13th Jul2021

‘Rapa Nui’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Here at Nerdly, we love a game with a lot of table presence. Usually, our preference is for the kind of gothic and horror inspired miniatures you might see in a game like Dark Souls, or perhaps the kind of art you’ll see in Big Book of Madness. Occasionally though, we need a break from the macabre, and what better way to achieve that than by celebrating the unique culture of the Rapa Nui people – famous for building the giant moai heads on what us Western folk call Easter Island. With the usual high standards of other Matagot games, Rapa Nui is the subject of today’s board game review.

Rapa Nui is a re-implementation of a 2008 game called Giants, which took the same theme of building giant heads on Easter Island and offered a very similar experience. Effectively, because both games are from the same designer and publisher Rapa Nui is pretty much a direct remaster, with very similar components, artwork and rules, albeit with more modern production values and qualities. I’ve never played Giants, but having read about it, the indications are that Rapa Nui generally adds welcome features and streamlines some aspects, so if you like the original, it may be worth considering the upgrade.

In Rapa Nui between two and four players will each compete to score victory points through the collection of offering tiles (and from one or two other, very infrequent sources.) To score points, they will need to make offerings, and to do that, they will need to collect the in-game resources which have a very specific ascending value – reeds, eggs, wood, pearls – and then convert them into offering tiles. Gathering resources is achieved by both building moai heads and by cooperating with other players trying to do the same, whilst converting resources into offerings is done by placing pukao (hats) on top of existing moai.

The game is split into three phases – placing workers and sorcerers, building moai and transporting/building moai. In the first phase, the players take turns to place their four starting villagers onto either the moai quarry or the board space. At some point, each player will need to place their sorcerer, which effectively uses up their turn, but decides the turn order in the next round. Effectively, placing your sorcerer early allows you to influence the turn order, but it means that others have a chance to play villagers onto either quarry or board spaces that you might otherwise have wanted. The sorcerer has no role to play on the board or quarry, and can only be placed on the turn order track (except when a specific bonus tile is chosen later in the game.)

Once all worker and sorcerer placement is complete, the players resolve the moai building part of the game in turn order (though it’s often done simultaneously if there is no contention.) In a nutshell, during this phase, the players will assess the quarry section of the board and depending how villagers they have there (and their locations) they will take a number of moai statues. A small moai can be built simply by having a villager in the leftmost space, but to build a medium or large moai, you must have a villager in each space from left to right across the quarry. Each villager can only contribute to building one moai, so if you have two villagers in the “small” column and then one each in the “medium” and “large” columns, you will build one small moai and one large or medium moai. In this example, if you chose to build the medium moai, then placing a villager in the large moai space would have been a waste.

Finally, the players will transport their moai on the board. Whilst this is the most interesting part of the game, it is largely decided during worker placement and tends to play out fairly procedurally. Starting from the quarry location in the bottom right of the board, players will now take turns to send their moai along chains of villagers until they reach a final destination which can be any space occupied by one of their standing villagers, which does not already have a moai on it. The key thing here is that the moai can travel through any space with a villager in it (whoever controls it and whether standing or not and with a moai or not.) Whenever your moai travels through a space occupied by someone else, that player gains a single resource as shown in that space.

When a moai reaches its destination, it is stood up there, and the tile (called an Ahu tile) that was there is taken by the player placing the moai. Each Ahu tile has a special bonus that usually allows a single powerful action to be taken – such as the one I hinted at earlier, where the sorcerer can be “moved” from the turn order track to the moai quarry, to add another worker for that player. When a moai is stood up, the worker who completes the task is then laid down to show that they are tired. This still enables them to transport moai for other players, but it means they can’t work again for the player that controls them. This only really matters if you intend to try and place a pukao hat on the same moai in the same turn, in which case you’ll need a second worker there (which is legal, but pretty uncommon.)

In addition to the Ahu tile, the player erecting a moai also takes the resource shown on the space it is built in, and the amount taken depends on the size of the moai. Players are rewarded with one, three or five of the depicted resource, according to the size – one for small, three for medium and five for large. Having mentioned the pukao hats, lets examine that part of the game in bit more detail. In a nutshell, where raising moai statues allows players to generate resources, adding the pukao hats to them allows you to convert those resources into points. Transporting pukao across the map works in the same way as moai, with the differences being that pukao start at the opposite side of the map, and require no workers to “build.”

As soon as one of the pukao hats lands on a moai (regardless of who built the moai in the first place), the player who does so is able to convert the resources shown on that space into an offering based on whatever is shown there. On an eggs space, for example, the player can convert eggs to take the chicken offerings only – again, some Ahu tiles allow variations and tweaks to the basic ruleset. Each stack of offering tiles is arranged in an order that makes the higher offerings worth more points – this means that the sooner a player completes them, the more points they will score.

There is one more minor ripple of complexity in Rapa Nui, which makes things a touch more interesting. During setup, each player is given four improvement tiles – two of which add additional meeples (one chief, for carving moai only and one villager.) The players can invest their different resources into these bonuses at their leisure, but they can only ever buy two out of the three per game, slotting them into their player board once bought. These upgrades are essential due to how tight workers are from the outset, and because of how they help optimise and improve the purchase of offering tiles – it really is a challenge to decide which one not to invest in, even though you’ll want both of the meeple upgrades in almost every game.

With two sides to the board – one for two player and one for three to four – Rapa Nui plays really well at all player counts, but in particular when you get to that three or four player count. Because the movement of moai is dependent upon other players, there is a sense that the more players there are, the more the core mechanic of sharing works kicks in. This means that players can reach across the board earlier in the game (because villagers from two players can never share the same space) and there’s always competition. At two players, the duelling opponents may simply choose to do their own thing during the early game, and once the early moai are placed, there’s a reluctance to place pieces on the same spaces again in later turns, because the payoff (one supply per passing opposition moai) isn’t worth it in a game where worker numbers are so low.

Even despite this, the two players will have to expand out eventually, and in some games you’ll see them reaching further, earlier, because it is the spaces nearer to the moai crater that both players will need to use time and time again (bearing in mind that after each clean up, the villagers have to go back out onto the board to move more moai.) The upgrade mechanic is clever, demanding that players choose to invest either in early upgrades or early offering tiles, but in a tight game you’ll rarely be able to do both. When choosing positions on the board and whether to upgrade or target offerings, you’re constantly balancing short- and long-term benefits – which is quite unusual in a light-ish game like this.

Rapa Nui is a very attractive game that uses a cool theme to tell a quick, clever story. It plays more naturally – arguably better – with the full complement of four players, but the two player game is very different and quite interesting for different reasons. The upgrade system and the way that players must balance sculpting, expanding on the board and on taking offering tiles for points at the right time creates lots to think about, but all of the choices you make are tight and agonising in context of the wider game. As a result, Rapa Nui is a fun, clever game that rarely excites with its gameplay, but is capable of making the players feel clever, and which always seems to go right down to the final turns without the players knowing who has won.

***½  3.5/5

Rapa Nui 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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