There are many characteristics usually associated with bad game designs. "Too many decisions" is one,
referring to games that overwhelm the players with options and lead to
"Convoluted" is another, referring to games where the link between an action and an objective contains so many
steps that the challenge is not to do the right things but to do things right. "Pasted theme" is a third,
referring to games where the theme does not help the players understand and apply the rules but rather add to the
confusion. Nobody would want to design such a game, let alone play it. Or?
In Reef Encounter, you simulatenously play a coral, a parrot fish and four shrimps, which choose between ten
actions (some of them in any order and any number of times) to pick, place, change strength of, change value of,
capture and convert resources into victory points. Does this sound fun or even comprehensible? Probably not, but let's not
dive into unknown waters straight away but rather enter the depth step by step.
The Objective: "Three-dimensional" Scoring
The objective of Reef Encounter is simply to accumlate victory points. Victory points come from polyp tiles
in five different colors. Polyp tiles are grouped by color to form corals, collected during up to four scoring
actions and multiplied by a number between two and five in the final scoring. Does this scoring sound arbitrary?
On the contrary, you as a player have control over each part of this scoring.
The polyp tiles that you collect are laid out by you (or, in certain cases, by your opponents). Do you want
to score through quantity? Build your coral as big as possible before collecting the polyp tiles! But will your
opponents leave your coral alone?
The scoring actions are chosen by yourself and a player's fourth scoring action triggers the game end for all
players. Do you want to score many times and end the game early? Choose the scoring action as soon as you can.
But then you won't have time to build big corals.
The value of the polyp tiles can be manipulated by you. Have you collected (or intend to collect) many white
polyp tiles? Then spend actions to increase the white value. But then your opponents may either try to decrease
the white value or take advantage of it by collecting more white polyp tiles than you.
This "three-dimensional" scoring opens up many strategic and tactical opportunities. Should you focus on one
color and maximize it? Should you stick to your chosen color or is it best to abandon it and focus on another
color? Is it best to increase your own score or to decrease your opponents' score? There are many examples of
simpler games that manage without much else and where the entire game is about knowing when to collect and when
to manipulate. However, Reef Encounter has more up its sleeve, namely the "too many" and "convoluted" actions.
But to understand the actions, we must first get to know the resources for accomplishing the actions so let's
introduce the inhabitants of the coral reef.
The Resources: The Inhabitants of the Coral Reef
In Reef Encounter, you have several resources at your disposal. First, you have one parrot fish. Actually,
this is just a container used for storing your collected polyp tiles and hiding your score from the other player.
Second, you have four shrimps. They are used to mark which corals that are owned by you and there may
never be more than one shrimp on the same coral. The shrimps also help defending your corals against other
corals. We'll get back to how corals attack each other later.
Third, you have larva cubes in the same colors as the polyp tiles. They are acquired during the game and
required to build corals - play one yellow larva cube to place yellow polyp tiles etc.
Fourth, you have alga cylinders in different colors. They are also acquired during the game and required to
change the scoring values - play one red alga cylinder to change all polyp tile values marked with red etc.
Fifth, you have the polyp tiles. Their function depends on whether they are kept hidden behind your screen or
open in front of your screen. They may always be used as building material for your corals but the ones in front
of your screen may also be used as a "currency" to acquire the larva cubes and alga cylinders.
I admit that you have to be a marine biologist to appreaciate the thematic links so let's move on to the actions.
Rememeber there are ten of them so take a deep breath before we dive into them.
The Actions: The Building and Consumption of Corals
The fixed actions: Score and refill polyp tiles
The first and the tenth actions are special. They must be taken as the first and the last action respectively,
that is you may not take any other action before the first one, nor any more actions after the last one.
The first action lets you remove one shrimp from the board together with all polyp tiles of its coral. Four of
the polyp tiles are discarded but the remainder goes to your parrot fish. This is the only action that lets you
place polyp tiles in your parrot fish and hence add them to your final score. It's not an easy decision, though,
since your shrimp is also discarded and hence leaves you with less influence on the board.
The tenth action lets you take resources from a supply that is refilled so that you always have one larva cube and
one to three polyp tiles to choose from and place behind your screen. This is the only action that lets you place
polyp tiles behind your screen and helps you "fuel up" your engine for the next round.
Wait, wouldn't it be easier to take polyp tiles first and score polyp tiles last? Yes, but Reef Encounter is
not supposed to be an easy game!
The flexible actions: Acquire and use resources
The remaining actions are the missing links between the polyp tiles behind your screen and the polyp tiles in
your parrot fish. They may be taken in any order and some of them may even be taken any number of times. Play
them well and you will play Reef Encounter well.
The 4th and the 5th action are used to move the shrimps. The 4th action may only be taken once to introduce a
shrimp to a board while the 5th action may be taken any number of times to move around the shrimp on or between the
Larva cube board actions
Action 2 and 3 may only be taken once each and lets you play a larva cube, which in turn lets you place polyp
tiles to the board (from behind or in front of your screen). One reason to do so is to build large corals for
your scoring action. However, there is another reason with important strategic implications: replace already
placed tiles and place them in front of your screen. This is the only action that lets you place polyp tiles here
but there are some preconditions for doing so.
First, the attacking coral must consist of at least two polyp tiles.
Second, the defending polyp tiles must not be defended by a shrimp. (A shrimp defends all orthogonally adjacent polyp
Third, the color of the placed polyp tile must be stronger than the color of the replaced polyp tile.
The relative strength between colors is random at start but can be manipulated with the 7th action, the Alga
Currently, orange is stronger than white as shown by the tile with two white squres and one
orange. Yellow (or any other player for that matter) may expand the orange coral at the expense of the white coral and
place the white polyp tiles in front of her screen.
Alga cylinder action
Action 7 lets you exchange a polyp tile in front of your screen (I told you they were powerful!) for an alga
cylinder and then use it to change the previously discussed polyp tile values. Not only does this change the
value of a certain polyp color but also its strength. Hence, a well timed alga cylinder can suddenly change the
strength balance on the board in your favor.
A red alga cylinder will flip the two red tiles. This will cause orange to become stronger than
white and white to be stronger than gray.
Larva cube exchange actions
Action 6 and 8 may be taken any number of times and let you exchange larva cubes for polyp tiles and vice
versa. Those actions may be good to get that missing tile or cube to execute your grand strategy.
There is a 9th action as well but it's simply a pass action if you don't wish to take any of actions 2-8.
Are you about to drown? Grab a snorkel set and enjoy!
Do you feel overwhelmed by the game so far? Let's reiterate what you have to do and you'll see that it's quite
Get polyp tiles and larva cubes in the same color. They are needed to place polyp tiles on the board.
Get your shrimps on the board. They are needed to protect your corals.
Get alga cylinders. They are needed to change the value and the strength of the polyp colors and you pay for them with polyp tiles from in front your screen.
Get polyp tiles in front of your screen, They are needed to acquire alga cylinders, larva cubes and polyp tiles and you get them by placing polyp tiles of stronger colors over polyp tiles of weaker colors.
"Eat" corals that are big enough. They will earn you victory Points in the end.
In this game, Yellow has already scored twice, proceeded to expand over her own pink and gray corals
back and forth to get tiles in front of the screen, and eventually won.
In this respect, Reef Encounter is much more straight-forward than your ordinary heavy euro game. This is not
a game about finding the most optimal way of converting resources into victory points. Instead, you must carefully
manage your shrimps, polyp tiles, larva cubes and alga cylinders to be able to accomplish your goal: a strong and
valuable coral. The slow way to do so is to rely on the 10th action to collect larva cubes and polyp tiles but
you'll never win in this way.
Instead, you must collect and maintain a set of resources that gives you the tactical means to execute your
strategy. Let's say that you have many white polyp tiles and want to build a strong white coral. Should you use
your 10th action to collect a white larva cube, although that won't give you any more white polyp tiles? Not
necessarily. It may be better to collet a pink larva cube, use pink polyp tiles to replace white polyp
tiles, then exchange one of those tiles for a white larva cube. You will now be able to place white polyp tiles
both from behind and in front of your screen AND you've made the white color more valuable.
This is only one of many examples of the strategic and tactical opportunities of Reef Encounter. It's a game
that gives opportunities to manage your resources and change the board conditions in your favor rarely seen in
other games. The rise and fall of the corals remind about
Tigris & Euphrates, the value manipulations is a common
element in economic games like Imperial
and the shifting power balances is not unlike the survival of the fittest
in Dominant Species.
The way Reef Encounter combines and simplifies those elements turns it into a unique
experience. Reef Encounter may not be the easiest game to grasp but its depth certainly makes it worth exploring!
The Quest for the Perfect Game is an endeavour to play a variety of games
and review them to extract the essence of each game. What you typically will
find in the reviews include:
What does the game want to be?
How does the player perceive the game?
What does the game do well and why?
What does the game do less well and why?
Is it fun?
What you typically will NOT find in the reviews include:
A detailed explanation of the rules.
An assessment of art, miniatures etc. with no impact on gameplay.
Unfounded statements like "dripping with theme" and "tons of replayability".
Unless stated otherwise, all the reviews are independent
and not preceded by any contacts with the game's stakeholders.
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