19th Dec2018

‘Reef’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

reef-box

In my house, my wife and I are huge fans of Emerson Matsuuchi’s work. Century: Spice Road remains one of our favourite games and whilst Eastern Wonders wasn’t quite as well received, the combined game (From Sand to Sea) has ensured that we’ve kept both copies on our most played shelf. In Reef, Matsuuchi’s latest effort, the players compete to design a coral reef based on various cards that not only provide an immediate score, but also help to expand the reef for future turns. With that in mind, Reef is both simple to play but fiercely competitive.

The box contains a lot of physical mass, but its contents are overwhelmingly simple. You’ll find chunky plastic pieces in four different shapes and colours, then four player boards, a deck of cards and a brief instruction booklet. The cards are cut to standard size and of a decent thickness, making them durable and easy to shuffle. The artwork printed on them clearly depicts pieces of the reef in the top half and then potential scoring criteria in the bottom. Some of the scoring configurations can be a touch confusing at first, but nothing in Reef is overly taxing to understand beyond the first game or two.

Each player simply takes a player board (one of which will show a starfish which denotes the first player for the round) and a pair of cards from the deck. Having examined their cards, they will place one piece of the reef from each of the four colours. Three cards are then placed face up on the table in a central position. Each player, beginning with the first, will then either draw a card or play a card on their turn – and that’s it.

If a player chooses to play a card, they will simply take and place the two reef pieces that are shown at the top of the card and then score the bottom half, if they have pieces on their board in the correct configuration. If the player takes a card, then they do nothing besides add it to their hand and then draw another one from the top of the deck. This simple, quick flow of turns simply continues around the table, one player at a time, until all the reef pieces from one colour have ran out, at which point a final scoring will take place. Scores are tracked using small tokens and some cards allow for multipliers etc to be applied.

Reef is very, very simple to learn and to play, but it’s not as easy to master as you might think it is. There may only be four types of reef piece, but only the top down view actually scores points and the pieces can stack. Some cards, in fact, only score based on how high a stack is – with the limit being four pieces. This introduces a very tactile, three dimensional element to Reef that I really like – the player boards are small, but they capture the bright, busy and dense nature of the reefs that they are modelled on.

The basic premise of how to win in Reef seems to be built on chaining turns together and you’ll almost certainly want to score something with just about every card. Failing to do so in a competitive match will likely lead to you falling behind, whilst the occasional (rare) game breaking turn can pull it back again. Scoring in Reef is fairly low on a turn by turn basis, with scores of four or five being the overwhelming average. A six or even eight point (based on one of the multiplier cards) turn will be seen as a big success.

As you can probably imagine, these higher scoring cards require players to strive for less common reef configurations, so there will be times when a player needs to weigh up their desire to make a big score with their overall consistency. I found this gameplay loop to be considerably deeper than I expected that it would be, given the visual appeal and apparent weight of Reef.

Reef is a simple game – probably too simple for some – but it is charming, nice to touch and look at (thanks to great pieces.) It’s also a doddle to teach, despite having some hidden depth (no pun intended) which makes it a welcome addition to the lighter end of any game shelf. It’s a keeper for me, even though it’s still perhaps just half a step behind Century: Spice Road in terms of Matsuuchi’s personal catalogue.

***½  3.5/5

Reef is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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