First Impressions - Reef
Based on two plays (one play with two players and one play with four-players).
Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Artist: Chris Quilliams
Publisher: Next Move Games
Player Count: 2-4
Reef is a 2-4 player game where players build coral reefs. The aim of the game (like most games) is to score the most points. This is done by placing coral pieces on player boards representing reefs to fulfill patterns on cards that the players obtain. These cards also give players new pieces of coral to place in their reefs. On a player’s turn they can do one of two actions. They can either take a card from the three cards shown (or the top card of the deck at a cost of one victory point) or they can play a card from their hand, gaining the pieces of coral indicated, placing them on their player board, and then scoring points for completing the scoring conditions at the bottom of each card. Scoring conditions include: having three yellow corals diagonally adjacent, having a purple and a green coral orthogonally adjacent, having stacks of exactly 2 pieces high topped with red coral, etc… When scoring, only the top coral of each stack is important (imagine viewing your board from directly above). Additionally, scoring conditions can be met multiple times for each card but each piece of coral can only be used once per card (for example, if the scoring condition was three diagonally adjacent purple corals, and the player has five purple corals forming an “X”, the middle coral can only count in one diagonal, meaning the player will only score for one diagonal). Coral pieces can be stacked on top of each other to a height limit of four. The game ends when the supply of one colour of coral piece is exhausted.
Reef was Next Move Games’ follow up to the much-lauded Azul and, given the similarities between the games, they’re both simple, abstract, competitive puzzle games, it seems fair to compare them. Reef is simple but deep like Azul. However, players in Reef have much more control over how they score, taking cards that suit their strategy and will allow players to score a lot of points over a few consecutive turns. Additionally, stacking coral pieces on top of previously placed ones adds an interesting strategic wrinkle to decision making as well as being thematically consistent, allowing you watch your coral reef grow.
Reef is also significantly less confrontational than Azul. Since scoring and access to coral pieces comes from cards, it is effectively locked in once the cards are taken into hand. This means that the only way that players can disrupt one another’s plans is by taking cards that their opponents want. Due to the 3-d nature of the puzzle, as well as the amount of information that needs to be retained (what cards have already been taken) and analysed, this is difficult to do even at two players. Reef feels like a personal puzzle that is randomised by brief moments of player interaction, like taking cards or ending the game. Obviously, this is a first impression so analysing your opponents’ boards may become easier as players gain experience but it felt like it would be more difficult to get to that point than in a game like Azul.
Both player counts (two-player and four-player) worked well and didn’t feel significantly different. If pushed I would say that the higher player count felt more reactive once it came to my turn, as more cards were taken before I got a turn again.
In terms of gameplay, I can’t fault reef. In terms of aesthetics, I absolutely can. It couldn’t be further from Azul. Reef is aesthetically inconsistent. The player boards are beautiful, the cards are pretty and clear, but the coral pieces are ugly. Where Azul’s tiles were a joy to look at and to hold, Reef’s pieces are made of hard, glossy plastic and come in bright colours. This clashes with the aesthetic of the player boards and the corals end up feeling like pieces from a toddler’s play set. To be very critical, plastic may not have been the best material to use for this theme as (in my head at least) it made me think of the crisis of plastic pollution in the oceans and photos like this and this. Aside from that, potentially, personal connection, the colours of the pieces are just the wrong choice. They don’t fit overall aesthetic and I felt that pastel colours or anything other than glossy bright colours would have fit better.
As mentioned in our Azul review, aesthetics are important. Because of these production decisions, Reef feels a lot less enjoyable than it could have been. Having said that, at its heart, Reef is a really enjoyable puzzle that I would happily play again.