Review – Aqua

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Designer Dan Halstad, Tristan Halstad

Artist Vincent Dutrait

Publisher The OP

Category Tile Drafting, Tableau Building

Length 30-45 minutes

Release Date 2024

Player Count 1-4

New from The OP, Aqua comes from Sidekick Games, a studio of established designers from Denmark. With striking artwork from Vincent Dutrait, the game looks great—let’s see how it plays!

Review

Aqua is a game of biodiversity in the oceans. In it, players develop habitats and coral reefs to attract marine life. The goal of the game is to earn the most points.

To begin, each player receives a starting tile, around which they will build their tableau. In the center, players make a display of animal tiles and a market of coral tiles.

On a player’s turn, they begin by taking a coral tile from the market. This tile is then added to the player’s tableau such that at least 1 edge matches an existing edge color-to-color.

Alternatively, if the sea snail token hasn’t already been claimed, a player may choose it as a temporary “pass” action. By doing so, they will delay their turn until everyone else has gone, and then go first in the following round.

If, by placing their tile, a player completes a hexagon of a single color, they create a habitat and place a small animal of that color on top. (The habitat must be a perfect hexagon, made up of exactly 3 coral tiles and with no excess area.)

If the player creates a contiguous group of 4+ corals of a single color (regardless of the group’s shape), this forms a reef. Reefs will score points at the end of the game for all adjacent, small animals.

Lastly, if a player has created a group of adjacent small animals, they may place a large animal on top of the group. (All small animals in the group must be unique.)

The game continues like this until players can no longer refill the tile market, a total of 17 rounds. At that time, players total their points from animal tiles, small animals next to reefs, and ecosystems. Ecosystems are objective-based scoring, which generally award bonus points for small animals of specific colors. The player with the most points wins!


Aqua is something of a mixed bag for me. I like the central puzzle of trying to arrange tiles to maximize points, but a few aspects of the game feel a little wonky to me. The difference between a reef and a habitat, for instance, can be odd to explain—if it’s a perfect hexagon, the animal goes on top, but if it’s 4 or more corals, nothing goes on top and you instead score for adjacent small animals.

Likewise, many ecosystem tiles score using a nested “for” loop (e.g. “For each bottlenose dolphin you have, score 3 points for every native small animal you have”). Neither of these aspects are mechanically complex, but they don’t feel very intuitive either, and new players may have a hard time wrapping their heads around what is really a pretty simple game.

That being said, there are other aspects I really do enjoy. The sea snail mechanism, for example, is a clever inclusion, something I haven’t seen much in other drafting games, and I like the ongoing challenge of trying to optimize the tableau. Additionally, the game is very vibrant and colorful, and the Vincent Dutrait artwork really pops. It’s fun to build out the tableau and admire a thriving ecosystem at the end.

While the theme of this game is pleasant, it is quite abstracted. I don’t view this as a problem, per se, but if someone is drawn to this game because of the ocean theme, they should know in advance that it is pretty thin. The production, even though it is just cardboard components, is high quality. The cardboard is thick and durable, and the visuals, again, are striking.

Bottom line, I like Aqua, but I’m not over the moon for it. The core game certainly keeps me interested and engaged, but in some respects, I feel like this game gets in its own way. It has a few rules that feel unintuitive, and others that might have been better left out. (For example, the requirement that all small animals be unique when placing a large animal. While this is perhaps thematic, since the large animal wants a variety of prey, as a rule, it doesn’t seem super necessary, and it’s just one more thing that a player might forget and become frustrated about later on.)

If Aqua is a game you’re interested in—and I think some people will indeed be interested in it—I’d recommend demo-ing it at your local game store. Personally, I’ll play it from time to time, when I’m in the right mood.

A review copy was provided by The OP.

The Bottom Line

At its core, Aqua is a simple tile drafting game, but a few wonky rules bog it down for me. I think some people will find it interesting, but for me, it's a game I'll probably only play once in a while.

 

6

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.