Exploration, resource exploitation, and settling new lands are common themes in the board game universe. Not coincidentally, more than a few of them are worker placement games. That’s because scratching out an existence in an unforgiving landscape requires you to send out workers to gather resources and build settlements. It’s a very easy idea to translate into the worker placement mechanism. Games like Stone Age, Agricola, Caverna, and Keyflower typify this, “Place your worker, gather resources, trade resources to build a comfortable settlement,” concept. And there are many more. Some, like Alien Frontiers, even take this exploration/settlement theme into outer space!
Into this crowded landscape comes The River, a new game from Days of Wonder about pioneers exploring the land along a river and ultimately settling on its banks. Does the gaming world need another game about settlers? Can The River bring anything new to the table, so to speak? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
The River is a worker placement game where you are deploying your workers to various spots on the board. There they will gather resources, construct buildings, and gain/modify various terrain tiles. As the game goes along, you will be settling along the river, gaining and losing workers, and earning victory points for your settlements.
Each player receives a player board and four workers to begin the game. A fifth worker will become available later in the game. Each player board depicts the river and is lined with places for you to place terrain tiles. The boards are preprinted with certain base resources and storage facilities. These are immediately available at the beginning of the game. As the game goes on and you acquire new tiles, you will cover up the preprinted spots, losing their original functionality but gaining the functionality of the new tile you place on top.
Note that each board has slight differences in what is preprinted where, meaning each player has a slightly different beginning setup. The beginning setup is further altered when each player selects one tile from the face up display and places it on the first open space on their board prior to play beginning. After these initial tiles are taken, the tile display is refilled from the supply and then play begins.
The game takes place over several rounds. Each round, players take turns placing their workers on various spots on the main game board and then taking the action associated with their chosen spot. If you want, before you start placing your workers, you can trade in any three resources for one food (food is represented by turkey meeples!). Food acts as a wild resource for the purpose of constructing buildings.
Note that on many areas on the board, only a specific number of workers can occupy those spots. Once all the available spots are taken, no one else can go into that area this round. Part of your strategy will be figuring out how to get what you need within these restrictions.
The actions you can take are:
Claim a terrain tile. You will take one of the face up terrain tiles from the display and place it on your player board. It must go in the next available free space on your board; you can’t just put it where you want. It will cover up the preprinted space on the board, but if you’ve already placed resources there, you can move them to another tile, or place them on the new tile (if allowed by the tile).
As the game progresses, your tiles will fill up the spaces along the river. When you cover the spaces with a preprinted worker on them, you will lose one worker. In thematic terms, that worker has decided to settle along the river and “retire” from helping you build more settlements. Good job, buddy. Enjoy the slow life.
Produce resources. Here is where you will gather wood, stone, clay, or food. You can take as many of a resource as you have production symbols on your player board. So, for example, if you have three stones showing on your board, you can take three stones from the supply. Note that you must also be able to store these resources on your board, so you need to have available barn icons on your board, as well. So while you may be able to produce three stones, if you only have two open barns, you can only take two stones. If you want, you can discard a resource from an occupied barn to make room for that extra stone. Otherwise, overages just remain in the supply. Food is the exception. If you place your worker in the food area, you can only take one food.
Construct a building. Placing a worker here allows you to construct either a building from the ones on display, or one that you reserved earlier (see below). To construct a building, take the card and then pay the required resources from your player board back to the supply. Food is a wild resource and can count for anything you want it to. So if a card requires three wood and three stone, you can either pay with three of each, or use food to make up any resources you lack. Once you’ve built the card, slide it under your player board so that its point value is hidden from other players.
You’ll also take a bonus token from the supply and place it facedown on the first open circle on your player board. Bonus tokens are stacked in two piles at the beginning of the game — a pile of numbers and a pile of zeros. The numbered tiles are stacked from highest to lowest. The first person to construct a building will get the highest value token, and the values continue to go down as buildings are constructed and tokens removed. Eventually, all that will remain is the stack of zero-value tiles. Players will still take these as they act as trackers for one of the end game conditions. Do not despair! If you’re fortunate enough to get the specific meadow tile, even those zero tokens can be worth something.
Note that the second building you construct gives you an extra worker, potentially increasing the number of actions you can do in the next round.
Reserve a building. If there is a building card you want to build in the display but you cannot yet afford it, you can reserve it so that you can build it in the future (and keep someone else from getting it). Take the card and place it facedown in front of you. Reserved buildings cost one less resource (of your choice) to build. You can only have two reserved buildings at a time.
Take the first player pawn. Having the first player marker means that you’ll go first next round, guaranteeing you first shot at the action spaces on the board. If no one takes the marker, it remains with the player who already has it.
Swap terrain tiles. This allows you to swap the position of two terrain tiles on your player board. Since one of the scoring bonuses requires you to have a column with two or three matching terrain tiles, this action can be useful in later rounds as your board begins to take shape.
This continues with players placing workers and taking actions until the game ends. The game ends either when a player has the specified number of bonus tokens on their board (varies with number of players), or claims their 12th terrain tile. The final round is completed and then scores are tallied.
Bonus tokens and buildings are worth the points indicated on the token/card. Players also receive one point for every three resources of any type they have stored on their board, two points per column with two matching terrain tiles, six points per column with three matching terrain tiles, plus points for any meadow tiles (different tiles offer varying amounts of points if you meet the criteria of the tile). Add everything together and the player with the most points wins.
Grab an Inner Tube and Float Down This Lazy River
Before I begin the full review, I feel the need to say something up front: This game is quite fun and it flows smoothly. However, it is a very light introduction to worker placement. What you will get out of it and enjoy about it will depend on where you are in your gaming journey, and whether your group likes light games. I know many people who read this site are “gamers” and tend to dismiss anything that’s too light. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean a game is “bad.” It simply means that it’s not designed for you. So if you want something heavy and brain burning, you can skip the rest of this review because that’s not what The River is. Yes, I have some concerns about the game, but its lightness isn’t one of them because I can appreciate that it was designed for a certain audience. Onward…
After a few years of creating heavier, thinkier, lavishly produced games, DOW seems to have decided to go back to basics. The River does for worker placement what Ticket to Ride did for set collection. It acts as very basic introduction to the genre. And by basic, I mean basic.
The River is simpler in play than most introductory worker placement games. It’s very straightforward. Place a worker and take the associated action. Actions fall into only three basic categories: Gain resources, claim terrain tiles to increase your production and storage capacities, and use resources to construct buildings for points. While there are bonuses to chase, they are fairly straightforward and don’t require a lot of forward planning to obtain them. For example, there are bonus points for having two or three tiles in a column with matching terrain types. However, you don’t have to plan for this from the beginning because there is an action that allows you to swap terrain tiles late in the game. There’s very little here that can ruin you if you fail to make the best choice on the first turn.
The River is a smooth flowing, fast playing game that’s great for beginning gamers and families. As noted above, it’s not terribly punishing so frustration is kept to a minimum. Actions are streamlined and choices are not overwhelming, so there’s very little downtime. There is a bit of randomness in which building cards and terrain tiles become available, meaning that planning a perfect strategy isn’t possible. You might end up with resources you can’t spend, but so may your opponents. There’s a leveling aspect to the randomness that makes The River family friendly. Scoring is also very straightforward and easy to understand.
While the gameplay is simple, it’s not brainless or scripted. There are strategic considerations. Do you try to rush the completion of buildings so that you nab those high value bonus tokens and get that extra worker? Or do you go for more resources and tiles to boost your production and storage engines? Remember, though, that as you add tiles to your board, you will eventually lose workers as they “retire.” But it may be worth it if you can generate more resources and have more places to store things. It is possible to do more with less workers, if you plan carefully.
There’s also a small memory element involved because the point values of constructed buildings and their associated bonus tokens are hidden after construction. If you can remember what your opponents built and the token they received for doing so, you’ll have a slight advantage because you’ll know how they’re doing score-wise and can develop a strategy to counter them.
As with most worker placement games, the fun of the game comes from the tension between wanting to do all the things, but being limited to only a few each round. You’re going to want tiles, and buildings, and resources, and to go first next round, but you’ve only got a few workers to use. As the game goes on, you’re going to lose workers to retirement, making this tension even stronger. Prioritization becomes ever more important.
Whatever you choose to do, astute opponents will try to slow you down. You need to pay attention in The River and be ready to seize the buildings or tiles that other players want. If you don’t, the person who gets their engine going first and starts pounding away on buildings or loading their board with tiles will quickly end the game. You can’t let someone increase their production and storage capacities to the point where they can hoard resources and play keep away from other players, either. You have to pay attention and be willing to have a go at someone else’s plans.
This makes it a somewhat cutthroat game. It’s not a solitary engine-builder where you can just sit back, build your own thing, and wait for the end. You will get things taken away when you need them, and you have to be willing to do the same. If you sit back and wait for the end, the end will come quickly and you’ll likely lose. Still, it’s not the level of meanness that you get when others can actively destroy something you’ve already built or steal from you, so it’s not too harsh for families. The “meanness” here comes from learning how to use the mechanisms to your benefit while denying those benefits to others. None of it is overt take-that or destruction.
The nice thing about The River is that there are lots of ways to score points, so even if you can’t do all the things you want to do, you can usually do something that will move some aspect of your point total forward. Maybe you can’t get the resources you wanted this round, but there may be a nice meadow tile available that will give you some end game points. Or maybe you can move the tiles on your board into position to get one of the column bonuses. This takes away a lot of the frustration that newer players often feel when playing “tighter” worker placement games.
The game scales well. The main board is double sided and the two-player side is more restricted in terms of places for workers. This tightens up the competition for spots. The two player game also uses fewer bonus tokens to track the end game condition, offers one less building card in the display, and alters the number of resources available in each market.
The fact that each game begins a bit differently is a nice equalizer, as well. The slightly different player boards and the fact that you’ll probably not get the same starting tile each game means that you won’t be able to count on deploying exactly the same strategy each time. Additionally, because the tiles and buildings that come out will differ each game, no two games will play out exactly the same. The variability isn’t huge here, but there is just enough to keep someone from locking onto a certain strategy and playing it every game. And as for replayability, this is the sort of game where the replayability comes from learning. If a non-gamer or family plays this game for the first time, they’re not likely to grasp all the possibilities on the first go. It’s going to take a while for it to mesh in their heads. Once the “Ah-ha,” moment happens, there can be many more games of trying new strategies and seeking ways to optimize play. However, after a while, The River will run its course. It’s not a deep game that offers endless strategies to explore. While it does reward repeated plays for the inexperienced, those who already play heavier fare will likely find this one taps out after a couple of plays. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Heavier gamers may be disgruntled, but The River isn’t designed for them.
The problem with The River is, while it may be a fun gateway game, there are already so many games that occupy the “intro to worker placement” space. Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, Champions of Midgard, Ex Libris, and Pursuit of Happiness, just to name a few. Some of these are classics, and others win on theme. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see The River outright “winning” on any criteria. Sure it’s a fine game, but it’s not that exciting. The theme of settlers gathering resources and constructing buildings isn’t likely to draw very many people to the table. Particularly not newcomers to the hobby who might need to be wowed by a great theme in order to overcome their reluctance to play games.
And that’s a problem. The River is very much aimed at newcomers to the hobby. The gameplay is simple enough that anyone can grasp it. But whereas a game with gorgeous components and a great theme can pull people to the table and get them to try those mechanisms, a game that lacks a “wow” factor is a harder sell. Don’t get me wrong: The components and artwork in The River are attractive. They’re nice to look at and the resources are fun to fiddle with (and the turkey meeples are cool because… turkeys!). And not every game has to be mind-blowingly original or gorgeous in oder to be good.
But when you compare The River to a game like The Pursuit of Happiness that you can sell with, “Hey, it’s like LIFE,” or Lords of Waterdeep that can draw in the D&D crowd, or Ex Libris that will draw in the book lovers, The River just doesn’t deliver that punch. “Hey, want to collect some stone and build a barn?” just doesn’t have the same ring. Stone Age might not be sexy, either, but at least you can sell that one with the, “It’s a foundational classic of the hobby,” line.
The other potential negative to the game is that there is quite a bit of setup and “stuff” involved for such a light game. It’s not complicated to set up, but the time involved can feel disproportionate to the length of the game. For gamers, who are likely to see this as a filler+-type of game, the setup time isn’t going to be worth the payoff.
Still, simplicity is The River’s greatest selling point. You may not be able to sell it on theme or depth, but you can sell it on simplicity and brevity. As introductory worker placement games go, this is just about as easy as you can get. While Stone Age, Lords of Waterdeep, and their ilk can be played by those with no gaming experience, they do harbor a few advanced concepts in their DNA. The River is stripped down to the basics. If you have players who balk at the complexity of other light worker placement games, try The River.
It’s also great for people who don’t like their games to take a lot of time. The River is shorter than most introductory worker placement games, clocking in at 30-45 minutes. In contrast, many of the others take about an hour or more, which can challenge the attention span of kids or people who don’t want to invest a lot of time in something they may not like.
There’s a lot to like in The River, provided you and your group are seeking a light, gateway gaming experience. As the title of the review section indicates, I liken this game to a lazy river at a water park. It’s not the flashiest ride in the park, and it’s not the most thrilling or rewarding. It’s not the one with a big flashing sign saying, “New! Come ride!” It is, however, a very good ride for those who don’t like (or aren’t ready to conquer) the Flumes of Doom. It’s smooth, comfortable, and approachable. It might not satisfy everyone and it may not have people lining up for the ride, but you’ll still probably find plenty of people who will embrace it precisely because it doesn’t attempt to drown you or make you scream.