Sometimes, when considering games to review, I know going in that it’s something I’m likely to love. A favorite mechanism, a game by a beloved designer, or a remake of an old favorite. Other times, I choose things on less concrete criteria. That’s what happened in Iquazu’s case. I’d never heard of it or even seen it played. But when I saw how ridiculously pretty it was and how the theme was Avatar-like (something I’ve seen very little of in the game world), I knew I had to try it. Yep. I’m that shallow. The question is, though, is the game deeper than its looks (and my shallowness)? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
In Iquazu, you take on the role of the Inox people who are trying to protect their valuable gems from the evil Rhujas. Where’s the best place to hide gems? In the rock wall behind the waterfall where any interlopers will need to contend with slippery rocks, dangerous water snakes, and a dragon named Silon. You want to be the best at hiding gems, presumably so the tribe doesn’t kick you out for being an inept gem-hider.
The game is a set collection/area control game. You’re collecting sets of cards and then using them to “buy” placement spots for your gems. You’re trying to have the most gems on columns and rows so that you score points and earn bonus opportunities.
At the beginning of the game, the board is set up so that five strips of rock and one column of bonus tiles are visible inside the water frame. Each rock strip has colored spaces on it. This is where you will be placing gems in order to claim the bonus tiles.
On your turn, you can do one of two things: You can draw four cards from the deck (there’s a 12 card hand limit), or you can trade in cards and place one gemstone. The number and color of cards you need to trade in is dependent upon the column and color of the space you want to claim. If, for example, you want to claim a yellow space in the fourth column, you’d need to play four yellow cards. So cards in the further columns “cost” more than those on the nearer rocks. (Think of it as being harder and more dangerous to reach those spots.)
Note that you can play two identical cards of another color in place of one card of the proper color. There is also a bonus tile that acts as a wild, allowing you to claim a space with any color combination.
Next, if you have the water drop box in front of you (it gets passed counter-clockwise to the next player after each scoring round), place a water drop in the topmost free space of the first column in the water frame.
When the last space in the first column within the water frame is filled, either with a gem or a water drop, a scoring round is triggered. First, players take the points indicated on the rock directly below this column. The player with the most gems in the column gets the top number, the second takes the second number and so on. The last place player will get nothing. If there is a tie, the player with the gem closest to the bottom of the column takes the points. (Those spots are closer to the water snakes, so you presumably took a risk putting the gems there, plus the evil ones are going to have a harder time stealing them.)
Next, the bonus tiles are distributed according to the majorities in the horizontal rows. The player with the most gems in a row takes the bonus tile for that row. If there’s a tie, the player with the gem further to the right takes the tile.
Some bonus tiles give you straight points, others give you the chance to draw extra cards, or the ability to take a second action on your turn. And there’s the aforementioned wild tile. You can use as many bonus tiles as you want on a turn, and you can use more than one of the same.
Once scoring is complete, you will take the water strip from the far right of the board and place it on the left. This pushes the water frame ahead one column, revealing another set of bonus tiles. If the new far left column is full, do another scoring round before moving the frame ahead again and moving on.
You’ll continue placing gems and performing scoring rounds until the water frame reaches the third to last rock column. At this point, no more turns are taken and final scoring begins. The rock points below the column are taken as normal and bonus tiles are distributed. Then the remaining two columns are scored (even if they aren’t full) and the rock points are distributed. There are no more bonuses. The player with the most points wins.
The Water is Blue, A Review of Iquazu, Should Be a Haiku.
I really wanted to write this whole review in haiku. Something about the name Iquazu… Sadly, a haiku review would just be too weird. So we’ll settle for the standard review and I’ll try to contain myself.
I mentioned above that the game attracted me with its looks and on that front I definitely wasn’t disappointed. The gems are lovely clear plastic, the art is gorgeous, and the theme is something a bit unique. I don’t know of too many games that seem like they were inspired by the movie Avatar. It’s not only the art that gives off this vibe, it’s the idea of an indigenous race of people being threatened by some evil something-or-others.
Granted, it’s a pretty abstract theme, even in spite of the artwork. You have to try really hard to feel like you’re hiding gems and not just playing cards and placing markers. The backstory helps put it together in your head, but it still feels a bit mechanical. The thematic connection can be made, but if you’re looking for an adventure game, this is really more abstract than that.
I also had a hard time getting my head around why this wasn’t cooperative. It seems like if you’re a threatened tribe trying to hide your gems, this would make for a better coop effort. Unless your tribal leader has set up some sort of reward scheme to get people involved in the hiding effort, you should be working together to save your resources, right? But, whatever. It’s still a cool theme with gorgeous art that will draw people to the table, just not one that’s likely to immerse you and never let you go.
Moving on. Looks aside, how does Iquazu play? When I first read through the rules, I said, “Oh, so it’s like Ticket to Ride where you collect card sets and trade them in for board position.” Well, yes and mostly no.
Yes, the feeling of drawing cards or playing cards on a turn (but not both) feels very familiar. As does trading in sets of colors for placing something out on the board. And, yes, the closer positions are “cheaper” than those further away (similar to how in TTR short routes are “cheap” while longer routes are expensive and take a while to amass enough cards to claim). But that’s pretty much the end of the similarities.
Iquazu is a puzzle with its own little economy that you must manage, not a route builder. You’re scoring on both vertical and horizontal rows, so you have to watch both. Gems placed in the first column of the water frame are inexpensive to place, but they’re also worth less in the grand scheme of the game. They will only score for you during one scoring round. Once the water frame passes those gems, they will not score for you again.
Gems placed on the furthest columns are worth more in the long-term, but expensive to obtain in the short-term. That gem you place on the fifth column of the water frame will work for you over five scoring rounds. It may give you the majority multiple times, or break ties in your favor. But it’s going to cost you a lot of cards to pull off, meaning you’ll have to give up some short-term placement opportunities. By the time your hand rebuilds, the good spots may be gone.
You have to balance this whole economy, where gems cost more to place at different points of the game, but are also likely to give you different rewards at different points. That gem in the fifth column may be able to give you the majority over multiple rounds, but you have to protect it as the board changes. Maybe you earned a few bonus tiles with it as the horizontal rows were scored, but did you remember to protect the vertical majority so that when that column scored, you earned the rock points?
And since you never know what bonus tiles will come up in the next round, you may end up with a majority on a row you have no use for and you’ll wish you’d fought for something else. Plus, even if you think you’ve got everything humming along, you have to remember that the spaces furthest down the column break ties, so you can lose out on points if your opponent slips in below you. The same goes for the horizontal columns. Ties are broken by the gem furthest to the right, so you can lose out on bonus tiles if someone swoops in and places further over than you.
There’s a lot to balance, and that depth is hidden when you first start playing. You don’t realize all that’s going on until you’re about halfway through the first game and then you go, “Wait, can we start over?” because you realize you’ve completely ruined yourself.
There’s a puzzle happening vertically and horizontally, and your placements in those dimensions matters. Plus, you’re constantly aware that all that you’ve worked for is about to disappear under the waterfall, so you’d better plan ahead. It’s a lot of fun if you like puzzly thinking.
Any negatives? Well, the biggest for me is the board assembly. Egads, it’s really more of an art project to get everything set up. First, you have to build the board frame. It fits together like puzzle pieces. Then you put the rock strips and the point board inside, then the plastic rails for the water frame, then lay out the bonus tokens, then put the water frame on, and then lay the water strips out alongside it. And you have to do this before every game, because none of it can be stored pre-assembled for the next game.
You get faster at it the more you play, but I have to admit that it’s a consideration when deciding what to play on any given night. Do we want to play a game that’s super fast to set up, or one that’s going to take some effort? Unfortunately, fast usually wins.
But… You are rewarded for all the setup in at least one way. Games of Iquazu are fast enough (well under an hour, in most cases), that you can play multiple times in an evening, making the most out of your setup effort. Plus, people who like tactile games and the “toy factor” will get a kick out of the whole water frame mechanism, so there is that.
And once you get past the setup, the game itself is fiddly. Placing the tiny gems and water droplets inside the frame is not for those with less-than-nimble fingers. Inevitably, one ends up squirting away and under the water strips so you have to take the thing apart to retrieve it. And moving the water strips is an exercise in, “Careful, don’t bump anything too much.” It’s kind of like playing a game of Operation in an Avatar-themed universe. Either that or I’m just less dexterous than most.
Still, despite all of that, I do really enjoy Iquazu. It manages to be a very good family/gateway game, but one with more meat on it than you perceive in your first couple of plays. I like that it takes a couple of games to figure out that what you’re really doing is both solving a puzzle and balancing an economy. It looks much easier than that but when it clicks, you realize it’s not so simple. Even so, it’s easy to play. The rules are simple and turns are fast. There’s very little downtime so everyone stays engaged. It may take a game or two, but even non-gamers eventually have that, “Oh, I get it now,” moment. But even before that happens, people can stay competitive just by paying attention.
And the luck of the card draw helps, too. Some people despise luck, but as with TTR, the card draw here helps level the playing field for a family weight game. You may be eyeing a yellow space, but if those cards aren’t coming up, you’d better eye something else. Of course, there will be those games where someone seems to get everything they want while another person gets nothing, but those are rare. Usually the draw luck balances out and everyone’s in with a fair chance.
Iquazu gets bonus points for being good with two, as well. You’d think that it would feel too open, that there’s not enough competition for spots, but the water drop mechanism keeps the spaces filling up at a rapid clip. Plus, the fact that there are no rock points for second place in a two player game ups the pain of your decisions. Can you get points now, or do you need to give up on a column/row and ensure points in a later column?
Iquazu is not the deepest game out there. It’s puzzly and strategic, but it’s not something that is going to tie you up in knots and analysis paralysis. I’d put it slightly above Ticket to Ride on the complexity meter, mainly because you’re working in multiple dimensions to secure board position while you balance the economy of the gems. It’s more than just route building. It’s still a family game, though, albeit one that offers more challenge (and a prettier package) than some.
Overall, I highly recommend Iquazu. If you can get past the fiddly aspects, it really is a stellar family/gateway game with an appealing theme and intriguing gameplay. If you like a game that’s simple to play yet which doesn’t give up all its secrets on the first go, Iquazu is for you.