AGN – June 2006

We had a a small group for the June installment of Analog Game Night. Mat had a last minute commitment at work, Paul had to attend his daughter’s 8th grade graduation, and Tim had to stay home with the kids since his wife is out hiking some of the Appalachian Trail. That left Keith, Ken, Rich, and myself.

I cracked open Lexio while waiting for Rich to follow the boop boops of his GPS to Keith’s house. Lexio tiles are exceedingly cool but the ridiculously flimsy plastic chips used to keep score during the game are another matter. I’m committed to buying clay poker chips to replace them. I think Keith enjoyed the game more than the image shows but I could be mistaken.

Lexio consists of a set of bakelite tiles, in 4 ranked suits (red > moon > star > cloud), numbered 1 to 15. It’s normally played over 5 rounds or until someone loses all of their chips but I suspect that that is an unlikely situation. The numbered tiles are also ranked in the following order 2 > 1 > 15 > 14 > … > 3.

The game begins with all of the tiles (adjusted for the number of players) turned face down, shuffled, and dealt evenly to all players. The player with the cloud 3 begins the hand by laying a meld of tiles in one of the following combinations:

1 – single tile
2 – a pair (e.g. two 8 tiles)
3 – three of a kind
5 – 5 tiles in one of the following combinations:
(straight, flush, full-house, four/1, straight flush)

The following player must lay the same number of tiles and their play must beat the last play of tiles. If the player cannot play he must pass. Play continues as many times around the table until nobody can beat the last meld. The tiles are then pushed to the side of the table and the player who ‘won’ the hand begins the next hand in an attempt to get rid of all of their tiles.

The round ends immediately when a player plays the last tile in his hand. At this point all players pay all other players a number of chips equal to the delta of the number of tiles left in their hand and the number of tiles in the other player’s hand.

I like the game on several levels and my only real complaint, besides the quality of the chips supplied with the game, is that I felt like I spent a lot of time flipping tiles over, shuffling, and dealing them out rather than playing. The hands move so quickly that it seems like before you know it, you’re back to shuffling and dealing again. The use of tiles, although a nice adaptation, does make the flow of the game clunkier than the card based form upon which it’s based.

Next up was Reef Encounter. Richard Breese, the designer of the game has said that he feels badly for the person who must learn the game by reading the rules rather than being taught. After spending close to 4 hours reading the rules, and reading up on the game’s forum postings on BGG I understand what he’s talking about. The game is rather complex to describe due to the interrelationships between all of the actions one can take. Writing about any one aspect requires you to describe other aspects of the game that you haven’t gotten to yet. However, if you put a little thought into how to teach the game, it’s not really that complex to understand. That said though, the game is difficult to grok. I’ll resist describing the game in any semblance of depth since I’m painfully aware of the limits of my abilities as a writer but I will attempt to describe it at a high level to give readers a flavor of how the game works. I recommend the following Reef Encounter Beginner’s Guide if you would like to read a more detailed explanation of the game.

The theme depicts the life cycle of corals from larva, polyp, adults vying for dominance over neighboring corals, and finally as food for maurading parrotfish. The game is composed of the following items:

  • Individual sea floor boards depicting areas where corals can be built and a single ‘open sea’ board used to track progress
  • A ‘draw’ bag of polyp tiles used to construct corals
  • Larva cubes used to start a new or expand an existing coral
  • Coral strength tiles depicting the relative strength of corals. When corals invade the space of other corals, the Coral strength tiles are consulted to determine which coral is stronger.
  • Alga disks used to adjust the relative strength of corals depicted on the ‘open sea’ board. Alga disks flip Coral Strength tiles reversing the strength of one type of coral over another.
  • Shrimp – Each player has four shrimp they use to protect corals from invasion but the shrimp are small and can only protect small areas of coral.
  • Each player has an open cube representing their parrotfish. Once the parrotfish has eaten corals and the player’s four shrimp, the game is over.

On each turn, a player chooses numerous actions to perform. The bulk of your actions have no required order but if you choose to feed your parrotfish, then that must be chosen as your first action. After performing as many actions as you can afford and desire, your final action action allows you to grab a larval cube and some polyp tiles assigned to it from the open sea board. Some actions can only be performed once and others can be repeated as many times as you like. Luckily the handy reference card does a good job of summarizing your options. In general, the game is a complex dance of grabbing the larval cubes and polyp tiles you will need for subsequent turns so that when your turn arrives you can use them to expand your coral presence, invade other corals of lesser strength giving you additional polyp tiles to lay, and to lock in coral strength tiles with alga discs for the end game scoring.

The game frustrates me on several levels. However, it’s premature for me to make any sort of overarching judgements. While playing, I’ve felt that maybe my brain just isn’t up to the task of juggling all of the moving parts to see a good move given the resources I have. I never seemed to have the polyp tiles I needed to do anything exceptional. I was always missing the larval cube I needed to pull off a sneaky move. I always seemed to be out of consumed polyp tiles hamstringing me from buying an alga disk to lock in coral strength. The draw bag was always a harsh mistress to the open sea board by marrying useless tiles with a much needed larval cube. Of course, maybe it’s just because I haven’t experienced the game epiphany yet, or I’m just bad at this game, or maybe I’m just not smart enough.

The game felt overly long with four opponents but I suspect it’s because nobody has experienced the epiphany. Every play was torturous. I’m also not fond of games with very much downtime between turns if that downtime cannot be put to good use. With four opponents, it’s difficult to plan very far ahead if you’re hoping for some luck on the open sea board. By the time your turn arrives, your options may be totally different. Is that because the game is mostly tactical, in which case I don’t like the downtime? Or is it because we’re naive and we aren’t seeing the logical strategic plays staring us in the face? Like most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle and because of that, I’ll be trying to get Reef Encounter back to the table. However, that might be tough in my group since I think two out of the four of us would pass on future plays if given the option.


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