A Pleasant Journey to Neko
- Designer: Citie Lo
- Publisher: The Wood Games
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 12+
- Time: 90 minutes
- Times played: 2, with review copy provided by The Wood Games
A Pleasant Journey to Neko was a game that I first heard about via Twitter pretty much on the day that I was leaving for Essen 2018. I saw a picture online and was immediately interested; the art looked great, and the blurb about the game – a dice placement game about seeing penguins – was enough for me… Both a theme and a mechanism that I was interested in! In APJtN, you are trying to supply and execute an expedition to the Antarctic port of Neko, trying to see the most penguins along the way.
There is a main board where the period cards are placed (there are 2 different decks in the game). Scoring tiles are randomly drawn, and two are revealed for each period. The scoreboard is at the bottom of this, and each player places their penguin figure here to keep track of the Penguin Points (PPs). Each player also gets an individual player board which provides space to store game materials as well as 6 dice. Player reference cards are randomly distributed, and player order is noted on them. Save room under your player board – as you will have harbor tokens which open up horizontal shipping lanes underneath your board. In these lanes, you will play cards….
The game is played over 2 periods, each made up of two rounds, and each round made up of three phases: Market, Preparation, Action. There is scoring at the end of each period (using the two randomly drawn tiles placed on the main board in setup) as well as final scoring after the second period scoring is complete.
In the Market Phase, each player can sell any/all of their fish for 4 coins, 2 fuel or 1 good.
In the Preparation Phase, players roll all six of their dice to start a drafting procedure. Simultaneously, all players choose a die and place it on their board and then pass the remaining dice to the left (without changing the faces). Continue until all players have 6 dice on their board. Next, players get income. All players discard a die to the main board, again not changing the value, and take a number of coins equal to the number on their discarded die. If players have cards which trigger in this phase, their effects happen now as well.
Players now get a die reward – in turn order, each player looks at their lowest numbered remaining die, and they can choose a reward with that number or greater from the chart shown on the player board. You might be able to buy a card, get a fish/good/fuel cube, remove an interference marker or take 5 coins. Afterwards, the turn order is established by totaling up the five dice and the player order will go from highest to lowest total – ties being broken by the current order. The new starting player gets an interference marker as a handicap.
In the Action phase, players now use their dice to take actions, going around the board until all the dice are used. On a turn, the player takes one of three mandatory action choices and then may take optional free actions as well. The three mandatory actions are: Take Fish, Bid on a card, Activate a hub or card action.
To Take Fish, simply discard any number of dice and take a matching number of fish tokens. You can only have 8 fish maximum in your freezer.
To bid on a card, you place any number of dice on a round card on the main board. Place your dice on the side of the card that faces you so that all players can track which dice they have bid for which card. The first player can bid with as many dice as they like. After that, all later bids for that card must have at least as many dice on the card as the bid with the most dice. You can only bid on one card per turn, but you may bid on a card multiple times. The bids are resolved at the end of the round.
To activate a hub or card effect, place a die onto a square space, making sure that your die meets the criteria on the space. Card spaces are fully located on a single card while hub spaces are comprised of halves on two different cards. If you use a hub, the die shown in the hub is both the criteria as well as the multiplier of the effect. That is, if it asks for a “2”, when you place a “2” there, you will get 2 things of whatever is on the other half of the hub.
At any point in your turn, you have 7 free actions available to you, and they can literally be done at any time, even in the midst of your mandatory action. There is a chart on the player board outlining your options – you can trade fish for stuff/dice, use money buy a ship or open a new harbor, use fuel to adjust a die or move your ship, remove an interference token or deliver goods from your player board to a port card. When you move ships, they go across a shipping lane into the hub spaces. If you move a ship to a hub that already has a die OR place a die onto a hub space that has a single ship in it, you get a bonus fish. As you move your ships across the board, if you pass through a port space by the end of the game, and that port’s delivery spaces are full, you’ll score the PP value of that card.
Then, the next player in turn order takes a turn. This continues until all players have used all their dice. It may be that some players exhaust their dice supply earlier than others, and if so, they are simply skipped when their turn comes up.
When the round is over, then the bidding is resolved. Cards are resolved in a specific order, from left to right going from top to bottom row. The player who has the highest total of dice wins the bid (ties broken by current player order). The winner has the option of paying for the card to add it to one of their shipping lanes, though they can simply discard the card. Each shipping lane has 5 available spots, and you can choose to place the card wherever you like, but you must pay coins for any open gaps between cards. Placement can be important due to the creation of the hubs between cards. Cards must be placed immediately when they are won. All losing players get 1 fish per die they used to bid on the card. Complete this procedure for all cards on the main board. If there are still rounds to be played, all players now take back 6 dice and new cards are dealt to the board.
Then, if the period has ended (After the 2nd and the 4th round), proceed to interim scoring using the two tiles designated in setup for this particular period. You score 3PP per tile that you meet the criteria. You also look at your ships and score points based on how far they have moved across your shipping lanes. If this is the end of the second period, there is one short interim round where players can spend resources to move their ships or deliver goods. And then the game moves into final scoring.
In final scoring, you score points for:
1] Number of harbors opened
2] Cards in your shipping lanes that have had at least one ship pass through them (noting that port cards must also be full of deliveries).
3] any cards with End Game scoring bonuses on them are now scored
4] 1 PP per undelivered good on your player board
5] Negative points scored for interference tiles
The player with the most points wins. Ties are broken in favor of current player order.
My thoughts on the game
Wow. What a brain burner. A Pleasant Journey to Neko offers players a multitude of choices to consider each turn. At the base level, there are a number of different ways to score points in the game, and I think you would do well to choose at least on major path to concentrate on – ports, harbors, ship travel, etc. Getting 19 points for a full set of 5 harbors is definitely good initial target. Planning on filling the 18 point megaport card is another. Alternatively, getting 3 ships to the end of a shipping lane will give you 21 points. There are plenty of ways of scoring points in the game, but you don’t have as much time as you think… you generally have 5 dice turns (at most) in each of four rounds, so you have to figure out how to do all these things in 20 or fewer turns – and as you’ll quickly learn, your options in the first round are somewhat limited due to a lack of shipping cards.
On any given turn, you only have to choose between three main actions, but you always have to remember that you have a boatload of free actions to consider as well. I found myself constantly looking at the upper right corner of the player board to review all of my possible options on each turn.
The game paces itself well. In the first round, the game zips along. Players don’t have cards in their shipping lanes yet, so for the most part, the initial round is a bunch of jockeying for the cards in the auction. In later rounds, you have many more things to consider, and this is what will eventually slow the game down as players have to parse out their possible actions and figure out what is best for them. Do you bid for a card… and if so, which die to bid? Don’t forget that you could spend fuel to modify the number on the die. Oh, but you also need to remember that you might need the fuel to move your ship later in the round. Or, you should move that ship first, not only will you get the benefit of the hub, but you might be able to place a die on that space next to generate the benefit again as well as a fish – which you could then turn in for that fuel that you wanted to modify the die to bid on that card… Or, if you collect enough fish, you can spend three of them to retrieve a used die from the board which essentially gives you an extra action. Or maybe you’ll see an entirely different tree of actions which starts from playing a good to your port which generates an extra fuel token as a bonus… In any event, just prepare for player turn times to become significantly longer in the final round than they were in the first round.
Make sure that you manage to win an auction or two in the first round, or else you might end up dead in the water. Players need to be aware that the game makes it possible for someone to go through the first round and not win any auctions – which then puts them at a significant disadvantage for the rest of the game as they’re now a full round behind the rest of the game. The reason for this is that ONLY the winner of an auction has the chance to buy the card; players could make a spiteful winning bid just to stop you from winning, and even though they cannot afford the card, they can still stop you from getting it. As you generally only add cards at the end of each of the four rounds, it can really hinder your progress if you don’t have any cards at the end of the first round. Not only will you have fewer actions/hubs to work with, you’ll lose an entire round’s worth of possible ship movement, etc. It’s not a negative thing; all players should be made aware of this at the start though so that they can draft and bid appropriately.
I like the way that the game gives value to dice of all values. Low numbers are really good for powering action spots/hubs, and they also provide better rewards at the start of each round. High numbers are better for bidding and also give you advantage in the battle for turn order. The only part of the dice that I don’t like is that there is a significant possibility for analysis paralysis with the drafting – we have chosen to shield the dice with our hands while we are drafting so that players can’t spend too much time looking at what is coming to them downstream. Sure, it takes away a smidge of the strategy, but it’s just not worth losing three or four more minutes in a game that already pushes the upper limits of my time thresholds.
The game is mostly a sandbox sort of thing – each player has their own area, and for the most part, there isn’t a lot that your opponents can do to affect what you are doing. The main player interaction is in the dice draft (minimal interaction) and then in the competition for cards in the auction. There is also some indirect competition for some of the interim scoring goals. But, other than that, you stay in your own little cocoon and plan out your turns – opponents cannot change the state of your area; they can’t take your things away and there isn’t a limit on resources in the supply. Due to the dynamic nature of the auctions (combined with the possibility of players changing their dice via fuel expenditure), you can make tentative plans off your turn, but you’ll likely need to take a good look around the board at the start of each of your turns to make sure you understand the options/possibilities. Depending on your personal level of AP, this can take a LONG time near the end of the game.
Speaking of game time, I would love to get this game played in the suggested 90 minute limit – and with a table of experienced players, this might become possible… eventually. Our group is normally fairly quick, and our first 4p game was nearly 3 hours with rules explanation and the inevitable slowdowns as we try to understand the rules and what all the different cards do. My second game was with more newbies, so it was also lengthy, though I was able to answer questions a little bit better – but we were still over 150 minutes.
The components are fine. The art is generally pleasing, though I do think that the icon used for “Penguin Points” looks more like a sloth than a penguin. I also do wish that the board was a bit larger. The auction part of the board gets quite cluttered, and it’s frustrating to have the important information on the cards be covered up by the dice used to bid on them. I would have liked there to be a border around each card to given space off the card for the bidding dice.
The icons are generally easy to understand or remember – though we did need to refer to the rules a few times on the initial presentation of a card. The player reference cards are mostly helpful, but some of them seem somewhat redundant (i.e. did we really need a whole reference card devoted to a pictoral representation of the ship/die on a hub situation?!). Also, I really would have liked the #1 player order card to have had a Penalty icon on it to remind players that they needed to take one when turn order changes. Otherwise, between the main board, player board, and reference cards, all of the rules are summarized (sometimes twice).
After playing twice, this is the sort of game that I would have absolutely loved ten years ago. This was back in the day when I adored games like Agricola and other more complex games. Today, I still enjoy this sort of game, but I no longer have time in my schedule to play a 2+ hour game ten or more times – which might be what I would need to really feel comfortable with the nuances of the games and the interactions of all of the different cards, etc. This is more an issue on my end than with the game – because, thus far, all of my journeys to Neko have definitely been pleasant, but given my hectic schedule and lack of vacation days, I much prefer a 3-day cruise to the 7-day cruise that this game offers.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Joe Huber (1 play): For me, the promise of a pleasant journey in a game suggests certain elements – no direct interaction, a limited set of options, a clean scoring system, and so on. But A Pleasant Journey to Neko didn’t deliver on that; to me, the game felt not only long, as Dale notes, but rather scatterbrained – somewhat of an anathema when one wants a pleasant journey. The penguins are quite nice, and overall the presentation is a plus, and the game isn’t bad, really – but for me the game included not only wasn’t pleasant – it wasn’t what I’d be looking for in an unpleasant journey either.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y
- Neutral. John P (due to game length)
- Not for me… Joe H