15 February 2021
Passive aggression in the polynesian pacific
Peer Sylvester has been on a bit of a roll this year. Following the pastoral garden rivalry of Village Green and the long awaited second edition of The King is Dead (reviewed in issues 47 and 49 respectively), Sylvester is back with Polynesia; a lean and beautifully produced game of route building in the Pacific.
Taking an already attractive theme in the form of the seafaring triumphs of ancient Polynesia, Sylvester takes things up a notch through the addition of an imminent volcanic explosion. Players will be attempting to save their tribes from this molten fate through the exploration of the vast Pacific seas, hoping to establish safe routes between distant islands. Along the way they will fish for resources and trade navigational knowledge with other tribes, in an effort to prosper in the wake of a natural disaster.
Gameplay involves players calculating the most efficient means of claiming the routes needed to transport their tribes to a variety of islands. But, to win, not only must they flee far enough from the main island, but also occupy valuable point-scoring and resource generating islands. A set of three random tide cards also dictate any rules changes or additional end game scoring.
All of this is rendered superbly tricky thanks to Polynesia’s clever round structure, whereby the efficacy or expense of the game’s four actions decline over the three turns in a round.As an example, taking a travel action in the first turn will grant three movement points but only one in the third. This mechanic leads to some fascinatingly difficult decisions; do you pay three fish to grab a route early, in the hopes of travelling it this turn, or pay only one at the end of the turn?
But, this isn’t the only impressive quirk to Sylvester’s design, who seems intent on squeezing every ounce of ingenuity into Polynesia’s slick gameplay. Two resources exist in the game; shells and fish. Each round one of the two will spoil as determined by the start player, eradicating the supplies of everyone at the table. It’s a simple and thematic twist that adds tension whilst deterring any attempts to monopolise on resources. Similarly thematic is the unpredictable volcanic endgame, triggered by the blind drawing of a sixth red lava cube. Despite this fitting well with the setting, it can be occasionally frustrating having your plans foiled by an unlikely premature finale.
Whilst this is a competitive game, Polynesia’s rules encourage an element of cooperation. Previously claimed routes can be travelled by anyone, under the condition that the owner both accompanies that player and is paid for their troubles. But this friendly collaboration is perhaps more deceptive than it seems, especially when considering that players will likely not want to be dragged around the map. Although, on the other hand, perhaps they do?
The curious pondering over these devious little rules is where Polynesia truly shines, but some players may find that the game’s relatively short playtime leaves little room to fully explore them. Consequently, Polynesia’s crunchy route building seems best suited to a families who perhaps cut their teeth on Ticket to Ride. There’s a greater depth to decisions here, perfect for those looking to explore the hobby further without straying too far from familiarity.
But for less casual players, Polynesia may still have enough to offer thanks to its deceptively competitive nature and some interesting player interactions. It might not reach the levels of strategy and complexity that its moderate scale may imply, but it’s undeniably clever in its own little way.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
Sylvester’s mantra of ‘make it as simple as possible’ shines through in Polynesia’s fun and refined gameplay. In fact any budding designers could do far worse than to look to Polynesia for a crash course in slick efficiency.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED TICKET TO RIDE
Worth keeping in mind for those looking to graduate from Alan R Moon’s modern bestseller.
Designer: Peer Sylvester
Publisher: Ludo Nova
Time: 75 minutes
This review originally appeared in Issue 51 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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