can use for the entire game. The game recommends either giving certain ones to players based on turn order, or drafting a subset of them to ensure that the last player in the turn order can get the most powerful King as a balancing mechanism.
At this point, you're probably wondering one thing: "Chris, this game doesn't sound that bad. Why does it say "Don't Play" at the top of this review?" And that's a great question. This game isn't bad. The mechanics aren't too complicated, and while some things feel a little strange (there are a lot of cards that require you to pay gold to take an effect, but there are no coin tokens in this game. Instead you generate temporary coins by raising locations or flipping rays), the game is fine. Heck, The Dice Tower's own Tom Vasel loves this game. I don't always agree with his reviews, but he's been around long enough to know a bad game when he plays one.
No, I say you shouldn't play this game because it's boring. Player interaction in this game is minimal: like many worker placement games, the main interaction is claiming a resource before another player can. Though there is one character card, Meg, that forces other players to discard characters from their hand. That can be absolutely devastating if you time it right!
In general, though, this is a game about staring at your board and figuring out how to maximize your turn. In a four-player game, you will spend a lot of time waiting for other players to finish sliding locations and flipping rays to do a thing. It's like playing a game of Terraforming Mars where everyone is going for the blue "fiddle around with microbes and animals for five minutes every round" strategy.
And the advanced rules do very little to improve the experience. The Kings make the game swing-y and unbalanced, while the advanced goals just make the game last a little longer. This game is largely just a puzzle, and I didn't find the puzzles terribly compelling.
Also, I should mention one other little quibble with this game: the ray tokens are called "Mantas" in the rule book, but they don't look at all like Manta rays.
Nothing else in this game tries to represent a real-world marine creature, so it is really strange that they used a real-world critter for the tokens. That said, I think this is demonstrative of the game as a whole. There are some interesting ideas in the production and game design here, but the thematic integration just doesn't quite line up. It feels like some of the details were rushed or executed out of order in a way that leaves me unsatisfied.
You should not play Aquatica. If you want a game where you race against opponents to complete victory conditions, Race for the Galaxy remains one of the best ever. And if you want to enjoy beautiful marine art while playing a board game, Oceans provides equally outstanding art with much more interesting gameplay. Aquatica isn't awful, but there are plenty of better ways to spend your time.
So it's been . . . eight months since my last review? Sorry about that. Grad school has definitely kept me busy for a while now, and it's been hard to find time to play board games, let alone write about them! But the semester is over and I'm going to try and get a few more reviews out this summer before I get busy again.