Last year, a little game called Azul took the gaming world by storm. Every game has its detractors, but Azul was an overwhelming success, quickly selling through its initial print run and going on to win numerous, prestigious industry awards. So, naturally, all eyes were on publisher Next Move Games for their follow-up title, another bright, abstract game called Reef. This one is designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and finds players competing beneath the sea to create the most carefully-cultivated coral reefs. The question on everyone’s lips is, of course, is Reef as good as tabletop darling Azul was? And I’m here to tell you… to stop trying to compare apples and oranges. It’s a different game, from a different designer, and is good… in a completely different way.
What is Reef?
Designed by the same man who gave us Century: Spice Road and Century: Eastern Wonders, Reef is a compact little title for 2-4 players with a playtime of 30-45 minutes and a price tag of $39.99. While listed as a game for players 8-and-up, it’s a simple enough game to learn that it might even be appropriate for slightly younger children if they have the interest and patience.
What’s in the Box?
The box itself, wholly apart from the contents, is what’s most likely to catch your attention. In fact, back when Reef was first announced I knew absolutely nothing about the play itself, all I know was that I wanted to see more of this dazzlingly luminescent game.
The game includes:
- 4 player boards
- 112 Coral pieces (in 4 colors)
- 88 Point tokens (1s, 3s, 5s, 10s, and 20s)
- 60 Cards
- 1 Manual
The coral pieces are the heart of the game: immediately weighty and chunky in your hands, they clack together almost like marbles, locking together to rise and grow as your build your reef. It’s these pieces that seem, oddly, to make or break the game for many players. I’ve heard it remarked that they are “too bright” or that they look like “kids toys.” For my money, the coral pieces are delightful, their neon palette evoking the cheery, easy-to-learn game that Reef is.
In fact, next to the wonderful coral pieces, the rest of the game components feel decidedly ho-hum, especially the scoring tokens which feel utterly insubstantial existing in the same world as their heavy, interlocking counterparts.
How to Play Reef
One of the greatest selling points to Reef is its accessibility. It’s a cinch to learn and just as easy to teach, allowing a low barrier to entry as players can dive right in (pun intended).
Each player is randomly dealt a starting board (one of which contains a starfish, indicating first player) and then receives one coral of each color, which are placed in a 2×2 grid in the middle of their 4×4 board. Players then receive 2 starting cards, 3 more cards are dealt out face-up on the table with the deck also placed face-up. Finally, each player is given 3 1-point tokens and you’re ready to start.
Want to know how simple Reef is? On your turn you have exactly two options. Two. You can add a card to your hand or you can play a card out of your hand. It doesn’t get much easier than that. In fact, it’s deceptively easy because, as you learn the game, you’ll be thinking to yourself that it can’t possible pose much of a challenge or strategic puzzle. You would, however, be mistaken.
For the draw a card action, you can either freely take one from the display into your hand and replenish it from the deck or, if you prefer the top card of the deck, you can spend 1 point to take it, placing that point on the lowest-value card in the display. If you ever wish to take a card with a point token or points tokens on it, you also take all those tokens as a bonus.
Playing a card is only moderately more complicated. Each card has two parts to it. First, at the top, each card will give you 2 coral of the same or different colors that you must take from the supply and place anywhere on your board, even on top of other coral (although you should note that your stacks can never exceed 4 in height). This part of the action is mandatory, and you cannot choose to not play the coral indicated by the card you play, so you’d best be paying attention because the second part of the card is… scoring.
The lower half of each card will indicate a pattern of coral and a point value for every instance of that pattern. These patterns come in a variety of shapes, and you’ll want to keep your manual handy for your first game so you can check what a card means for scoring. Sometimes they will simply say that you need to have a certain color of coral in a certain shape (always on top, though) no matter the height of the stack. Other cards will stipulate, for example, that you will score points for each stack of at least 3, or exactly 4, etc. These may indicate a color of coral. They may not. There are scoring options of all shapes and sizes, the only constant is that the easier it is to achieve, the fewer points it will score you.
For example, a card may give you points for every purple coral visible (on top) in your reef, but it will only give you 1 point for each of those. Another card gives you points for each 2×2 square of yellow coral visible in your reef–this is much harder to accomplish, but the card will give you a whopping 6 points for each instance of this, meaning that if you play your cards right (pun, again, intended) that this one card could earn you 6 or 12 or even 18 points in a single go.
Play proceeds until 2 types of coral have been depleted from the supply, at which point the game ends and the player with the most points wins.
Will You Like Reef?
Reef is an absolutely fascinating piece of design work by Mr. Matsuuchi. Due to the fact that the coral a card causes you to place will never be used in that card’s scoring half, you are faced with a constant, crushing press of decisions regarding whether you want to look ahead or score immediately. As you might have guessed, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but finding that middle is shockingly agonizing!
Strategically, Reef feels like trying to run a 100-yard dash while standing on your own feet. You desperately want to play one card for its scoring effect, but doing so will cause you to first place 2 red coral which, in turn, disrupts your reef’s potency for that card’s scoring. Every decision you make is circular and devilish. Never have I seen a game cause so much analysis paralysis with such limited, simple options. And I can’t tell if that’s good or bad.
Personally, I enjoy the puzzle of Reef. It’s a challenge in balancing long-term interests while also knowing when enough is enough and it’s time to cash in. It’s not an engine-building game, but you’ll find yourself gathering card after card into your hand, forgoing playing and scoring for turn-after-turn, until you’re readying to unleash a dizzying combination of cards, each building and scoring off the last in a flurry of 5s, 10s, and sometimes 20s! Except that there are always going to be cards available that will help you down the road, and eventually you have to be able to say “Enough is enough, I need to score some points.”
That’s a counter-intuitive decisions for many, because most games encourage you to keep building until you can’t improve. Reef, instead, encourages you to keep building until you think your combo will net more points that whatever shenanigans your opponent is planning their hand. And this is one area where Reef misses the mark slightly, because while all players are drawing cards from the same source, it’s nearly impossible to track what other players are planning much less do anything to react to or foil those plans.
Sometimes you will plan and plan and rip off a combo worth a hearty 15 points, which you’re sure will put you in the lead, only to see your opponent score 20 on their next turn. Sometimes it just works out that way, and in Reef that’s out of your control. You have hard decisions to make, and your focus will need to be entirely on you, and that’s not going to be for everyone.
If, however, you like a puzzle that will make your brain hurt and your stomach knot with tension, and you don’t mind that it’s a largely solitaire experience partaken with other people around the table, then this may be one of the best games of the year. It feels both like a lot of things and unlike anything, and I suspect that it will be a home run for some and be hated by others.
For me, it falls more in the first category. For you, well, go give it a try and decide for yourself!
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