Going with the flow
The River. As far as game names go, it’s not exactly the most exciting or memorable title around. Heck, it’s not even the best river-related moniker this year – Yellow & Yangtze’s alliteration has seen to that. Still, The River is probably the perfect name for this particular game, a fast-flowing and refreshing enough experience that’s enjoyable to dip into but eventually finds itself lost in the vast tabletop sea.
The River is a game of tributaries. From one direction flows in light worker-placement, as players assign their pioneers to a wide central board and collect resources: stone, wood, clay and the vague ‘food’, a wild resource that somewhat comically implies turkeys are a suitable replacement for bricks and lumber when constructing buildings. These VP-earning structures are another choice on the main board, with reserving one of the cards at the cost of an action saving a resource later on – and the risk of an opponent building it first.
The worker-placement is joined by a literal stream of tableau-building that winds through each player’s individual board, with terrain tiles acquired from the middle placed along their waterway to gain points, extra resources and the warehouses needed to store them. The layout of the tiles matters, with points awarded for columns (but not rows) of matching terrain – swapping tiles around will cost you an action, so it’s best to plan ahead as you discover territory along your personal brook.
It’s a mechanical mingling that’s nothing overly new but lukewarm enough by itself to appreciate. Creators Sébastien Pauchon and Ismaël Perrin do manage to bring something fresh to the table that makes The River stand out a little more, though. Where many worker-placement games ramp up as players gradually acquire more meeples and take more actions each round, in The River your pioneers will periodically settle down along the watercourse, leaving you with fewer options – and making the decreasing number of actions you take increasingly more important.
It’s a smart reversal that encourages players not to simply rush for the best terrain tiles and quickly diminish their options – constructing two buildings earlier on will give you both more points and an extra pioneer, counterbalancing the loss of those that leave your crew along the way – and ensures that The River keeps flowing smoothly throughout its sub-hour play time.
In some ways, it’s a little too smooth. The accessible strategy and steady pace of The River make it very easy to pick up and enjoy, but its quirks aren’t quite enough to elevate the blend of familiar gameplay elements underneath. The punchy visuals and easily-taught rules might make it a decent way to introduce newcomers to gameplay concepts well-worn by slightly heavier games, yet you’re unlikely to find much to keep you engrossed for long if you’ve played anything similar before.
Like its vague name, the game is left feeling a little indistinct – it’s comfortable and enjoyable to play while you’re floating in its temperate waters, but it’s unlikely you’ll remember it (or its name) once you drift back out in the wide sea of games available.
The River is a gentle, enjoyable enough trip along familiar banks. If you’re looking for light strategy to splash around in, there’s plenty here to appreciate – just don't expect anything overly surprising.
Designer: Sébastien Pauchon, Ismaël Perrin
Artist: Andrew Bosley
Time: 30-45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the November 2018 issue 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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