AquaSphere, published by Tasty Minstrel Games, is a game of interesting strategies and difficult decisions. Designed by Stefan Feld, AquaSphere is a Euro-style board game for 2 - 4 players that places each player at the head of a research team competing to gain the most knowledge points in an underwater research facility. While there are many methods of scoring points there is no single clear path to victory and players will need to don their thinking caps and prepare to make some tough choices in order to succeed.
Each player's research team consists of an Engineer, a Scientist, six Submarines, a Base Lab and 16 Bots. The Engineer resides on the game board representing the station's Headquarters. When activated, an Engineer moves to various spaces on the Headquarters and programs a Bot to perform the action depicted next to that space. Moving an Engineer through the Headquarters to program Bots is relatively straightforward although the Engineer must follow the paths depicted by the arrows on the Headquarters board. This means that each move made by the Engineer provides an either/or choice for the player. Once one action is chosen, at least one other action is removed as a possible choice for the remainder of the round.
Deciding where to move an Engineer and which Bot to program is rarely easy as both choices on offer are often equally viable. This choice can be especially difficult to make if the action that a player wants most to take is a few steps in to the Headquarters, as players are only allowed to have two Bots programmed at any time. Adding to the conundrum presented by the Headquarters is the fact that the actions for each Headquarters space are reorganized each round. This can force players to decide upon a new path to take through the Headquarters each round in order to best fit their planned strategy.
[caption id="attachment_33526" align="aligncenter" width="600"] The Headquarters board also holds the score track. The tokens representing the various actions are rearranged each round preventing players from being able to plan too far ahead.[/caption]
The Scientist's job is to move around the Station and put the Bots programmed by the Engineer to use. The Station itself is divided into six Sectors and each Sector has an area corresponding to each action that the Bots can be programmed to take.
When the Scientist is moved into a Sector they are placed on the area that matches the programmed Bot that they are deploying. Based on the action programmed, Bots are able to gather Crystals, capture Octopods, deploy Submarines, obtain Base Lab upgrades, program another Bot, gather Time tokens or obtain Research Cards that grant special abilities.
While each Sector offers the same actions, the results of those actions can vary between Sector encouraging players to move their Scientists to different Sectors of the board. Different Base Lab upgrades and Research Cards are dealt to each Sector randomly and resources such as Crystals and Time tokens are placed unevenly around the board at the start of each round.
Octopods, which cause players to lose points if they are present between rounds, are also placed unevenly in each Sector giving the players an obstacle that they have to deal with in their quest to gain the most knowledge points. Additionally, the player who controls the most Sectors between each round is rewarded with points giving players even more incentive to move their Scientist around the game board. This adds yet another timing consideration to each move as players try to outmaneuver each other in order to be the last to place a Bot in a sector.
Players can use Bots to place one Submarine in each Sector but the more Submarines there are in a Sector the more Time tokens it costs to place a new one there. It may seem like a good idea to rush around the board and deploy Submarines as fast as possible, especially considering the fact that each deployed Submarine gains you one Time token between rounds, but players are awarded more points for deploying Submarines in later rounds.
This interplay between timing, positioning and managing resources really adds to the fun of the game although there are a few things that don't fit with the theme of the game that initially put me off. While Crystals score points for the player who has them, their primary function is to be turned in in order to cross red lines on the points track. If a player reaches one of these lines and does not have a Crystal to pay they have the option of returning a programmed Bot to their Bot pool in order to cross. If a player cannot pay either of these costs then they cannot continue to score points.
I simply cannot come up with a satisfying explanation for this limitation that fits the theme. Additionally, players are limited to having two Bots programmed at a time. Although this is less awkward than turning in Crystals to continue gaining points it still feels like a 'just because' rule. Having said that I must also say that having these limitations in place makes the game far more interesting even if it does feel a bit artificial. If they were removed a huge layer of strategy would be lost as they force players to carefully plan their turns and manage their resources in order to most effectively score points.
There is rarely a single best choice for a player to take at any given time and players will need to try to plan multiple turns in advance. It is extremely satisfying to have a planned set of moves play out just as intended. It can be equally agonizing to come to the realization that carefully laid plans will not come to fruition as planned due to a miscalculation or clever play by an opponent.
While there isn't any direct player interaction in AquaSphere, each player will need to keep a close eye on the moves that their opponents make. It is very possible for players to foil each others plans through careful timing and smart play.
A note on game length: Game length in AquaSphere is wildly variable based on player count and player tendency. A two player game can be finished in under an hour if both players are familiar with the game. Four player games generally tend to stretch past the two hour mark. One giant exception to this is if one or more players tend towards 'analysis paralysis'. Due to the amount of options available and the need to plan ahead, players who tend to try to analyze every variable on their turns can end up taking a significant amount of time to make a decision and thus greatly increase game length.
A note on player age: The game box recommends the game for ages 12+ and I think that is a good suggestion. When my eight year old saw the game for the first time and saw the Octopod meeples and Submarines he insisted that I teach him to play.
I was concerned that the rules and iconography might be too much for him but he grasped the concepts quickly, more quickly than one of the adults that I've played with in fact. While he really enjoys playing AquaSphere he doesn't quite grasp the long term strategies needed to be competitive and, with four players, the game lasts a bit too long for him to remain engaged the whole time.
A note on “chrome”: AquaSphere has great components. The cards and card-stock are good quality, the wooden bits and plastic crystals are nice and the art is really neat. When the game is fully set up on the table it is an absolute head turner. The unique shape of the game board, bright colors and interesting tokens all come together to form a game that is nearly as interesting to look at as it is to play.
The bottom line:
AquaSphere is a lot of fun and leaves you feeling as if you've given your brain a good workout. The rules and iconography are simple enough to learn that my eight year old likes to play it but robust enough to allow for deep strategic play.
The way that the game limits resources combined with the numerous choices to be made means that players are very often forced to make difficult decisions between equally desirable options. Having to make these decisions is made more difficult as there are multiple, equally viable, paths to victory. While some of the imposed limitations don't mesh perfectly with the theme they do add to the overall strategic depth of the game rather than just feeling like contrived obstacles.
Get this game if:
You like brain burner games that give you a mental workout.
You want a game that successfully combines elements of worker placement and programmable actions.
You like Euro-style games where players compete for points rather than fight head-to-head.
Avoid this game if:
You prefer games that allow you to roll dice.
You prefer games that have a high level of player interaction.
AquaSphere can be purchased via Amazon here.
Rules for AquaSphere can be found here.
An excellent rules walk through video can be found here.
The copy of AquaSphere used for review was provided by Tasty Minstrel Games.
AquaSphere is a fun, brain-burning Euro game. It offers satisfying, difficult choices from start to finish.