Designer: Emerson Matsuuchi
Publisher: Next Move Games
2-4 players 30 minutes ages 8+
In Reef, players explore the fragile beauty of nature’s coral reefs. Each player controls one tiny bit of ocean, adding bright coral pieces to their real estate. Choose carefully which coral to add, and Neptune will reward you with his approval. Can you create a masterpiece of the sea?
The first thing you notice when you open Reef is the 112 chunky pieces. Evenly divided between four colors: green, yellow, purple, and orange-red. Big and tactile, each color is formed in a distinct shape, but also stacks well with any other color.
From these pieces you will build your own coral reef. Your challenge is to look ahead and build in a way which meets the demands of the cards you choose. Do so, and you’ll claim mastery of an undersea kingdom!
In addition to the pieces, there are 88 point tokens in various denominations, a deck of 60 cards, and 4 player boards.
Each player takes one of each color reef piece, three 1-point tokens, and two cards at random from the deck. Then, on your player board arrange the pieces, one on each of the four center spaces.
Reef is a game of pattern building and recognition. Using cards you’ll gather colorful pieces to build your reef, hoping to stack them into the right configurations to score.
A turn in Reef is simple. You either draw one of the face up cards from the display, or you play a card from your hand.
If you draw a card, you may take any one of the three face up cards for free. The top card of the deck is also available, but at a cost. You must pay a 1-point token to take this card, putting the token on the lowest point value card in the row.
Playing a card from your hand allows you to grow your reef. First, take the two pieces depicted on the top of the card into your stock. Now add these two to your player board, placing them either on an open space, or on top of other pieces already in your reef, regardless of color. The only restriction is that no stack may ever exceed four pieces high.
After, score the pattern at the bottom of the card. If the pattern doesn’t match your board, it scores no points. For every match, take the number of points shown on the card.
For example, a card might show an example of three red pieces arranged at a right angle(or an ‘L’ shape). Below this might be a number 4. For each separate instance this pattern appears on your board, you score four points. Keep in mind that the only pieces which count are the ones atop each stack.
A pattern might also show a specific number, such as a yellow piece with a number 2. Here, the only stacks which can be considered for scoring are those which are two high, and whose top piece is yellow.
Once you draw a card, or play a card, the next player in clockwise order will take a turn. The game continues in this manner until at least one set of pieces, or the draw deck runs out.
At the end of the game, you score the cards left in your hand, if any. But, if there are multiple matches on a card, only one match will score. Add up all the point tokens you’ve collected, and the player with the highest total wins!
I will emphasize three elements of game play which make Reef a new classic among abstract games. All three allow players to learn and enjoy facets of more complex games without becoming bogged down in tedious study.
1).The ease of entry. The 8+ age suggestion seems right, but even a seven year old could play this game. The big chunky pieces even invite them to play. Maybe they won’t win. But teach it to a nine year old, and watch them run the table.
2).The dread, delicious ending. Of course, you want to go into the final scoring with cards in hand. But so often cards will score multiple times before the end, and only once after. Which cards do you try to get played before the game ends?
3).The smooth introduction of strategy game elements to casual gaming. Without even realizing it, players step into a world familiar to strategy gamers. Concepts such as hand management, chaining of actions, and pattern recognition.
The finest of all abstract games, Chess and Go, use these last two elements in deep ways. Masters of either game spend entire lifetimes exploring those depths. Reef allows us all to play with these elements, and begin to explore. Reef makes the deep simple and enjoyable.
Next Move was founded on the idea of introducing simple, but engaging, abstract games to the public. Starting with the hugely popular Azul(a Spiel of Approval winner in 2018), and now with Reef, they’ve managed to bring games with wide appeal more directly into public view. By doing so, they serve us all by helping to expand our hobby.
Some have criticized Reef for its pieces being less impressive than Azul’s patterned tiles. I think this misses the fact that Reef aims to attract a slightly younger audience. Reef’s pieces are fun to look at and fun to play with. Of course the underlying game is compelling in its own right, but the three dimensional reef pieces enhance our enjoyment of the game.
In the end, what we can ask from games is that they allow us to explore a path to fun, and to let us ask our common question: “What would it be like if?” Reef invites us all to build an underwater kingdom. Few of us will ever even visit a coral reef, but here we can grasp the pieces of our choosing and build a tabletop empire of coral.
Whether you are seven or seventy, the ease of play, coupled with the challenge and joy of creating an undersea landscape, makes Reef worthy of the Major Fun Award.