2017 was in many ways the year of Michael Kiesling. Essen saw four of his big releases–Azul, Heaven & Ale, Reworld, and Riverboat–two of which went on to acclaim (Azul won the 2018 Spiel des Jahres award and Heaven & Ale was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres), and two of which seem to have followed “the way of all games” in a saturated market. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Which is a shame, because I think Riverboat is my favorite of the lot.
We can speculate why Riverboat hasn’t received much fanfare–Asmodee’s purchase of Mayfair/Lookout Games, the corresponding slow distribution and high price point in the US–but I think the reason Riverboat has been largely overlooked is the marriage of luck and strategy at its core.
Last year, another “luck and strategy” title was nominated for (and won) the Kennerspiel des Jahres, The Quacks of Quedlinburg. But while Quacks quacks like a press-your-luck game with strategic elements, Riverboat has a strategy “look”: ignore the designer’s name on the box, and the Lookout/Klemens Franz treatment could easily be mistaken for another Uwe Rosenberg farming game. (The included farm boards and tiles would not disabuse you of this notion.) But Riverboat, at its heart, is not the kind of farming game we’ve come to expect from Rosenberg. Rather, it’s about rolling along with the luck of the game–until you don’t.
Riverboat takes place in four rounds, and each round is organized around five phases, which are drafted at the start of the round. Each phase has some amount of luck baked in. In the cultivation phase, players place their workers Bingo-style on their farm board on spaces that match randomly drawn cards. In the planting phase, the crops available are drawn from random stacks, meaning you might not get what you were hoping for. The riverboat phase is dependent on the planting phase: the boats available to you are determined by the kind of crops you’ve planted. The opportunity phase gives each player a scoring card, but the four available are random each round. The scoring phase doesn’t have luck in the phase–players choose which things they score–but the available options are all dependent on the luck of the previous phases.
From what I’ve described, it doesn’t sound like I should enjoy this game very much. A game that lasts over an hour with heavy luck elements? Isn’t this what I’m usually complaining about with American-style games?
What cleanly sets Riverboat apart, placing it firmly in the classic Euro camp (aside from its loose connection to its setting), is trade-offs. Usually in strategy games trade-offs take the form of making one strategic decision over another, and there’s still plenty of that in Riverboat. But I think what makes Riverboat feel fresh is the trade-off of allowing luck to have its way in this instance so you can avoid it later at a more crucial point.
Along with the luck inherent in the phases of the game, there is also a tantalizing option: by spending a coin, a player can subvert the luck of that phase. In the cultivation phase, you can pay a coin to put your worker anywhere, not just on the terrain type that was revealed. In the planting phase, instead of choosing crop tiles from the available options, you can dig for the one you really want. In the riverboat phase, instead of choosing from the available riverboats (only one of which comes out each round), you can take a boat that has already been chosen. And perhaps most powerful of all, in the opportunity phase, you can pay a coin to search the scoring card deck and choose the one you want.
Now, this wouldn’t be much of a trade-off except that coins in Riverboat are scarce and are worth points at the end of the game, so you have to make every single one count.
The result has players asking themselves at every decision point, Is it time to use my coins? It’s tricky to know, so players are constantly assessing risk. Are they better off spending a coin to make sure a worker goes on the right farm space? Or are they better off making sure that worker has the right kind of crop to harvest? Or that the best riverboat is acquired?
Each phase has players at odds either with fortune or their fellow players, so the starting phase draft helps players out some. Each phase, along with having a special way to mitigate luck through coins, also offers the choosing player a bonus of some kind, along with the benefit of going first in that phase. Bonuses include precious coins, extra workers, points, and moves of the harbor master.
The harbor master is one of the chief points of antagonism with other players in the game. While denial opportunities are plentiful in Riverboat, they often come about through accident: it’s hard enough scratching a living out of your own strategy, let alone trying to tank someone else’s. It’s easy to develop somewhat myopic vision and focus only on your own player board. But the harbor master presents a real source of competition.
You see, in addition to immediate benefits, riverboats provide players with end-game points, but only if their harbor master has reached that boat in the harbor. And one additional wrinkle: only the player whose harbor master has gone the farthest will score full points for their riverboats. This means players are constantly agonizing over whether to move their harbor master or to focus on another strategy, which might have higher yield. Like the rest of the game, players are taking risks and trying to hedge their bets.
I said that it’s easy to develop myopic vision in Riverboat, but I think that as you gain experience with the game, you naturally take other players more into account. You begin to see what crops other players might need, so that affects which crop tiles you’ll choose first. Or you see the crops that a player could possibly harvest this turn and choose the riverboat most likely to be in other players’ sights. The harbor master naturally keeps players aware of one another.
And so does New Orleans.
The final scoring has players competing over the harbor master (to score their riverboats) and over New Orleans. There’s a window cutout in the opportunity board for each player, where they can send agents to conduct business on their behalf in New Orleans. At the end of the game, whoever has sent the most agents to New Orleans will earn 20 points (which is more than a typical scoring opportunity will provide), with diminishing returns for the runners-up. Players constantly have to monitor New Orleans and weigh the costs and benefits of sending agents there.
You see, each player has a limited supply of workers, and workers are needed for the cultivation phase, because players only place crops in the planting phase under workers on their board. There’s an opportunity to place eight out per round, but if a player only has six, they’re out of luck for the last two placements. Sending workers to New Orleans as agents means fewer workers to cultivate the land, which means fewer crops available to harvest, which means potentially worse riverboats and fewer options. It seems like a no-brainer: don’t send agents to New Orleans. But each agent in New Orleans scores a point in each round, meaning that in addition to the possible 20 points at the end of the game, each agent placed in New Orleans in the first round will score 4 points, in the second round 3 points, and so on. Being short-staffed might not be so bad after all…
Another grueling trade-off in Riverboat has to do with surveyors. Each player will have several scoring opportunities over the course of the game. For one thing, each round gives players a new scoring card, and each time a player harvests nine of the same type of crop, they can take wells or barns, which can score points depending on how players have organized their farms. (Some riverboats grant wells or barns too.) But here’s the thing: none of these opportunities scores on their own. They only score when a player has placed a surveyor on the opportunity. And surveyors are even harder to come by than coins.
Each scoring phase, players have an opportunity to place two surveyors. Because surveyors score points at the moment they’re placed, obviously it makes sense to wait to use them as long as you possibly can–you might improve in the criterion they’re scoring! Yet if you wait too long, you might not be able to place them at all. So players are constantly torn between using them early (to make sure they’re used) or using them late (to make them score more points). Adding another wrinkle to the decision? Each used surveyor, like agents in New Orleans, scores 1 point at the end of each round.
I really like Riverboat. The trade-offs make for interesting decisions, and the game is agonizing without being taxing. (Heaven & Ale, by contrast, is both agonizing and taxing.) Yet while the trade-offs in Riverboat make it a good game, I think the main reason I find it great is that while most strategy games eschew luck as much as possible, Riverboat leans into it. The game is all about risk assessment and choosing your battles. This gives the game a tactical edge that makes it feel fresh and interesting at every decision point. (And I should say, even the places where players have to roll with the luck offer good decisions; they’re just constrained. Money is freedom.) Because of this, it also feels more approachable than many staid complex and heavy modern Euro games. The way the different streams integrate can be tough to comprehend, at least at the start of the game, but the rules are fairly simple, and the game is lighthearted enough (you decide where to plant crops Bingo-style, for crying out loud!) that even though good players should usually beat poor players, it doesn’t feel like a joyless accounting exercise, as some Euros are accused of being. While the mix of mechanisms is unique, it has the feel of a game that could have been designed fifteen or twenty years ago. In a good way.
If you’ve read this far, you probably already know whether this game is for you. I have a friend who despises games where risk assessment is at the fore, so I know better than to bring Riverboat out for him. Another writer for iSlaytheDragon ridiculed the game as essentially Bingo after his first play and hasn’t returned for a second. Riverboat isn’t going to be for everyone–it’s heavier (and longer) than a typical “gateway” game, and it’s lighter (and more lighthearted) than modern Euro games. As I mentioned, I think the game’s bold harnessing of luck accounts for no small part of its lack of limelight.
The components in the game are typical of Lookout Games: bright colors, sturdy cardboard, Klemens Franz art. I like all of these things, so Riverboat is just fine by me. The game’s setting is just window dressing, so don’t get too attached to the Mark Twain flavor text. There are a few minor issues I have with the production. I think the scoring markers are annoying–they’re tiny square cardboard chits that are hard to pick up and move, and you do this often. I would have preferred wooden pieces (and given the hefty price tag, it’s baffling they aren’t included). My boards are also slightly warped, meaning that the nice slots in the harbor for the riverboats don’t quite look like they’re following the publisher’s plan. The colors chosen for the farm spaces are fairly similar–I’m grateful that each color has a symbol on them to tell them apart. But the symbols are small and can be hard to read for some players. Despite these quibbles, the components work. I will say, however, that for what comes in the box and for the weight of game and game length, the price feels a little steep. The retail price is $70, and the online discounted price (due to Asmodee’s MAPP) is ~$60, and even for someone who enjoys the game, that’s a tough recommendation. I got the game in trade, so I didn’t shell out the full price. The game is good enough to be played again and again, and a game’s cost is more than the physical components. Still, the price is steep, and because the game has a niche appeal, I would recommend trying before buying.
I’ve played the game at all player counts, and it works well at each. I think four is my favorite count–there’s more competition over riverboats and phases, and choosing first each round feels like an especial bonus (you’ll go first in two phases)–but I wouldn’t turn down a game at either of the other counts. I’m not certain about replayability of the game long-term. There isn’t much variety in the box; that being said, there is a lot of room for player interaction, and like Ra (which similarly harnesses luck in a strategy game), the order in which things come out makes a big difference. The game box advertises a 90-minute playtime, and with rules explanation, that seems about right. The fewer players you have, and especially with familiarity, the game goes much faster. (I played a two-player game with a new player in right around an hour, including rules explanation.)
Riverboat is a bit of an odd mix of mechanisms, yet it comes together in a satisfying game that is both strategic and tactical, a game about assessing risks but sticking to a plan as much as possible. The rules can be a little wonky to internalize at first, but much like the Mississippi, the game channels players into what they need to be doing and flows continuously after the first round. Riverboat is a delightful strategy game that proves Michael Kiesling is on a roll.