Review: Reef Encounter

Reef Encounter, by Richard Breese, is a very deep thinking tile placing game for 2 to 4 people. As the name suggests, we go under water here to the fascinating, rich world of corals, shrimp and parrotfish. Well... the play is definately fascinating at any rate. The theme might not be everyones' first pick, but it works really well here. I'll give Mr. Breese lots of credit for a unique theme which the game is strongly built around. The ebb and flow of coral growth and decline as they attack each other and get eaten is wonderful to behold. Beware though, the game is a bit of a brain burner and can be prone to analysis paralysis.

Original Cover by Richard's sister, Juliet
Image by Fawkes

As mentioned, 2 to 4 players may play and the game works equally well, I believe, for any amount. The size of the board scales with the player count – actually, it's the amount of boards that are put into play that scales here. Expect a really tense game with turns that play out a little like puzzles as players determine what combinations of actions and assets to expend.

Game play is a little difficult to explain as everything effects everything else, but basically we're looking at a tile laying game that is a bit aggressive. If you like Tigres and Euphrates, you might just like this game as there is a similar feel to growing an area and attacking others. This is where the similarities end, however, as the theme dictates some unusual game play. The goal of the game is to feed one's parrotfish the most and strongest coral. Each player has their own parrotfish which is an individual small tower, sort of like a stubby El Grande tower with graphics. You only get to feed your fish four times, however, and the game ends. To this end, players place polyp tiles down on the common boards to form larger coral structures with which to feed their fish. In conjuction to this, other components are expended to allow placement and to switch the pecking order of their coral types from weaker to stronger. Such an action will increase players' VPs in the end.

Oh boy. Here we go. Much has been said about the look of the original production both good and bad – particularly in comparison to the newer ZMan production. For myself, I really like the original. As an artist and designer, myself, I've strong opinions – mostly negative – of the newer production, which I won't go into at this time. Suffice it to say that opinion is split on this and it boils down to taste for most people. ... and of course one's pocketbook as the original limited edition Breese version will set you back over 100 bucks. At first blush, I don't think I was as enthusiastic of the look of the original cover, but it has grown on me and I really think it is quite handsome. The artwork, created by Breese's artist sister, Juliet, has an odd (in a good way), fantastical look to it. The colors are relatively flat and somewhat pastel. There is a sparkle feel to the cover. The game title is made from coral bits which has something of a näive feel to it, but it is friendly, approachable and fun.

Inside, we have the same look and feel on each of the four common player mats and the tiles – that of a soft, friendly tone. To add to the wimsey, we have some fun wooden shrimp pieces with painted eyeballs. Nice. There are plenty of other wooden pieces to fiddle with which is very satisfying. Of particular interest are the tiles, every one of which has been drawn differently – wonderful! Each color coded tile represents one of five polyp types and is unique. So charming it is to see a little sea snail crawling on this coral bit or that one. Just the subtile changes from tile to tile alone give the populated board a life to itself. Whether one notices the changing artwork or not, the overall effect of the modulating artwork increases the "human touch" and charm of this game which can be felt. This is how games should be created! Unfortuately, artists and publishers mostly don't take the time for such detail and this makes Breese's work that much more desirable. All this said, there is one valid common complaint to the tile artwork: the gray tile. Unfortunately, the gray tiles are very close in tone and color to the white polyp pieces. This hurts play a bit as it is a little struggle to differentiate. The ZMan production has corrected this problem, though.

Each player also gets a much needed aid card, which covers all the actions available each turn. This is also an element that could have used a bit more thought. It's layout is confusing and does not help to clarify turns as much as it should. For example, an arrow graphic sweeps behind each of the 8 actions, which implies some sort of linear order, which is infact not the case. But, after a play or two, one will have the actions down and it works fine.

Game Play
As mentioned, the goal of the game is to feed the most and best coral to one's parrotfish. To do this, a player grows clusters of corals on the playing boards through the placement of polyp tiles (the uniquely illustrated tiles that I previously mentioned). Only one cluster of coral can be fed to one's fish per turn. The game then ends when a player has fed his fish for the forth time. There are a few other ways the game might end, but this is by far the most common one. At this point, each other player in turn has the option of a final feed to their fish after which, the game ends. The contents of each player's fish are then revealed and players then score each of the individual tiles that were fed. Scores are determined by the amount of tiles as well as how strong that particular coral type is. More on the strength later, but know then that throughout the game, players will be looking to get lots of tiles into their fish while trying to manipulate a sort of scale (or pecking order) of the corals to their advantage.

Players play in turn, each turn being divided into three phases. In the first phase, a player may feed their fish one of their corals, which is made up of individual polyp tiles. Certain conditions need to be met here in order to feed and generally this won't happen until at least a few turns into the game. As mentioned, when a player feeds their fish for the fourth time, that triggers the endgame. The second phase is the action phase. In this phase, there are 7 different actions, which I will go over later, which one may take (generally in any order). Basically, players here are doing two primary things: placing tiles onto the board to either hurt other players' corals or increase their own and manipulating an area of a board that is sort of a visual power scale of the 5 different coral types. This scale is made up of "Coral Tiles" which determines the corals' strength relative to each other. Finally, the third phase is a tile replenishment phase. This gives players the opportunity to bring polyp tiles and "larva cubes" back into their hands.

At this point, let me talk about the boards. During setup, the player count will determine how many common boards are put into play. This is a number equal to the player count. Each board has a different shaped rock which is on a grid for play surrounded by water which is out of play. It is here, on the rocks, that players will place their polyp tiles. As each board's rock is surrounded by water, each rocks remain a separate playing field that any player may play on. Each board's rock has starting positions for all five polyp tile colors, which is like a single freebie and one of each is played on their corresponding spots. Additionally, in the center of each board/rock is a lighter colored space that indicates a freebie growth spot. There is also another board called an open-sea board. Essentially, this is a place to hold extra replenishment tiles and cubes as well as a place where the coral tiles are placed. As mentioned, these coral tiles are indicators as to which coral is more powerful to another and is a place where players will try and manipulate.

Here we have a four player setup with four common play boards and the open-sea board to the left. At setup one colored tiles of each type is placed on each board as per an icon on the boards.
Image by Akke

Now that I've described the boards, let's look at what is in front of you. Each player has a screen which keeps certain pieces secret and, as mentioned, has a parrotfish tower. Behind one's screen will be one's polyp tiles, wooden cubes called larva cubes and four cute little wooden shrimps, color coded the player's color. In front of one's screen, can also be more polyp tiles that are captured through attacks in the coarse of the game. Polyp tiles come in five flavors (gray, white, yellow, pink and orange). The larva cubes have corresponding colors. The polyp tiles and larva cubes behind one's screen are a player's hand. This is the bread and butter of your arsinal. The polyp tiles that you capture, which will be in front of your screen, are your special forces that have unique powers.

Ok, onto the game. First, I will start with phases 2 and 3 of your turn and return to phase 1 (Feeding Your Fish) later as it will be more clear then.

Phase 2: Actions Phase. There are basically 7 different actions one can take, one of which is simply to pass, in which case a player will go to phase 3. Some of the remaining 6 actions can only be used a limited number of times, while others can be played as many times as one wants. They can be done in any order one wishes. With so many possibilities of actions and sequences, this is where those prone to AP can really bog things down. The actions (which are numbered differently than in the printed rules) are as follows:

Action 1: Place tiles. Here, players will place a maximum of 4 matching polyp tiles from behind their screen onto the board. In order to do so, one must expend a matching colored cube (larva cube) also from behind their screen. In addition to a maximum of the four tiles from behind the screen, a player may place any amount of matching colored polyp tiles from in front of their screen. I'll explain the specifics of tile placement later, but this is the way you will grow your coral and attack others.Very important: This action may only be done twice. The second time can be the same colored tiles or a different ones. Either way, a matching cube will be expended just as was done with the first set.

Action 2: Introduce a Shrimp. This can only be done once per turn. Here, a player takes a shrimp from behind one's screen and places it onto any polyp tile in play on the rocks, with two exceptions. Only one shrimp may inhabit any one polyp tile – they can't stack. Only one shrimp may inhabit a coral. Corals are defined as orthonogally adjacent, like-colored polyp tiles. What do shrimp do? Well, they protect the polyp tiles and mark whose coral is whose. These shrimp will protect the polyp tile they are sitting on as well as any of the four to each side of them from attack from other corals. Also, your fish will only eat corals that have your colored shrimp on them.

Action 3: Move a Shrimp. This can be done as much as one wants per turn. Any of one's shrimp that are currently in play on a rock, may be moved onto any polyp tile (with the restrictions I just mentioned in Action 2) or temporarily onto the rock. This is the only action that can also take place in the middle of another action. More on that later, but know that a shrimp can be moved at any time.

Action 4: Exchange a Consumed Polyp Tile for Larva Cube. The consumed polyp tile is one which will be in front of your screen. You get it when attacking other polyp tiles on the board. The cube must be a matching color as the exchanged polyp tile. The new polyp tile is then put behind the screen for later use. So here you can see that if you don't have a cube matching your polyp tiles behind your screen, you can trade a matching one from in front of the screen in, in order to play those polyp tiles (as in Action 1).

Action 5: Acquire and Play an Alga Cylinder. Here you may also use your captured polyp tiles in front of the screen to trade in for one of these wooden "alga" cylinders. The cylinders must be played immediately. They come in 4 color varieties and have no color correlation to either the polyp tiles or cubes. Instead, they have a very important new function. Remember how I talked of the Coral Tiles which are on the open-sea board? These 10 tiles determine which coral is stronger than the other. By using this cylinder, one can flip the strength of certain corals so that they are weaker or stronger than other corals. This is very important both for scoring and for protecting your corals on the rocks. These Coral Tiles are essentially binary, two-sided tiles displaying two of the five colored polyp tiles. One one side, one color is stronger. On the reverse side, the other color is stronger. For instance, one coral tile might be orange/white. One side will say white beats orange. The other orange beats white. So it is that each of the 10 Coral Tiles in turn displays a unique combination of two colored polyps and which of the two are stronger. In addition to these two colors, on each side is other set of colors which is an indication of which cylinder played will effect that Coral Tile. There are 4 cylinder colors. There are two ways to play the cylinder, though to keep things simple I won't explain the conditions for playing these two ways. One may play the cylinder in a space that is next to the Coral Tiles. Playing here flips (or reverses) all Coral Tiles with that cylinder's color on it. In this way, a player will be changing a few different coral relationships. The second way to play the cylinder is to play directly on top of Coral Tile. That tile must have the same color indication as the cylinder you're playing. Doing this will permanently lock that Coral Tile into place, thus locking that relationship down for the remainder of the game. It will also flip over any other Coral Tiles that happen to have the cylinder color on them. Remember how I had said earlier that when scoring, one counts how many tiles a fish has eaten as well as how powerful the tiles are? Well, the more Coral Tiles that say a certain color wins over another color, the more valuable that colored polyp tile is for your your fish to eat! Knowing when to play these cylinders is tricky as they flip over more than one Coral Tiles at a time. Often I am making a sacrifice by locking down a color I want while another color flips over impacting me negatively. This can be very tricky.

Action 6: Exchange a Larva Cube for A Polyp Tile. Any cubes you have behind your screen can be converted to a polyp tile of the same color. This polyp tile will go behind your screen as well.

Phase 3: Replenishment Phase. Essentially, here you are taking one cube and anywhere from 1 to 3 polyp tiles from the open-sea board and putting them behind your screen. This is the primary way to get tiles for placement on the board. On the open-sea board are five spaces, each with a different colored cube. In addition to one cube, are 1 to 3 polyp tiles that are randomly taken out of a bag and so placed at the end of a player's turn. I won't go into the details here, but this is a very nice way to plan ahead based on what is available. Also, there are hard choices to be made here as the combinations of cubes and polyp tiles create situations where only a few of the tiles or cube grabbed may be helpful.

Placement of Tiles
Tiles may be placed on any board(s) as outlined in Action 1. You'll want to cluster like-colored polyp tiles together to form coral. A coral is two or more othognogally adjacent, like-colored tiles. In fact, you'll want to be forming super-sized corals. This is because your fish can only eat one coral per turn and when she does, she eats the whole thing. The bigger the coral, the more tiles she eats and the bigger the score. Players may choose to attack other corals as well. To do so, the attacking coral must be at least two polyp tiles large and must be a stronger color (as indicated on the Coral Tiles previously mentioned) than the ones you are attacking. Additionally, if the opposing coral has a shrimp on it, the coral may not be the same color that you are attacking with. (Infact, in order to create clear borders, like-colored corals both with shrimp may not connect.) It may become necessary to move a shrimp from one coral to this new attacking one when attacking a coral that has a shrimp. This is why shrimp movement is the only action that can occur in the middle of another action. If one can attack and wishes to do so, they place the tile in place of the captured tile and put the captured polyp tile in front of their screen. You may now use this captured tile on any subsequent action. A player may continue to devour the other polyp tiles in this coral if they wish. Also, remember that the shrimp protect polyps they are next to or are on. So, even if your coral color is more powerful, if a shrimp is protecting a polyp, you cannot attack it. Due to the assemetrical shapes of the rocks and different shaped rocks on each board, there are many natural places to hide along the edges and protect the coral from attack. This, combined with careful placement of shrimp, can make for a fully protected coral, even if the color is not powerful – there simply may be no place another player can get to you by. Another thing to note, is that you may wish to attack another one of your own corals to devour some polyp tiles for later conversion into cylinders or cubes. You may also even wish to expand an opposing player's coral! This might happen when they are in the position to attack another player – you can use their coral to do the attacking with polyp tiles you add. This is especially helpful if a neighboring coral can be split in half with a single strategically placed tile. So much to do here that at times it can be a little mind boggling to try to optimize a turn!

Phase 1: Feeding Your Fish. Now that you can picture activity on the board, I'll explain the first phase. Here, at the beginning of your turn, you may choose to eat one complete coral (and the shrimp that's on it). The restriction here is that the coral must be at least 5 polyp tiles big to so do. The first 4 tiles will be discarded. Any remaining tiles and the shrimp that was on the coral is put in your fish – eaten. As you feed your fish more and more, you will have less shrimp to protect your corals and thus will be playing a little differently.

End of Game
There are a number of ways the game might end, but the one I will mention is when one player feeds their fish for the fourth time. This triggers the endgame and each player will in turn have a last chance to feed their fish one of their corals. However, as a penalty for not reaching the fourth feed first, the other players will have to discard 5 polyp tiles instead of the usual 4. This means that the remaining players will need corals that are 6 polyp tiles large in order to eat. Scoring is easy. Each tile your fish eats is worth 1Vp + 1VP for any Coral Tiles in which that color is strong. In this way, each consumed tile is worth anywhere from 1 to 5VPs depending on strength.

I've probably played 10 times now and each time I play this game, I see someone make a move or combination of moves that I hadn't ever considered. With so many actions that can be executed in any order and so many possible moves, things can seem very complicated. Primarily, the game boils down to a tile laying, asset management game. Finding ways to squeeze another polyp tile of a certain color through successful attacks, is much of what you will be doing as the polyp tiles you want, won't always be handed to you in phase 3.

I would recommend this game to anyone who does not mind aggressive play or deep thinking as this game has plenty of both. This is not a light game by any means. While the rules are not too complicated, the combinations of things to do can be overwhelming. If you or someone you know is prone to AP, stay away from this one! I really think this a fantastic game. It's very fun to play, engaging, has the right amount of luck that is controlled by some look ahead, and has a fun theme to boot! While not for everyone, for me, Reef Encounter is the best or near best game that I've yet played.

- mike