There are quite a number of new Stefan Feld games coming out this year, and I had the chance to play most of them at the Gathering of Friends this April. Bora Bora is the newest release from alea (a subsidiary of Ravensburger), and it has been recently released by Ravensburger USA for domestic gamers. If you hadn’t known yet, Ravensburger/Alea is no longer licensing out the US rights to their games – in the past, companies like Rio Grande Games had been helping co-publish/distribute games from Ravensburger and Alea. At this time, it does not appear that the full German line will be released here in the US, but hopefully the major titles will make their way here. This year, Las Vegas and Bora Bora are among the bigger titles that Ravensburger USA has had, and I’m still waiting to hear about Just in Time…
But, enough about the company, let’s get to the game — Bora Bora
Designer: Stefan Feld
Time: 90-120 mins
Publisher: alea / Ravensburger USA
Reviewer: Dale Yu, with review copy provided by Ravensburger USA, 7 plays
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. Some people have started to give this sort of game a new moniker – the “point salad” genre. 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. (To be clear, Bora Bora in real life is only a single island! It is surrounded by two smaller islands and some reefs, but some changes have been made to the geography to improve gameplay…) 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. In addition, placing a priest gets you an important Fire action.
Construct a Building: Each player begins with six building tiles, numbered (surprise!) 1 to 6. It takes two resources to construct each building. There is a grid in the middle of your player board with the 3 different resources scattered on it. As you collect resources (through expansion or the helper action), you place them on this grid. You can construct any building that has a number equal to or lower than your die value as long as those spaces are already occupied with the appropriate matching resource. Buildings give you VPs, with the reward being higher the earlier you build them. Building a Building also gives you an important Fire action.
[Fire Action – this is a nice two-part bonus action; in the first part, you collect either a offering token or a god card. Second, you choose between collecting a shell or advancing a space on the turn order track.]
Score points: 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. (NB: This is Larry Levy’s awful pun, not mine…)
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.
· play a die as if it were a 6 (but places as the rolled number)
· place a die even if it is higher than the already placed die
· take a tile action twice
· Score a goal tile with one fewer requirement (for 4VP instead of 6)
· Score points when expanding
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 (between 1 and 6) 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.when you normally max out at 5 possible actions (your 3 dice and 2 possible tile actions). This is, to me, the hallmark of Feld’s games – being presented with many attractive options on your turn and never having enough actions to accomplish them all.
My thoughts on the game:
I’ve played the game now 7 or 8 times, and I think it is a good thing for me to say that I’m still not really sure if I know how to consistently win the game. Like most Feld games, there are multiple ways to score points, and it’s never quite clear if one path is easier or better than the others. There are a lot of things to focus on in Bora Bora, and for some, it may be too complicated. There is always the feeling that you want to do 7 or 8 things each turn
As I mentioned, you are somewhat limited in the number of things you can do each round, and you are constantly being forced to choose between different options. In addition, your choice of actions can be affected by the numbers you roll. One good thing about the dice in Bora Bora is that it isn’t simply about always rolling high numbers. Due to the fact that you can only place a die on an action space if it is lower than any already placed dice, there is definitely more value at the end of the round to a lower number. Also, the game provides you ways to work with your crummy dice rolls through the God Cards – you can make small numbers act like big numbers or vice versa. Of course, you have to have the right cards in your hand AND you have to have the offerings to go with each one!
There are so many different choices to make that it’s honestly overwhelming for me to think about them all. So, instead, I just play the game and try to deal with them as they come up. But, let me try to capture what I try to think about…
First, I have to decide about what I want to do with my goal tiles. Often times, my initial goals will help steer my early actions – because it’s nice to get those 6pt bonuses at the end of each round. Most of my 4p games have ended up with the winner around 150 at least, so getting 60 points from the 9 goal tiles (and end game bonus) can be a nice chunk of points….
Second, I need to always consider what tile actions I already have – and what tile actions I’d like to have. As there are only 3 dice action each round and up to 2 tile actions each round, I think that you end up losing ground to your opponents if you don’t get good value out of those optional tile actions. Each round, I’ll look closely at the tiles available to see how aggressive I want to be about getting tiles that turn. If I have a number of tiles to choose from with different actions, it might also help me prioritize what I want to do with my dice actions knowing that I can still get other things done with the tiles.
Third, it’s always nice to pick a contrarian strategy to the rest of the table. If no one else is overly interested in expansion, then maybe I’ll try to concentrate on that as I know I’ll get the actions that I want with less struggle.
Fourth, I always have to keep an eye on my hand of God Cards and my stockpile of offering tokens because if my plans get bollixed up by the other players or my typically poor dice rolling skills, I can try to make do by using the God Cards to get me where I want to go… Of course, collecting the God Cards and Offering tokens takes up some of my precious actions!
Fifth, I usually try to remember to look at both the Jewelry and Task cards on offer that turn. If I need a specific Jewelry token to complete a task, I might try harder to lead the Turn Order track to get first choice of the Jewelry. Additionally, if there is a specific Task that I want to get (for an easy 6 pt score), I might be motivated to shoot for Turn Order – though I’ve found that there isn’t as much defensive play with the Task tiles because usually everyone tries to pick one that they can score on their own rather than trying to take one to prevent someone else from scoring. So, really, I would have to think that I was in competition for a Task tile… And of course, being earlier in turn order is always fairly useful because you get first choice of the actions in the next round…
Is it possible to achieve all of these things each round? Of course not! And, that is the beauty of the design here. There are so many choices to ponder and so many different ways to get where you want to go. In order to win at this game, it will take a good plan from the start coupled with clever play during the game as you respond to the dice rolls and the actions of your opponents.
Unlike some of Herr Feld’s other games, I like the fact that this game doesn’t feel punishing (as in Notre Dame or In the Year of the Dragon). In Bora Bora, you have your little sandbox on your player mat, and you construct your engine here in relative seclusion. There is a bit of interaction – mostly due to turn order – in where you get to place your dice, which tiles you might get to choose from, or your standing on the Temple and Turn Order tracks. But, on the whole, you’re on your own to survive through the game. Nothing takes things away from you. There aren’t any catastrophes or rats that make you remove tiles from your board. Of course, if you don’t collect the right things, you won’t score as many VPs, but Bora Bora feels much more friendly than his earlier designs.
I also very much like the luck / variance that the dice provide. The dice rolls help keep each game different as the changing rolls make it impossible to keep to a single strategy – because at some point in the game, you simply won’t have the numbers that you want to do the things you want to do. There are plenty of ways around a bad roll – either using God Cards or simply choosing other actions that might be available to you – and for me, this is the part of the game that I like. Our group plays the game at a nice pace, and we’re usually done within 90 minutes – and at this length, the luck factor seems about right. Thus far, I’ve enjoyed my games of Bora Bora, and I still look forward to getting it to the table. It’s not necessarily the sort of game I’d play with AP-prone players, but let’s face it, I’d probably say that about just about any game…
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:
Ben McJunkin (5 plays): As a general matter, I come at the subject of game design from a very different perspective than Stefan Feld. I enjoy very few of the titles that he puts out. While there is occasionally a glimmer of brilliance in some mechanism or other, I am not one to become enamored by games that are coldly mechanical and puzzle-like quests for points.
For some reason, Bora Bora is different. I find the game to be relatively straightforward, (though I tend toward complexity, so this is potentially an unhelpful statement) and, unlike many of Feld’s recent games, I see quite clearly the connections between the game’s scoring options. The game’s beauty lies in the simplicity of the action-limited environment. As a general matter, players have 30 actions to spend among a discrete set of action types. The opportunity costs of taking any given action over another is then fairly easy to grok.
The whole endeavor takes about 90 minutes with 4 players, and I try my best to exclusively play it at that count. With any fewer, it becomes too easy for me to control my own destiny in the game. I quite enjoy the jockeying for turn order and for particular action opportunities in the game (turn order can indeed be quite brutal if you know what you are doing). It’s not a game I’ll ever love, but I think it is a much better title than has come from Feld in a long while, and that is saying a lot coming from me.
Dan Blum (5 plays): I’m not a big Feld fan: there are a number of his games I’ll play, but none that I love or will miss if I don’t play them. Initially I liked Bora Bora better than his other designs, but my feelings on it have been getting more negative with subsequent plays.
There’s nothing actually wrong with it, and I like the relatively high level of interaction compared with some of Feld’s other recent designs. However, I just don’t find it to be a lot of fun. I disagree with Dale’s assessment that the game is not as brutal as other Feld designs. Sure, the game isn’t taking things away from you, but the all-or-nothing nature of the end-game bonuses (which can easily decide a game) can create enormous pressure which certainly feels brutal to me, and if you’re late in the turn order you can get blocked from critical actions quite easily.
I also don’t feel that there’s much more game space I want to see. It seems necessary to pursue a “filling” strategy (fill your grid with buildings or your hut area with man/woman tiles) to win against experienced players in most cases. (The only other strategy I have seen do well is to get a bunch of man/woman tiles that produce VPs and work them heavily, but you can’t rely on getting those early.) That’s fine, but any such strategy is going to consume a very large percentage of your available actions, so to play the game well you need to go in knowing most of what you will do. There’s still interest in figuring out when to do what and adapting to circumstances, but not enough to get me to play this; I can play games just as interesting which are shorter and less fiddly.
Jonathan Franklin (1 play): I have learned that Feld is not for me. I liked Notre Dame and Roma, but none of the recent games have done anything for me. I liked Trajan the way I like coffee icing between layers in a boring cake. Bora Bora was more tied together than Trajan, but suffered from no vision or core that parallels Trajan’s mancala system. I don’t really want to play it again because I did not feel any joy in trying to get this bit of jewelry or that woman with a special power. I also felt the game had no aha moments, other than figuring out the rules, so I did not see space to explore, as it appeared quite tactical and situational.
Joe Huber (0.17 plays): Very rarely does a game bother me so much that I don’t wish to complete one play, at least when it’s not by consensus. Bora Bora did. The pace feels wrong, the central mechanism is (oddly, for Feld) neither innovative nor enjoyable, and I was _very_ grateful that my fellow players were willing to let me out after one turn. While I enjoy many of Feld’s designs, and tolerated others well enough, this is easily my least favorite.
Luke Hedgren (5 plays): The tasks really start the game off quickly, providing players with near range goals to accomplish with just those 3 dice actions. I’ve won the game with very few people, and a lot of people. I’ve won playing all my huts as quickly as possible, and using the hut stashing to play them late. I’ve won with lots of priests, and with virtually none. I’ve won building all my buildings, and almost none. You could argue that makes a game too balanced, but in-game scores have been very disparate as well. Dunno, it just has tons of stuff to do with a max of 30 actions, and that is a really great puzzle-y game experience for me.
Lorna (6 plays) I like games that are challenging and fun. I find Bora Bora a reasonable challenge to maximize your actions with your dice rolls but it’s not much fun. I would liken it most to Trajan I guess, but I like Trajan better because the challenge to utilize the mancala more than makes up for the lack of fun in that game for me. I am happy to play Bora Bora again but not necessarily one I’ll suggest myself.
Mitchell Thomashow (5 Plays, two players each time) Over the last year I’ve come to enjoy Stefan Feld’s games. We’ve played Macao, Castles of Burgundy, and Trajan at least 25 times each. They are engrossing, engaging, and intricate designs. They each have something unique to offer. So Bora Bora was a must try for us. In many respects, it’s a “best of” Feld, a “deja vu all over again” experience. It’s not as distinctive as his other games, but very well designed and very intricate. I find it less exciting that the previous titles, more exhausting, and not as dynamic. What’s different about Bora Bora is it’s circular economy, and relatively non-linear series of interactions. There are multiple currencies in the game and they loop around the board in surprising and clever ways. That’s what makes it a different challenge than his previous efforts. I like the way it forces me to think in sequential circles, or to come at a challenge from several angles. We’ll stick with it for at least a dozen more plays, as I think it’s deserving of more study. My initial impression is positive, but I’m not as inspired by the game as I’d like to be. I’m not sure why that is. I like the artwork. It reminds me of colorful encyclopedia diagrams from the nineteenth century.
Greg Schloesser: Wow! Stefan Feld surely has a penchant designing games that are very busy and border on the overwhelming. He also has developed a bit of a reputation for having themes that are very thin, at best, and have clever mechanisms that bear little or no relation to the theme or the rest of the game. I have been one one of those complaining about such matters. Indeed, the disconnection was so strong in Trajan, that I simply could not enjoy it.
Along comes Bora Bora, and during my first playing (which I somehow won) I was completely befuddled. There was so much going on that I had trouble understanding it or developing any type of overall strategy. Still, it was intriguing, and I felt the mechanisms actually fit the theme rather closely. My second playing scattered the clouds of confusion and I now appreciate an incredibly tense and exciting game. For me, this is probably the best Feld design to date.
Larry (3 plays): At this point in time, I feel Bora Bora is the best of the three 2013 Feld games I’ve played (the others are Rialto and Brugge). Once again, I think the designer has come up with a very clever dice mechanic and figuring out how to best utilize it is an enjoyable challenge. One nice thing that distinguishes Bora Bora from other Feld games is how closely interconnected the various actions are. It also has considerably more player interaction, and downright nasty play, than most of his other designs. Put that all together with Alea’s usual excellent development work and it’s currently my favorite published game of the year.
One thing I’ve noticed is how differently the game can play based on the aggressiveness of the players. In my first game, there was a ton of defensive plays; you could almost count on players starting out with their lowest die, to block their opponents, rather than with a high die to gain a powerful action. My second game, OTOH, was played in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as everyone was nice as nice could be, with very little blocking. The games definitely had a different feel, but I think I prefer the game with at least a little bit of nastiness. It heightens the challenge, considerably increases the player interaction, and just makes for a sharper game. But it’s nice that groups which would rather not play such a cutthroat game can choose to play at a high level without much nastiness if they prefer.
Oh, and Dale, you wish you could come up with a turn of phrase as good as my “Bora Boring” pun! :-)
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! W. Eric Martin, Luke Hedgren, Greg Schloesser, Larry
I like it. Dale Yu, Ben McJunkin, Mitchell Thomashow, John P.
Neutral. Dan Blum, Lorna
Not for me… Joe Huber, Tom Rosen, Jonathan Franklin