08th Jul2021

‘Tungaru’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

In Tungaru, two to five players will each take on the task of spreading their own unique culture across the islands of the Tungaru archipelago. To do this, they will navigate their boats between the islands gathering and trading resources such as fish, shells, coconuts and pearls, whilst persuading nomads to join them – adding their own unique abilities. Turn order and special abilities are dictated by a set of five leader cards, whilst individual player mats allow each player to pursue a different strategy by opening slots and abilities in an order to suit them.

Whilst billed as a medium weight euro game, Tungaru feels heavier than most, in my opinion. This is a game that has a lot going on, and it’s one of those euro games that often let’s you “see” what you want to do, but keeps it at arm’s length. A big part of the challenge each round is on move optimisation, and the players are encouraged to settle islands (simplifying actions) and to recruit nomads (adding passive effects and powerful actions) but often, you’ll simply end up moving your boat, or making what feels like a sub-optimal trade or harvest action for a single resource.

Something about this “optimisation stinginess” kept me cool on Tungaru for several plays, and it was a game that I only reluctantly kept bringing back to the table. Thankfully, like some of the best euro games out there (Great Western Trail springs to mind) Tungaru only really reveals the strength of its design after multiple playthroughs. What I referred to as stinginess earlier starts to morph into opportunity. Instead of taking an action and feeling like you’ve underachieved on your turn, you’ll start to feel like your actions are worth more than they appear – thanks to best use of all of the different mechanics at play. To explain this, I’ll need to try and explain some of Tungaru‘s gameplay.

At the start of each round, the players each choose one of their leader cards, which do several things. Firstly, they determine turn order, with the lowest number acting first, followed by the second lowest and so on up to the Chieftain (which is number five.) The lowest numbered card is the Worker, and his ability allows the player to take an extra dice (which represents a worker) and store it on his card for use later. The thing is, the Worker also allows a player (once in the round) to earn an extra resource when using the harvest action, and he allows the player to spend dice directly onto his card to buy either pearls or shells (depending on what numbers they roll).

This is probably just nonsense to someone who hasn’t played Tungaru, but the critical thing to understand is that because the players can only access islands adjacent to their boat, and movement costs a dice (which is an action) then the Worker unlocks several possibilities. Firstly, you get an extra dice – but second and thirdly – he also offers you options to either increase your normal yield from harvesting, or to avoid having to find a location to harvest from, if you happen to have the right dice showing to take the resources that he offers directly on the card.

If you take this example and multiple it by five – for each of the other leader cards, then you can already see the possibilities emerge. Now, imagine if you’ve already managed to convince a nomad or two to join you? This is done by spending whatever resources they need along with one of your actions on an island they occupy. When you take a nomad, you can then either place them onto your player board face up – activating their ability – or you can place them face down, activating whatever end game scoring criteria they offer. Take a nomad who can allow you adjust a dice up or down and add them to your Worker card, to come back to that example, and you have a powerful combo that can (just about) ensure you’re always able to get the resources you want, assuming they match those shown on the Worker card.

So coming back to what I said earlier, at first glance and during the first game or two, you might find yourself frustrated about having to sail between islands, but as you get better at the game, you’ll realise that more often than not you only need to sail to the exact island that you either want to settle on, or where you want to recruit from – and usually you’ll simply want to do both. Settling, in itself, is valuable because it effectively provides players with an action on the island upon which the settler resides – again, you’ll want to do this as early as possible because the more rounds that you have a settler in play, the more value they will return.

Whilst discussing Settlers, I should mention that the version I am reviewing here is actually the regular retail edition, which features a really nice board, some fantastic card art and some good quality wooden pieces. That said, Alley Cat Games did originally launch Tungaru via a really beautiful Kickstarter, and in the deluxe or Kickstarter edition, the monuments (which are just flat tiles in the retail box) and the Settlers are really, really nicely cut pieces with beautifully printed artwork. So I suppose what I am saying is, if this is a game that appeals to you thematically, I would suggest it is definitely worth seeking out the upgraded version (or getting an upgrade kit.)

I’m not sure if Tungaru is a game that I’ll want to play much going forwards and as such, with shelf space limited, it has a decent chance of leaving my collection. Even so, having spent some time with it, I would be willing to play it with friends and I do think it offers a refreshing thematic alternative to the likes of Great Western Trail or Maracaibo, whilst working at a similar level of weight. In the retail version, it is an inexpensive addition to your collection, so for players who like euro games that ask for long term investment in order to get a return, there are certainly worse choices out there.

*** 3/5

Tungaru 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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