Reef is a mellow sort of game, with a focus on player accomplishments over interactions. The title maintains a steady rhythm, in line with many others that are more meditation than competition. But these types of gentle engine builders generally have to find a near perfect balance in streamlining complexity. So, how does the game stack up?
In Reef players are tasked with building a reef consisting of four types of plastic pieces on their own player board, a four by four grid. Each turn, a player may take one of two actions: select one of four face up cards to add to their hand, or play a card from their hand. When selecting a new card, players buy that card with victory points added on other cards (I’m going to stop and say that I love it when VP have an actual in game value). When played, each card allows a player to add two reef pieces (shown on the top half of the card) to their board, and then score points based on a particular pattern on their board (shown on the bottom half of the card).
What makes this system interesting is that the pieces provided by the top of a card will never match the pieces used in the pattern on the bottom of the card. This really forces the player to think ahead if they want to score frequently. This clever use of card combos is compelling to say the least, being the central draw of the title. It’s one of the more inventive systems I’ve seen, and when it’s working it really sings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work.
The first time I played Reef I slaughtered the other players, by like a 60 point margin. I’m no genius, heck, I can’t even tell you it was intentional. When my turn was up, there was always an easy action- a card I needed, or an optimal move. But the second time I played I was destroyed, literally nothing went right. And that’s the rub. The gameplay is just more haphazard than it should be. I believe this originates from the hand limit (four) and the number of cards available in the pool (also four); the former seems unnecessary, the latter a bit cramped. The entire play mechanism is predicated on your ability to string cards combinations together, and these limits makes this very difficult to do in any meaningful way. The end result leaves the game feeling rather lucky, even though it’s not. Unfortunately this really depreciates the experience, especially when revisiting the game.
I’m not a fan of games that have built in methods of determining player initiative. It assumes players are dumb, and there are just better ways to do this. In this case, one player board has a big starfish on it! Whoever selects this board gets to go first. The chunky plastic reef pieces are well made, feel good in the hand, and look cute stacked up on on the player boards. Unfortunately, they also do an exceptionally good job of resembling a certain line of toys for very small children. The cards feel really cheap, and they’ll probably bend and tear easily. All of this leaves the game feeling like a children’s title, even though it’s not.
Reef is the board game equivalent of popcorn- it can be good at the right time, but you’re still going to be hungry when it’s gone. I think what really bums me out is that it very likely could’ve been better. It just seems like too much was sacrificed in the name of simplicity. As it stands Reef is still a charming game, and it might make a good gateway title due to it’s unassuming appearance; but experienced gamers should probably look elsewhere.