13 October 2022
It’s a heron eat pike eat frog eat fly world
In Aquarena, 2-4 players fight for survival within the ecosystem of a single pond. Each of you has an identical deck of creatures which prey on each other, from humans with their fishing rods down to a simple spider’s web. Each round, you’re going to be placing cards in various segments of the pond, some face-up, and the final cards facedown, with the goal of bagging as much lunch as possible.
The way this works is familiar, but no less clever for it. Each card has a sort of rock-paper-scissors relationship with the others – so, for example, a toad can eat up to two insects, but can be eaten by a pike or a heron; a pike can eat a toad but gets caught by a fish hook. The key wrinkle is that each creature also has a number, from 1-10, and when they’re revealed the cards are resolved in order, lowest first. This means that big scoring creatures like pikes, toads or carps won’t even get a chance to feed if they get eaten first.
Which would seem to suggest that the best cards to play are always the fish hook – which catches a fish is also numbered 1 – and the heron – which eats up to two amphibians and is numbered 2. Except that’s not the case, because if two or more fish hooks are revealed on the same zone they get tangled and catch nothing, and if two or more herons are revealed in the same zone they scare each other off and score nothing. Which means whatever’s left is free to score.
The result is a deliciously thinky game of cat-and-mouse – or frog and dragonfly – where you’re continually trying to predict what your opponents have done while maximising your own options. If you people see or guess you’ve put a fish hook down, they’ll either not put fish in that area – so there’s nothing to catch – or they’ll add their own fish hook to neutralise yours. No card in your deck is always good or bad – the trick is anticipating the other players’ moves and putting the right creature in the right place at the right time.
The artwork on the cards is great, the iconography is clear, and the card effects are neatly summarised on the back of the rulebook, so it is easy to reference them on your first couple of playthroughs. The game comes with lovely cardboard fly tokens and coloured frog meeples to track players’ scores.
So it’s a shame – given how much the game gets right – that the scoring system feels poorly worked out. Aquarena plays, according to the rulebook, for a set number of rounds. There are no mechanisms for players lagging behind to catch up, and a theoretical maximum number of points one can score in any given round.
This means it’s entirely possible – indeed, likely – for one or more players to find themselves so far behind before the game ends that it’s literally impossible for them to win. This means Aquarena often has a weird arc where the first rounds are the most exciting and the later ones feel like you’re just confirming the inevitable. Why the creators didn’t make it so the game ends when a player hits a certain number of points is unclear – it would resolve this problem immediately and result in a game that stayed tense (and winnable) until the very last round.
The good news is, you can ignore the rulebook and just play the game this way. We houseruled it and we’ve never looked back. Once you make that tweak, you’re left with a genuinely delightful, interesting, yet light and pacy game. It has an outsized table presence for such a compact box, near-zero downtime, and the reveal stage is dramatic and funny. Within the big pond of modern boardgaming, Aquarena is one game that is sure to find its niche.
PLAY IT? YES
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Raptor…
If you enjoy the numerical card-based battle of wits in games like Raptor, again this feels like a distant cousin while switching things up and allowing for more players.
Designer: Baptiste Le Corre
Publisher: Geek Attitude Games
Time: 30 minutes
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