Dale Yu: Review of The River

The River

  • Designers: Ismael Perrin, Sebastian Pauchon
  • Publisher: Days of Wonder
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Times Played: 6, with review copy provided by Days of Wonder

The River was a game that I first saw at GenCon 2018, and I was interested in it for a number of reasons.  First, the game was designed in part by my good friend Sebastian Pauchon, and I’ve always been a fan of his game ideas. Second, the game was touted as a light to medium weight worker placement game, and this is one of my favorite genres.  Finally, the game was being done by Days of Wonder, a company which has a great track record of making games that appeal to me and my local group.

I did not get a chance to play the game in Indianapolis though as there was only one demo table, and I was never around when the seats were free – but I made a point of getting a demo for the Days of Wonder people as soon as I could in Essen.  In this game, you are a pioneer who is moving up the river, collecting resources and building buildings.

The game has a main board which is set in the center of the table – there are seven islands pictured on this board.  Each player gets a Boat with 4 pioneers as well as a River Board with a 5th Pioneer placed on the second Round spot.   The terrain tiles are shuffled and some are flipped up on the appropriate spaces on the leftmost island.  Each player will get to draft one in reverse player order to start their river board. The Building cards are shuffled and one each is placed on the empty spaces on the rightmost island.  The middle islands hold resources, and each is stocked with a number of resources based on player count as printed on the board.

The game is played over a number of rounds – until the end of a round where one of the end game conditions is met.  Play each round starts from the current Start Player and then goes clockwise around the board. There are essentially two parts to each player’s turn.  First, you can trade for food – as many times as you like, you can trade in 3 resources for 1 food. Second, you take a Pioneer from your boat and place it on an available action spot on one of the islands of the main board and then take the corresponding action.  You must be able to take the action of the space you occupy; you cannot simply take a space to block others from it. When you have completed the action of your pioneer, play moves clockwise and the next player takes a turn. This continues until all players have player all their Pioneers.  It could turn out that players have different numbers of Pioneers; if your turn comes up and you do not have any Pioneers remaining, your turn is simply skipped.

On the leftmost island, there is a display of terrain tiles as well as two action spots for each player color.  If you place a Pioneer here on one of your spaces, you can choose one of the available terrain tiles and place it on the next space on your River.  If you cover up things printed on the board, you lose those capabilities, but you will likely gain stuff printed on the tile itself. As you build terrain tiles, note that there are farmsteads placed at the 5th, 8th, 11th, and 12th spaces.  When you build those tiles, one of your Pioneers will settle permanently on that homestead and you will lose it for the rest of the game.

Most of the terrain tiles will either provide you with increased production, increased storage or some of both.  There are some Meadow tiles as well which may offer end game bonus scoring abilities, one time bonuses/actions, or recurring benefits in the clean up phase.

There are four small islands on the right hand side of the midline; each of these offers a different type of resource.  For Wood, Stone, and Clay – you will take a number of matching resources equal to the production icons seen on your board and your terrain tiles.  They must then be stored in Warehouses found on your board. If you do not have enough storage space, you either forfeit the excess or you can discard previously gained resources to take on the new stuff.  These three resources are bit-limited; you can only take what is present on the island. The Food island generates 1 food token – Food tokens can be used as wildcards for the other three resources.

At the very right is the building island.  You can place a worker here to reserve a Building card – to do this, you take any Building card and place it face down in your area.  You can build it on a later action, and you will get a discount for having reserved the building. You may only have 2 reserved cards at any time.

The last island is the one just left of center – and there are three possible options here.  In the center, you can place a worker to take the First Player token. This means you will be the start player of the next round.  If no one chooses this action, the token doesn’t move and the current holder will simply be start player again in the next round.

At the top, you can choose to construct a building – either a facedown reserved card in your area or one of the face up cards on the right island.  To build a card, you must pay the resources shown on the left side of the card. If it was a reserved card, you may pay one resource less. The constructed card is slid under your board to hide the VP reward of the card (though this information was at one point open knowledge!).  Then, you take a highest Building VP token left in the space and place it on your board on the VP token track – it may even say 0VP – but take one anyways. When you fill up the second space on the VP token track, you will get the Pioneer which was placed on that spot in setup.

The final action is at the bottom – here you can swap any two previously placed terrain tiles on your board. Any resources on the tiles simply move with the tile.  There is little use for this in-game, but this action can be of great importance for end game scoring.

The round continues until all players have played all of their Pioneers.  There is a little cleanup for the next round. First, all unchosen terrain tiles on the left island are discarded and a new array is laid out.  Refill the building card display (but do not discard unchosen ones). All players refill their boats with their Pioneers who can still work.

Again, the game continues until the end of a round when one player either has collected his fifth bonus token or completed all twelve terrain tiles on his River board.  At the end of that round, the game moves into Scoring – there are four components to the scoring:

1] 2VP for each column on your board which has matching terrain types for the top two spaces

2] 6VP for each column on your board which has matching terrain for all three spaces

3] 1VP for every 3 resources left on your board

4] ?VP for each meadow tile on your board which offers an endgame scoring opportunity

The player with the most VPs wins. There is no tiebreaker.

My thoughts on the game

The River has quickly entered my stable of gateway games.  I have already used it three times in that capacity, and it has been a great way to show folks that there is more to gaming than roll-and-move.  In addition, as the game has the usual Days of Wonder production quality, it’s also a very good example of what high quality TGOO have.

For seasoned gamers, the River is a light worker-placement game.  As with most games in the genre, you have a variety of choices in front of you, and you have to figure out when is the best time to take a particular action.  The game is suitable for those new to gaming because it has spaces which are reserved for a player (so that no one gets shut out of a tile choice), though there are definitely other spaces which require early placement – especially the building cards!

I like the way in which you build your winding string of tiles down the River, and you can immediately see the effects of the new tiles – whether it be for increased storage or increased production.  Certainly some of the Meadow tiles can prove valuable either in the short term immediate gain or for the end game bonus score, but you have to be disciplined to know when to take them.

The game wants you to be balanced in the early stages; you start losing workers from the 5th tile placed… so, by then, ideally, you’ll have started working on building cards so that you can regain that lost worker from the second building placed.  As the game moves on, you can try to slow your tile placement in order to keep your workers, but as you are limited to only two tiles a round, you can’t get too far behind in the tile race lest you lose any chance at the large column bonuses at the end of the game.

Speaking of those end-game column bonuses; this is the sort of second-level scoring that most beginners miss on their first play, but once they have seen how many points can be scored from arranging the tiles correctly; the reorganize action will be fought over AND the tile selection action will become a bit tighter as well.

As I’ve introduced a lot of new gamers to this one, there are a number of rules that are routinely missed by the newbies, and I think it would be good to highlight those here in case this becomes a gateway game for you:

1) forgetting to remove a Pioneer as you build tiles

2) forgetting that you can go to the build action spot and build any face up resource card

3) similarly, forgetting that you get a one resource reduction in cost if you build a reserved card

4) not seeing the importance of the column scoring

The game can play lightning fast.  With gamers familiar with the game, it is not uncommon for The River to end within 20 minutes of starting.  The worker placement decisions are simple, and there is no player interaction other than competition for the worker spaces/cards/tiles.   

Overall, I have enjoyed the game.  It might be a bit light (and too quick) for my usual game group, but there is a time and a place for this one.  In my usual group, it’s a great super filler. A good one to play at the start or end of the night. It also shines as a gateway game, easy enough to be taught to a newbie, and mostly grokkable within a game – but with a short game time to not outstay its welcome.  This is one of my hits from SPIEL 2018 for sure.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Joe Huber (1 play): Since Brian Bankler first referred to a game as JASE (just another soulless euro), I’ve found it an interesting classification – not a common one, but one that sometimes strikes me as an appropriate way to sum up the feel of a game.  And – it felt very appropriate here. One aspect of the designation – for me, at least – is a disconnection between the mechanisms and the theme; this really struck me, as I was learning The River, when the rule about moving landscapes around came up.  From a game perspective, the rule makes sense – but from a theme perspective, this leaves the game – flat for me. While the rest of the game works, it didn’t do anything that made me sufficiently interested to consider a second play.

Brandon (1 play, 2 player): The River felt to me to be an entry level game to get you to gateway games, it’s beyond light, it played feather light and lightning fast, especially at 2 player which is how I have played it. It has that typical Days of Wonder production which is fantastic, and it should fit in with the rest of their catalog of wonderful lighter weight family games. I’m just not sure of the staying power outside of that because of how light it is. I wouldn’t expect a group of Agricola experts to want to dive into The River multiple times, but I could see my family enjoying it every now and then. I should give it another try and see if Dale is right with some of the beginner mistakes along the way, maybe there was more to The River than meets the eye.

Dan Blum (3 plays): It’s… OK. It doesn’t do anything wrong but it doesn’t do anything very interesting, either. I am sure it makes a decent gateway worker placement game, but I can’t see a great reason for gamers to play it given the vast number of more interesting short games around. That being said I am willing to play occasionally since it’s short and moves along well.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it. Brandon K, Chris W, Steph, Nate B, Jonathan F
  • Neutral. James Nathan, Dan Blum, Luke H
  • Not for me.. Joe H.

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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