That last few years have seen the release of some amazing abstract games. I wan’t always a fan of abstracts, primarily because my main point of comparison was chess. And I stink at chess. I mean, really, really stink. It left me bitter. But games like Azul, Sagrada, Battle Sheep, Photosynthesis, and others have shown me that not all abstracts are as painful (to me) as chess. Into this growing abstract space comes Reef, a beautiful new game from Next Move Games (makers of Azul). Does it deserve a place on my growing shelf of abstracts, or does it fail to make the cut?
How It Plays
Reef is a lovely, although loosely themed, abstract game in which you are trying to build a reef to house marine life. Technically, you are the reef, trying to grow and be beautiful. To build your reef (yourself?), you’ll be playing cards and placing reef bits in order to score points for completed patterns. The goal is to have the most points at the end of the game, which means you are the most beautiful reef, beloved by fish everywhere.
On your turn, you will do one of two things: You can take a card from the display or deck and add it to your hand, or you can play a card from your hand to grow your reef and, if possible, score a pattern.
If you choose to take a card, you can take one from the three face up cards on the table, or take the top card from the face up draw deck. If you take the card from the draw deck, you must place a one point token from your point stash onto the card with the lowest printed point value. If you take a card from the three face up cards and it has a point token — or more than one — on it, that token becomes yours. Note that there is a hand limit of four cards. If you take a card from the display, move the top card from the draw deck into its place at the end of your turn.
If you choose to play a card, place it face up on your discard pile. Next, take the two coral pieces indicated on the card from the supply and place them anywhere on your player board. You can place them on blank spaces, or stack them on top of other pieces (provided you don’t exceed the stack limit of four pieces).
After you’ve placed the pieces, you may score the pattern on the card you played, if applicable. If the pattern appears in your reef, you receive the point value indicated on the card. If it appears multiple times, you get the points on the card multiplied by the number of times the pattern shows up in your reef. Multiple patterns cannot share pieces, however. They must occur individually.
When looking for patterns, note that only the top piece of a stack is relevant. Anything below that piece does not count for scoring. Some patterns require that your stacks be specific heights. In this case, only the top pieces of the correct height and color count.
The game ends as soon as one color of coral runs out. (It may also end immediately if the card deck runs out, although this is rare.) Players complete the current round so everyone gets a last turn, and then scores are tallied.
If you still have cards left in hand, you may score those patterns (without taking additional coral pieces). At this point, you may only score a completed pattern once, even if the pattern appears multiple times on your board. The player with the highest score wins. There are two tiebreaker rules after which, if the game remains tied, victory is shared.
Do You Want to Be Stranded on This Reef?
In recent years, I’ve discovered the quiet joy of the new crop of abstract games. They are thinky and their strategies subtle. Usually they’re good games for weeknights because they are fast to set up, have simple rules, and play relatively quickly. It does’t hurt that many releases over the past couple of years have been lovely, as well. So while I won’t say that I seek abstracts first when shopping for games, my radar does perk up when I see an attractive abstract with simple rules.
So did Reef survive and earn a place on my shelf? Yes, but possibly not forever. Let me explain.
Reef does a lot of things well. It’s gorgeous, obviously, with a table presence that draws people in. The components are good quality, and the reef pieces are fun and chunky. It’s easy to learn — the rules are basically only a page and a half. And it’s thinkier than those rules (or the cartoonish appearance) might imply. It takes a play or two before you fully understand how the cards and scoring should work together.
The trick to Reef is that you have to always be looking forward. Since the pattens you can score are also on the card you play, you have to look for cards that can not only give you the pieces you need to build your reef, but also a card that has a scoring pattern you can use. It’s great if the card gives you two yellow pieces to set up a great scoring opportunity, but if you can’t score it using that same card (which you can’t, because the game isn’t that kind), how are you going to score it? Do you already have that card in hand so you can use it next turn? Is there a card in the display you want? (Then you’ll have to hope no one else takes it before your turn comes around again.) Are you going to blindly hope that a card comes up you can use? How long do you wait before giving up and covering that pattern with other pieces so you can hopefully score? Or, do you get greedy and try to replicate that pattern elsewhere in your reef so you can score it twice (or more)?
The strategy is to always be looking for cards that can combo off of one another. You want to build up a hand of cards that gives you good pieces, plus allows you to score, preferably in one turn. But there’s a problem: The fact that the cards come up randomly means you can’t form a long term strategy. This makes Reef more of a tactical game than some abstracts which reward long term planning. Reef is a, “Make the best of what you get,” kind of game.
In some respects, Reef acts like an engine builder (build a hand of cards and then try to deploy them in an order that builds you up to a big score) except you don’t get to save your accumulated coral pieces to play them when you really need them. They have to go on your board when you earn them, so you’d better have a good place in mind for them when you take them.
The spatial challenge was a nice change from many other abstracts. It’s only the top piece of a stack that matters for scoring, so tracking patterns isn’t as easy as it would be on a flat board. It’s sometimes easy to get visually lost among your coral stacks, so you need to watch for emerging patterns carefully. Plus, since you can only stack pieces four high, you have to be efficient and careful in your stacking so you don’t block yourself off. This bit was perhaps the most novel part of the game for me, and I learned that I’m not so great at it!
The biggest negative of the game is that, unlike Azul or Photosynthesis which allow you to mess with other players, Reef is very solitary. Yes, you can watch the cards on the table and your opponent’s board and try to take something that might prevent them from scoring a big move, but this isn’t the kind of game that rewards that behavior. Scoring opportunities can be rare, depending on how the cards are coming out, so taking something to hurt someone else will often come at your expense. And you may not be able to recover from it. Having a card in your hand that doesn’t benefit you holds you back because the only way to get rid of it is to play it. You can’t discard it any other way, so you don’t want to fill your hand with “spite cards” that you can’t use. With a limit of four cards in hand, you need to be efficient about what you take.
Solitaire play can be peaceful, but I prefer games that allow you to at least do something to interact with an opponent. It doesn’t have to be mean or backstabby, but build something into the game that gives me a way to match wits with my opponent. The only interaction in Reef is watching the cards turn over and groaning when someone else takes the card you were eyeing. As a result, it feels like individuals sitting around a table doing their own thing.
As I said above, Reef does a lot of things well, but I don’t think I’ll keep it forever. Aside from the solitary nature of the game, the problem with Reef is that in spite of the unique thinking it asks you to do, it’s just a little too random, too tactical, and lacks long-term replayability. There’s no real way to change anything about the game, or mitigate the luck involved. You will have seen everything it has to offer after a couple of plays. Whether the fun remains after that point will depend on your audience.
Reef is ultimately a pleasant diversion, and with new gamers it’s great. It can be a way of introducing them to more challenging and interactive abstracts. It’s an easygoing game that fills the need for a game that works your brain, but not too hard. You won’t be matching wits with your opponents, only yourself and the cards on the table. It’s so quick that it often feels like a filler, rather than a main game. That’s sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending on what you want out of your games.
If that sounds fun for you and you play with an audience that will appreciate it, then Reef is a solid choice. However, if you’re looking for a deep, challenging abstract, I’d suggest looking at some of the other releases of recent years. I won’t say I was disappointed by Reef because in most ways, I was happy with it. I just needed to adjust my expectations downward from, ” A game as thinky and interactive as Azul for my gamer friends,” to, “A fun, light abstract that’s best for families.”
As to whether or not you’ll like Reef, here’s my opinion. Reef is a solid gateway game that’s approachable, gorgeous, and easy to learn and play. It’s kid and in-law friendly. However, it isn’t as challenging or replayable as some abstracts of recent years. The abstract genre is getting crowded and this isn’t as great as some. Reef is super fun at the beginning, but it does begin to feel a little stale after several plays. However, in a family setting, it’s mileage will go much further. I really wish the Dragon scale below had a way to give two scores, because Reef is one of those games whose score will greatly depend on the audience. So while I give it a 7.5 for gamers, in a family setting I’d bump that to a 9.0.