Aqua Sphere is not a game for everyone. A colorful, imaginative, clever new take on a strategy board game, Aqua Sphere uses unique game mechanics, multiple play boards, and a whole lot of setup to create an experience you won’t forget, even if you wanted to. Not saying the game is bad, but it’s got some issues for the first time players and is not to be started without the appropriate time allotted to it. Read on to find the positives and negatives of this week’s board game– AQUA SPHERE!
The Game… In a Bio Shell
Aqua Sphere is a worker placement game… I think. Created by Stefan Feld and a laundry list of well know designers, this game lacks nothing in complexity and well thought out mechanics. You spend your turns building specifically tasked robots that may then be placed in different rooms of an underwater research lab to perform their job and collect bonuses or new items. The game reminded me a bit like stone age meets sea lab 2021, but that’s mostly because it’s an underwater worker placement game… I think. OK so I keep saying “I think”, well, that’s because in MOST worker placement games you place a worker in a location that determines what he does; in Aqua Sphere, you determine what your worker will do, then you place him where he must go. See a new strategy? Too late, you made you bed, now sleep in it.
The Very Specifically Programmed Robots
So every turn you don’t place a meeple, you actually move an engineer meeple up a separate board into one of two or three choices with a symbol (see picture below). This symbol matches a robot task and going there allows you to move a robot off of your “player card” supply area into your “programmed robot” area. Now that your robot is programmed, your next turn can be to place that programmed robot into a room and activate him with your operator meeple… assuming you have the “time” to make it to that room. Time is a commodity and you can only hold so much of it. You can use your robots to build extra rooms to store more time so you can move around more, but that is only one of seven options to use your robots on.
Robot jobs in Aqua Sphere include quite a few unique options. They can harvest crystals, worth victory points AND used to unlock the victory point ladder (see red lines above and read more below). They can gather time from rooms where available. Robots can grab cards with new powers (sometimes immediate, sometimes rest of game powers), or build rooms to store more items since resources are very hard to hold onto in this aquatic laboratory. Your trusty rustbuckets can even kill and control the octopod population or craft research submarines. The possibilities seem overwhelming, and quite frankly they are, at least at the beginning.
Well… yes. The first time you set up Aqua Sphere, you will be greeted by 100 pieces, 10 different boards, multiple interchangeable parts for each board, player cards that must have a dozen robots and submarines placed in specific locations, and a small novel of rules. The colors are lively, the board is beautiful, and you will have no idea what the heck you are looking at or where to put anything strewn out across the table.
I spent around 20 minutes the first time I played Aqua Sphere setting up the game. Finally, when we started, I thought “well, about 80 minutes to go”. WRONG. After reading the instructions, and then watching a 20 minute how to play video, NOW we were ready to go. “Well, about 80 more minutes to go”. WRONG. The game with two players took us approximately 150 minutes. Making it a grand total of around 3 1/2 hours to play, at the minimum player count. I expect this from most epic board games, but from a strategic placement game, it caught me completely off guard.
That’s all the griping I am going to do about Aqua Sphere, because once we got to playing it, and learned the game, it turned out to be really well made and fun to boot.
Of all the games I’ve reviewed, I would say that Aqua Sphere is the least luck-based game of all. This game revolves around, LITERALLY, playing at least one step ahead of yourself. Because the board is laid out ahead of you, and the robots can’t be “blocked” by other players, and nothing ends without warning, this game allows players to decide their whole turn from the beginning. Will you? No, because there are dynamics to it, and sometimes what feels like the best move now will not be your strongest move later. For instance, killing octopods in the game give you a set of victory points, but being in a location with octopods and NOT killing them costs you a set of victory points. If your opponent was in a room that got swarmed with octopods, do you kick him out and kill them for points, or opt out and force him to lose the points; having multiple paths to victory is what Aqua Sphere is all about. Like Chess, the board is set out in front of you, and only your opponents move will ultimately change what you may do.
UNLIKE chess, however, Aqua Sphere’s board changes every time you play it. Remember that board of symbols, that private storage facility, and those power cards. Each of those things comes with a system of randomization that ensures every time you play the game, the mechanics stay the same, but the board changes. Without writing an entire portion on replayability, know that Stefan Feld was extra attentive to ensuring that a person would never play the same exact game twice, while still being able to become extremely familiar with the game as a whole.
I don’t usually review games on art or style. Most people do, I do not. This game is an exception. I purchased this game “sight unseen” almost entirely due to the look of it. The way the pieces fit together, the colors, the robots, the submarines, the octopods; It’s almost trippy to look at the whole setup. If you are a collector who loves a good looking game, then I felt like explaining the visual appeal of Aqua Sphere was worth the mention.
So, Is it Recommended?
This will be the most complex conclusion I’ve had to date. If you own Terra Mystica, enjoy Power Grid, or refuse to play Ticket to Ride because “it’s too simple”, then Aqua Sphere might be up your alley. If you find yourself missing monopoly, think Settler’s of Catan is complex board gaming, or don’t understand my last point, avoid this game at all costs.
I thoroughly enjoy Aqua Sphere. I think it is original, creative, and a blast to play… all 3 hours of it, every time, but it is not for the faint of heart. It was made by board gamers, for board gamers, and not for their families, and for that, I must give it a mixed review.
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