Bora Bora: A four-sided game review

BoraBora_boxBora Bora is a board game from renowned German euro game designer Stefan Feld. It’s certainly not a game for beginners, but still falls into the ‘medium weight’ category – largely due to play time (under two hours) and familiarity (anyone used to playing euro games will be on safe ground).

It plays two to four players with very little discernible difference in play between numbers. The art style is consistent and high quality throughout, while the components are standard if not spectacular; so well worth the £30 price tag.

In terms of mechanism, Bora Bora follows in the seemingly limitless line of Stefan Feld designs that combines dice rolling with action selection, resource gathering and multiple ways to score points (or “just another Feld point salad game”, if you’re one of his detractors). So what, if anything sets this one apart from the rest?

Each player rolls three dice on their turn and will use them for actions. High rolls tend to make actions better, but you can only place dice onto action spaces if they are lower than any already there – making low dice good blockers. But there are plenty of ways to mitigate this, meaning it tends to be more of an inconvenience than a deeper frustration. You then get to do up to two extra actions, depending on who you have added to your tribe during the game.

Like any good euro game, the real problem is wanting to do way more in each turn than your limited actions allow – other players may get in your way, but your frustration with yourself is likely to be higher than with others. It can be hard to stay focused on what the right options are to maximise your points, and when to do them, while keeping an eye on possible blocking moves and ways to mitigate against them.

Teaching

Bora Bora player boardsThanks to an intuitive board layout, great icons and actions that make at least basic thematic sense, Bora Bora is relatively easy to teach to semi-experienced gamers. This isn’t a thematic game by any stretch, but nothing about it jars.

While the iconography is good, the player boards have pretty much all of them squeezed on, making them look daunting rather than informative. They’re useful after a play or so, but at first it’s best to steer player attention away from them!

Luckily the main board itself is more useful. One whole area is dedicated to the end of turn sequence, while the actions you use during a turn are straightforward. Hidden information is limited to a few cards and these are also relatively simple to grasp – plus there are only a few different types on offer.

Another plus is that each player starts with some objectives, one of which they’ll need to complete in the first turn to score some points. This immediately focuses the mind on an objective, giving new players a route to take in what otherwise could’ve been a pretty bewildering set of choices.

At the start of each turn, all players roll their dice then take it in turns to use one each to do an action. This means turns are snappy and players soon get to see how each of the available actions works. Yes, there is a lot going on – but if you encourage players to hone in on the things they need to do to score their tiles in the first play it will focus minds.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m always charmed by this kind of colourful island setting in a game (Maori is another great example), while I’m also a pretty big Feld fan, so Bora Bora was always likely to be a winner. And while it doesn’t add much that’s new I do find it has a unique tension, cleverly exacerbating the ‘want to do everything’ feeling with the promise of end game bonus points. Sure, I’d prefer a shorter set up time but once the game gets going that little bit of effort seems well worth it.
  • The thinker: In terms of balancing strategy and tactics, this could well be Feld’s best design so far – although I can see it being a little busy for some, who may prefer the more mechanically streamlined Luna. But as a fresh challenge, once you’ve got past the graphical bombardment to the game’s subtleties, I think this is one of the designer’s finest achievements so far. There may also initially be a little too much luck for some, but I haven’t found it stops the best player winning – it just presents some interesting problems in achieving it.
  • The trasher: While Bora Bora definitely isn’t my kind of game, there is some solid space for screwage; especially when thinking about turn order. You get one new end-game tile per round, chosen in turn order, so a late choice can leave you high and dry. These are worth six points each, which is a significant amount, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. But overall I can take it or leave it and certainly won’t care if I never play it again.
  • The dabbler: I don’t think people expected me to like this one, but – surprise! The lovely artwork and colours drew me in, then the gameplay hooked me; love it. It’s not a game I do well at, but that said it’s one I’m determined to improve at. You learn a little something each time you play and can see where you’ve gone wrong; nothing in the game is complex, it’s more about managing your own expectations and not trying to do too much. There’s also more interaction than it at first seems, with the dice placement and turn order jostling creating a nice game atmosphere.

Key observations

Bora Bora board and bitsThe most common complaint you can see coming a mile off – nothing new, boring, just another euro/Feld, themeless etc etc. Well done for playing a game (you were pretty sure you wouldn’t like anyway) once and walking away before really giving it a chance.

However I have seen arguments that there’s a pretty clear winning strategy that makes the game a little formulaic once you’ve discovered it. However this isn’t oft mentioned and I can’t say I’ve spotted it yet (which will come as no surprise to anyone who plays with me!). Even if this is true, I think it will only be an issue for a certain type of hardcore gaming group – and they are very much in the minority.

Another criticism is the game’s components are overly busy and that Bora Bora is a very fiddly game (even for Feld) – or that the artwork is garish and annoying. I think these are fair arguments (the art style is purely a matter of taste) and if I could have a version that was slightly less graphically bombastic I’d take it. But after you’ve played half a game I don’t think it gets in the way any more. Overblown? Yes. But a long term problem or barrier to play? Not really.

Conclusion

Bora Bora actionsBora Bora has already taken its place alongside my older Stefan Feld favourites (Notre Dame, Macao, Castles of Burgundy, Rialto) as one of my collection I regard most highly. It’s intelligent, colourful, fun and engaging in all the ways his best games tend to be.

Is it a point salad? Yup. Is it typically Feld? Abso-bloody-lutely. Sure, it’s not going to change the hearts and minds of those who aren’t fans of his work, but what do I care? As long as there are still Feld fans to play with (and there always will be), I’ll be happy.

If you’re a fan of the likes of Trajan, Macao and Castles of Burgundy this comes highly recommended. If you’re new to the designer and looking for a good starting point, I’d say this is great for a semi-experienced gamer or above – but if not, perhaps Castles of Burgundy or Notre Dame may be better places to start your Feldian adventures.

Rialto: A four-sided game review

Rialto boxRialto is an area majority board game, from renowned designer Stefan Feld, that cleverly incorporates card drafting and bidding. It was released in 2013, plays two-to five players in about an hour, and retails for around £30.

While set in Venice, the game couldn’t be more abstract; those who need theme in games need not apply. However, the rest of us can pretend we’re vying for control of the six districts of the city (over six turns) while also erecting valuable buildings to support our cause – and, of course, earning the most victory points in the process.

The components aren’t much to write home about but do the job perfectly well (with one exception, the score track – more on that later). The cards are small (original Ticket to Ride size) but work well and are high quality; the cardboard money and wooden pieces are bog standard, while the board is clear and stylish, if a little light on interesting detail.

There is one fiddly part of set up, as you need to stack 12 piles of cardboard buildings on the board. If you separate them up in baggies this isn’t much of a chore and anyone used to setting up a game such as Puerto Rico or Endeavor will be used to it anyway! Otherwise, it’s very easy to get up and running.

Teaching

Rialto player aidRialto’s gameplay is very simple and the eight-page rulebook does a great job of explaining all the moving parts. There’s a double-page set up spread, components page, a page each for cards and buildings and a page of variants; so yes, the actual gameplay is described over just two pages.

Teaching the game is a breeze. Each of the six rounds has three phases; card drafting, card playing and clean up. Four of the 12 different buildings you can buy have effects on each of these three phases, adding plenty of variation and room for multiple strategies. There is a round summary printed on the board too, for easy reference, while the player boards are very simple and intuitive.

Drafting is clever yet simple. You deal one more set of six face-up cards than there are players (so four in a three-player game) and each player chooses a set, adding two cards from the face down stack. You then discard down for a hand of seven.

Phase two is the meat of the game. It consists of six set actions all players can take – as long as they play the appropriate cards. The cards you draft come in seven varieties; one for each of these actions, plus a wild. Anyone who bids on an action will do it – but the person who bids most gets a bonus. The actions let you:

  1. Rialto cardsAffect turn order
  2. Get money (to pay to use your buildings)
  3. Get buildings
  4. Get victory points
  5. Get councilmen (placed to gain majorities in areas)
  6. Place councilmen (in this round’s district)

It’s two of the bonuses that make things interesting: action four lets you place a bridge, while the winner of action five places a gondola. These bridges/gondolas are placed between districts (you can place in any empty spot on the board on any turn) and will define the value of both districts they span in final scoring.

Bridges score high, between 3-6 points, so you’ll want them with their higher scoring end in districts you’ll win. Conversely Gondolas all score 1-1 but let you place a ‘free’ councilman at one end, possibly giving you the upper hand in a district – or giving you a way into a district you’d missed (or want a head start in).

Every area has four spots available, so an area’s value can be as high as 24 or as low as 4 (perhaps lower, as if no one bids a gondola or bridge card in a round that item simply isn’t placed). At game end, the player with most councilmen in an area scores those points; the person in second scores half that and the player in third halves the score again. Simple.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: You have to admire Rialto’s drafting. As with all Feld games, you want to do everything every round – but this adds a delicious twist. Choosing first is great, as you get your pick – but the players drawing after you know what you’re going for and can act accordingly. But what were your blind picks? And what will you use your wild cards for? Maybe you’ll even hold some back for next round.
  • The thinker: Once again, Feld has managed to create a subtly confrontational strategy game where both long term planning or tactical nous could be the winning gambit. At first, turn order can seem a mixed blessing – but the turn order track also breaks all ties. In a game where many districts may be tied on some level, this can be huge. But go too hard on it and you’ll be short elsewhere. A tremendous game.
  • The trasher: Must… have… water. How… can… game… set… in… Venice… be… so… DRY?! I was bored looking at it, then I perked up a little at the drafting. But once you’ve got your cards in hand, what you do with them is simply boring. Sure, there can be moments where a well played card can be the difference between winning or losing a district – but it’s a bit like cricket; by the time that one exciting six is whacked out of the ground I’ve probably already dropped off.
  • The dabbler: Rialto is a pretty sweet game, although not really to my tastes. It looks pretty ordinary and never really gets the heart pumping, while interaction is at a minimum and you always need to be concentrating on what’s going on. The tight nature of the area control mean you can get some table banter going on with the right crowd, while it’s simple enough to teach almost anyone. So while I wouldn’t pick it myself, I don’t mind playing it sometimes – but not too regularly, thanks very much.

Key observations

Rialto buildingsSome have claimed Feld’s games can get unfairly high ratings as those knowing they don’t like his games won’t try them – so won’t give them the likely low marks games from unknown designers would get. I think Rialto suffers from quite the opposite; it’s not ‘Feldy’, but those not usually liking his games probably won’t give it a go – which is a real shame.

For dissenting Feld fans, Rialto is often described as too light and seemingly unoriginal – and at worst dull or uninspired. Words such as “smooth” and “standard” mock it with faint praise, while it is somehow criticised for being over balanced, too swingy AND having a dominant strategy. The latter criticisms are often coupled with ‘played once’, which is a shame as the game comes into its own after a few plays – but bored, uninspired players aren’t going to get that far and why should they?

I feel the theme and components play a massive part here. The box itself is wonderfully stylish, but it’s really hard to be ‘wowed’ by what’s inside. Worse still the old Venice theme is far from original, and with no real reason to use it here it seems to weigh the game down to dull before you even get going. All I’d say is that if you can see past the theme, and like area control games – and specially drafting/bidding mechanisms – I’d recommend trying to see the wood for the trees before writing this one off.

Rialto score trackFinally, speaking of what’s in the box, the one component issue hinted at earlier is the absolutely terrible score track on the game board.

You are meant to move the scoring markers between these small artistic street lamps and while it looks pretty, it’s totally counter intuitive to do and a real barrier to keeping things flowing – especially as only the ‘5’ and ’10’ spaces are marked with numbers. Sorry, but the graphic designer that let this get past them needs shooting; I can mount no defence!

Conclusion

Rialto isn’t a game for everyone, but certainly is a game for me – and despite it being the least publicised/loved of Feld’s 2013 releases it has sill found its way into the BGG Top 500. It averages over 7 in the rankings and I personally rate it 7.5 out of 10.

Rialto scoring

11 points for blue, 5 for white, 2 for yellow

For me, the game offers a pretty unique blend of interesting mechanisms that should appeal to strategists – but probably not more tactical players. It is also surprisingly light and I wouldn’t be scared of putting it on front of relatively new gamers, although I’d want to be pretty confident it would be their sort of game (so new, not casual gamers).

Many strategists will easily see past the flimsy theme and enjoy this as the clever abstract game it is. And it’s definitely worth playing a few times before writing it off if you get any enjoyment from your first play; it is deceptively varied in terms of becoming ‘good’ at the game. Watching the draft becomes crucial, while ‘building’ strategies that initially seem weak soon become powerful once you understand them.

Overall, I feel that Rialto is better than the sum of its parts and deserves at least a few plays from any serious euro gamer.