Interest in Stefan Feld games continues to run at an all-time high. If anything, the fact that he released no titles last year only served to ramp up the anticipation for 2013, when he will produce four major designs. First on the docket is Bora Bora, from Alea. Its appearance means that the last six big box Alea games have all been designed by Feld and just about all of them were big successes. Will the trend continue with this visit to the idyllic South Sea islands? I’ll attempt to answer that with my First Impressions of the game, which I got to play last Saturday. Before I go into that, let me give you an overview of the game, because details of the design are only starting to trickle into the English-speaking gaming world.
Bora Bora is kind of a worker placement game, except that the “workers” are actually dice and their abilities change every time you roll them. So make your own call if this qualifies as WP. It also has a geographic expansion element, some engine-building, a little resource gathering, and lots of other stuff. In other words, it’s typical Stefan Feld, with lots of disparate design elements tied together with a central dice mechanic. You already probably know if you like that sort of thing or not, but let me give you a few specifics to further clarify the gameplay.
The central board shows the five islands of Bora Bora, which are divided into 12 regions. The players will try to occupy each region by placing one of their huts there. Each region is made up of one of four terrains and each terrain produces either one of three resources or an offering to the native gods. The land and sea connections between adjacent regions are labelled with a die face from 1 to 6. The higher the die face, the more difficult it is to use that path to expand to the region. The players each begin the game with a hut in one of the regions.
The game consists of six rounds and each round is composed of three phases. At the beginning of the first phase of each round, all of the players roll the three normal d6 of their color openly. Then, in turn order, they place one die at a time on one of seven actions. The value of the die that is placed determines its power, with higher numbers being able to accomplish more. However, in order to place a die, its value must be less than any other die that was previously placed at that action. Thus, under the proper circumstances, low numbers can be more useful than high ones, not only because they’re easier to place, but because they limit the options of the opponents who follow you.
Here’s a brief description of the types of actions the players can place their dice on:
Expansion: When you expand, you place a hut in a region adjacent to one you already occupy. There are two Expand actions, one for expanding over land connections and one for expanding over sea connections. The die you place must be at least as high as the value on the connection you use. When you expand, you get the resource or offering associated with the terrain in the new region.
Add Tile: These actions allow you to add a tile to your game board that will give you additional abilities. There are two types of tiles: Men tiles and Women tiles. At the beginning of each round, six tiles of each type are laid out, on spaces numbered 1 through 6. There are two actions here, one for Men tiles and one for Women tiles. For each of these, the die placed must be at least as high as the number opposite the tile you take. The locations where the tiles are added on your board begin the game occupied by your huts. These huts need to be moved (for example, by expanding to a region) in order to make room for additional tiles.
Helper Action: This action lets you do a variety of things. You get points equal to the value of the die placed here. Each thing costs you 1 or 2 points and you spend them however you wish. The list of things you can do includes advancing on the Turn Order track, acquiring shells, buying VPs, drawing God cards, taking offerings, taking resources, and moving your huts to make room for tiles.
Place a Priest: The player can place one of their Priest pieces in the temple on the game board. There are six spaces in the temple, naturally numbered from 1 to 6. The value of the die indicates which space you place your priest at. If the space is occupied, the priests are moved to the next lower number, which can force a priest off the 1 space. Each priest in the temple at the end of the round scores VPs.
Construct a Building: Each player begins with six building tiles, numbered (surprise!) 1 to 6. It takes two resources to construct each building (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the short version). You can construct any building that has a number equal to or lower than your die value. Buildings give you VPs, with the reward being higher the earlier you build them.
Finally, you can just turn in a die for 2 VPs, rather than place it at an action. But that’s usually considered a disappointing result, and besides, it’s Bora Boring.
Once everyone has placed all three of their dice, the second phase of the round begins. In turn order, each player can do one Man action and one Woman action, using the Man and Woman tiles on their game boards. Each tile has an ability that mimics one of the things that can be done during first phase. For example, a tile might let you expand to an adjacent region via a water connection just as if you had placed a die numbered 2 there. If you have two or three tiles of the same type, you can combine them into one action. For example, if you had two of the tiles I just mentioned, it would act as a Water Expansion action with a die face of 4. This is the engine-building part of the game and the tiles you acquire definitely shape your strategy.
Finally, in the third phase, some areas of the board are resolved. Based on advancements on the Turn Order track, a new turn order is established (and players earn VPs based on how far they advanced). The temple is scored and the player with most priests there earns a God Tile. Each player can buy one piece of jewelry–there are four pieces available each round, which costs shells, and they award the player VPs at the end of the game. Finally, and most important, each player can accomplish one task. The players begin the game with 3 tasks and draft a new one each round. Tasks are based on things you’ve done or acquired at that time; for example, one task might be to have any four Woman tiles on your board. Each accomplished task gives you 6 VPs; if you cannot accomplish any of your three tasks at this time, you have to discard one to make room for the new one you draft. Again, the tasks you choose affect a lot of the actions you do throughout the game.
I’ve mentioned God cards and tiles a number of times, so let me talk about them now. There is a deck of God cards (consisting of five different types of gods) and they each allow you to change the rules of the game. For example, one lets you place a die on an action even if it’s higher than another die there, while another lets you count the die you just placed as a 6, regardless of its actual value. In order to play a God card, you also have to play an offering. God tiles are even more powerful: they can be played as any of the five God cards and don’t require an offering.
After six rounds, the players tally up their end-of-game points. The last player to add a hut in each region scores some points for it. In addition, each player will have three tasks on their board and they all score any of them they can achieve. Finally, there are some bonus achievements that will give the players who reach them 6 VPs apiece. They are all completist kinds of achievements, such as constructing all 6 buildings or placing huts in all 12 regions. Once these are scored, the game is over and the most VPs wins.
As the preceding explanation probably made clear, Bora Bora is unquestionably a Feld game. The clever dice mechanic, the varied subsystems, the points salad–it definitely fits the mold. But there are some surprises, too. For one thing, it isn’t as unforgiving as we might expect from Herr Stefan. Sure, an opponent might keep you from getting something done with a dice action, but you still might be able to accomplish it with one of your men or women tiles. And if all else fails, a God card can get you out of a lot of scrapes. That’s neither good nor bad, but it may not be what you expected.
And then you play the thing and you realize: this is a hard game to accomplish things after all. I mean, even if you manage to acquire a man and a woman tile on the first turn, you still only have 30 actions overall (18 dice actions, 12 tile actions). Many of the dice actions are kind of wimpy, since a grinning opponent made sure to place a low die face on the action before you could slap your 6 on it. The tile actions can be kind of anemic as well, which is why drafting identical tiles is such a good idea. Without the “forgiveness” of the tiles and God cards, this game would be impossible; as it stands, it’s just difficult.
And it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to you that I think that Feld and Alea got it right (again!). It’s tough to get things done, but not so hard as to be frustrating. Instead, it’s a very enjoyable and engrossing challenge and very satisfying when you pull off a nice move. I fully expect that fans of the designer will not be disappointed and that Alea will be able to chalk up another game in the “win” column.
Three aspects of the design stand out for me. The dice mechanic is clever and elegant and works quite well. It also does a good job of smoothing out the luck in the dice rolling (I rolled 1-2-2 on the first turn and even though my options were somewhat limited, I didn’t feel as if I lost much ground to the opponents who got much higher rolls).
The second thing is the man and woman tiles. This gives a very enjoyable engine-building aspect to the game, which I like even more because it doesn’t dominate, but merely gives a slant to each player’s strategy. Originally, I was a little disappointed that the tile actions weren’t more interesting, but just emulated the dice actions. But now I think that was exactly the right approach, as they let you enhance your dice actions, or substitute for the ones you couldn’t get done in the first phase. Having the actions be limited was also a good design decision, since it gives you strong incentive to match up tiles and doesn’t take away from the power of the dice actions.
Finally, I really like the way the God cards work. They’re all pretty powerful and they’re not that hard to get into play. But they add a lot of dynamic action to the game and keep the die placing rules from being too onerous. They also add another collectable element to the design, since without the capacity for invoking the gods, you can be at the mercy of the dice and your opponents.
One thing I was a little bit disappointed in was that defensive play wasn’t more rampant. Oh, there are many ways of screwing your opponents and we employed quite a few of them. Players would sometimes begin with their lowest die, to limit the future placements of the other players. But much of this seemed obvious; it was rare that a play like this led to coarse invective or complimentary nods of appreciation. I’m not sure it’s a major thing and we very well may get nastier with more experience. But given how much public information there is, I thought the screwage level might be a little higher or that the decisions to employ it be a little tougher.
One thing I was concerned about was the luck level of the game, and not just from the dice. There’s also the way that the men and women tiles come out each turn, as well as the task tiles. And there’s no question that some rolls are better than others (something like 6-4-1 is just about ideal under any circumstances). But the game didn’t feel dominated by luck at all. Much like Feld’s earlier Castles of Burgundy, you roll your dice and make the best of it. Unlike that game, there’s only six separate rolls, so I guess consistently poor rolling could really be brutal. But the God cards can help you with much of that. More to the point, there’s so much to do that any luck from dice rolling or reveals of the tiles just didn’t seem to come into play. We were all too busy absorbing the new data and planning out the next turn’s strategies to particularly notice.
The tasks are another nice aspect of the design and give you a bunch of immediate goals. The trick, of course, is to select your tasks so that they all fit into your overall strategy. The 6-point end-game bonuses are part of that as well, and they aid the game in another way. They’re all tough to do, but every player should be able to accomplish at least one. This gives even a struggling player a nice feeling of accomplishment right at the end. I finished last in our four-player game (although I didn’t think my score of 120 was too dire), but I did manage to place all my huts on the board and that definitely made me feel better about my performance.
Let me briefly address the components of the game. A lot of people gave Alea a hard time for what they viewed as “cheap” components in their last Feld game, Castles of Burgundy. I personally thought the complaints were overblown, but many of the game’s fans felt otherwise. Anyway, no one should have any similar concerns about Bora. The tiles are nice and thick and the player boards made of stiff, sturdy cardboard. Alea’s head honcho Stefan Brück was obviously listening to the complaints about Burgundy and it’s nice to see that he stepped up to the plate and dealt with them this time around.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first play of Bora Bora. Our game took a little longer than 2.5 hours, but it should come down to about 30 minutes per player now that we know what we’re doing. If I had to put it into an OG ratings category, it would be “I love it!”. This is a deep game, so there’s a huge amount still to explore, which is something I look forward to doing. I also hope to become a little more competitive in my future attempts at it. So I’d say that 2013 is off to a very nice start with this title and that the first of the Feld Foursome to appear this year gets a big thumbs up from this Feld fan.