Full disclosure: A review copy of A Pleasant Journey to Neko was provided by The Wood Games.
Still running a giveaway this week! Check it out if you want to win ICECOOL2, ICECOOL’s standalone expansion! Either way, there’s more penguin games happening this week.
Mostly filtering through the Essen / Gen Con rush, and I’m starting to see the post-Essen / BGG.CON / holiday releases start coming in, which is always exciting. As always, though, I’m going to keep just jumping on the Fun Theme train, which is something I just love about board games these days. The latest one is a new game from The Wood Games about traveling to Neko Harbor: A Pleasant Journey to Neko. Let’s dig into this one a bit more.
In A Pleasant Journey to Neko, you are sightseers with one goal in mind: see as many penguins as possible. Honestly, it’s a good goal and it makes sense. You’ll be planning some trips trying to head towards Neko Harbor in Antarctica and see some of your favorite ground birbs along the way. You could take some shortcuts to do so, but that might adversely impact the environment and hurt the very precious birbs that you’re trying to scope out. Will you be able to chart the perfect path to proper penguin preponderance?
There’s a fair bit of setup, so bear with me. Set out the main board:
And give each player a player a player board:
Give them the fish in their color, but they get set aside, for now:
Also put the penguin tokens on the “0” space on the board:
Give each player two fuel:
And eight money:
The rest can be set near the board, along with the Goods cubes:
These are dice modifiers; you can set them aside for now, but you may use them later.
Shuffle the player order cards and deal them out; the player with the 1 is First Player:
Shuffle the Level 1 Cards:
Place them in the spaces on the board for your player count. Also shuffle the Level 2 Cards:
Set those aside. As for the Advanced Cards? I’ll talk about Advanced Setup a bit later on:
Give each player 6 dice, as well:
Then, in reverse player order, each player can pick a starting benefit:
That’s exciting. Once you’ve done all that, you’re ready to start!
For Advanced Setup, separate the cards for each period (the 1s and 2s) into their corresponding colors and set them aside in view of all players. Add three of the Advanced Cards randomly to the spaces on the right side of the board.
So, a game of A Pleasant Journey to Neko takes place over four rounds (with two mid-game scoring periods, one after every two rounds). During rounds, you’ll do some dice placement and bidding to try and gather resources and build out boat routes to Neko Harbor to try and see as many penguins as you can. Gather up Penguin Points and the player with the most at the end, wins!
The game is played over two periods, each with two rounds. I’ll talk about a round (each round has three phases), then mid-game scoring, then final scoring.
The first phase of a round is the morning market, in which the fishmonger comes around and attempts to buy fish. For every fish you have, you may sell it to the fishmonger right now for 4 money, 2 fuel, or 1 good. You do this in turn order, if that matters.
During the second phase of each round, you’ll prepare for the third (Action) Phase. You do this through several actions:
- Draft dice. Every player should roll their six dice. Then, each player simultaneously chooses one to keep and passes the rest to the left. Continue doing this until each player has 6. Note that this must happen simultaneously, but the dice values are open information, so don’t hide them. If you accidentally nudge a die and nobody knows what the value was, just reroll it.
- Obtain Income. In turn order, each player will remove one of their dice (placing it in the spent dice area on the main board) and receive coins equal to that die’s value. Additionally, as you play through the game, you will get cards that activate during this phase (they have a yellow symbol on them) and they will give you money or fuel, generally. Note that you may only have a total of 8 combined goods and fuel in your cabin, so don’t take too much!
- Get Rewards. Arrange your dice in order on your player board. For the lowest die, every player can obtain one die reward. You may choose the reward corresponding to your lowest die’s value or any higher value. That’s not too shabby.
- Draw two cards from the current period deck. You may buy one immediately and add it to one of your Ship Lanes.
- Take two fish.
- Take one good.
- Take two fuel.
- Discard one of your Interference Tiles (if you have none, this is worthless; don’t do it).
- Gain 5 money.
- Set Turn Order. Now, you’ll set the turn order for the rest of the round. Total the numbers on your dice; then assign turn order from highest total to lowest total (this may result in turn order not going clockwise). If there’s a tie, break it in favor of the player who went earlier in the previous round. The new starting player also receives an interference tile (they’re bad) as a penalty for going first. Hooray!
Next up is the Action Phase.
Now, on your turn, you may take a die action and any number of free actions until you are out of dice to use. You may take one die action per turn:
- Take Fish: You may discard as many dice as you want to the discard area and gain one fish per die discarded. Note that you cannot have more than 8 fish at any time.
- Bid on a Card: You may place any number of dice on one card in the play area that you wish to bid on. When the round ends, the player with the highest total on the card will win it and can then pay to place it in a Ship Lane. If you don’t win, you gain 1 fish for each die on the card. Place the die so it’s closest to you so that players can see who’s bid what. There are some caveats to this:
- You must have as many dice as the bid with the most dice when you bid. This means that if a player has played 3 1s on the card, you must play at least 3 dice (no matter their value) in order to even bid. That can be a bummer. You cannot bid one 4, even though that’s better.
- You may only bid on one card per turn.
- You may increase your own bid even if you are the high bid. Just following the rule at the top.
- You may bid on a card even if your bid isn’t the highest bid. It’s a protracted way to get fish, but there are some card effects that make this useful.
- Activate a Hub / Card Effect. There are spaces either on cards or between cards. If it’s between a card, it’s called a hub. Generally, these spaces require you to play a die on the space (the space is the size of a die, so it helps) in order to gain a bonus or some resources. Card effects can only be activated by a die, but Hubs can also be activated by a ship; I’ll talk more about that later.
There are also plenty of free actions.
- Exchange fish. The fishmonger is a bit more stingy, so you can exchange one fish for either two coins or one fuel. Should have sold them to the fishmonger in the morning!
- Retrieve a die. If you spend three fish, you may take a die from the discard area of the main board. You may then use it as though you had an additional die, this round. Note that even if you have 6 fish or bonus card effects, you may only retrieve one die per turn.
- Remove an Interference Tile. You may spend 5 money to remove an Interference Tile. If you don’t, you’ll lose points at the end of the game.
- Buy a new Harbor. This opens up another Ship Lane for you to place cards, and increases the number of ships you can own. Each Harbor is 5 coins more expensive than the last, and you can only own 5 total (counting the one you get for free). You’ll earn endgame points for each Harbor you have, so it’s worth opening some up! Note that you don’t have to have 5 cards in a Ship Lane to open a new Harbor; you can purchase them at any time.
- Buy a new ship. You can purchase ships the same way as Harbors, but each is 2 coins more expensive than the last (buying a second ship is 3 coins). When you buy one, add it to a ship lane. There’s a catch, though: You may only have as many ships in a lane as you have Harbors. I’m not totally sure why that is, but that’s what the rules say.
- Adjust a die. You may spend a fuel to increase or decrease a die’s value by 1. Note that numbers wrap around, so a 1 can become a 6 and vice-versa, in this game.
- Move your Ship. You may spend two fuel to move one of your ships one space to the right along its ship lane. They cannot go backwards. When it lands on a hub, it immediately activates it and provides you with the same rewards you’d get from placing a die on it. If you move into an incomplete hub, though, you will not get any rewards, even when it’s completed. If you move a ship to a hub with a die (or place a die on a hub with a ship), you also gain a bonus fish. This does not happen if you move a ship to a hub that already has a ship; you only get one bonus fish per hub space per round.
- Add goods to Ports. Ports require Goods to be opened (which is why they have so many spaces. You can place goods from your cabin onto those spaces as a free action, and sometimes you’ll gain rewards as a result. When you cover all the spaces, the port will unlock, and moving a ship through that port will earn you a lot of points at the end of the game, if you can pull it off.
Once every player has placed all their dice, the round ends! Resolve each card in the auction area in order (left to right, top to bottom) until the bidding area is empty. If nobody bid on a card, move it to the bottom of the current period’s deck. If there’s a tie on a card, break it in favor of the player earlier in the turn order.
When you win an auction, you may pay the card’s cost and add it to the ship lane immediately. Each Ship Lane can hold 5 cards, and you may place it in any spot. If you do, you pay one coin for every open space between your card and the harbor (so if you fill from left to right, it’s all free). If you have no room for the card or don’t want to / can’t pay the cost, you must decline the card. All declined cards are also placed on the bottom of the current period’s deck.
Some cards activate when they’re placed — they have a lightning bolt icon on them. Other cards can affect cards that you buy; they affect all cards bought after them, even during this round! Have fun with that.
Now, give each player 6 dice to prepare for the next round. If you just finished the first round, flip cards up from the 1st period deck and place them in the slots on the board. If it’s the end of the 2nd or 3rd round, flip cards from the 2nd period deck instead.
If you just finished the 2nd or 4th round, go to mid-game scoring before continuing.
During this segment, you’ll score a few things before either moving to Round 3 or Final Scoring.
First, score the mid-game scoring tiles for your period. Each objective should earn you 3 Penguin Points (PP). Ties are friendly, so all players meeting the objective gain 3PP. It’s a Pleasant Journey to Neko.
Now, check each of your ships. Count the number of complete cards they’ve traveled over (ships on the middle of a Port Card don’t count as completing that card) and gain points:
- 0 cards: 0 points
- 1 cards: 0 points
- 2 cards: 1 point
- 3 cards: 2 points
- 4 cards: 4 points
- all 5 cards: 7 points
Play continues until the end of the Fourth Round (after the second Mid-Game Scoring). Before you finish, each player has an opportunity to, in turn order, use their remaining fuel and goods to move ships and place goods on the board. Players will still get rewards from card effects or hubs that they move through when they do this. Once everyone’s done that, move on to Final Scoring.
You get Penguin Points for the following:
- Harbors Opened. Score PP for the number of Harbors you’ve opened:
- 1 point.
- 3 points.
- 6 points.
- 11 points.
- 19 points.
- For each card, check to see if a ship has passed through it completely. If it has, score the PP on the bottom-right corner. Note that Ports must be unlocked (filled with goods) in order to have ships pass through. Cards without any ships passing through score nothing.
- Some cards have end-game scoring icons on them. Score those.
- Gain 1PP per good remaining in your cabin. Do not count goods on Port Cards.
- Lose points for Interference Tiles:
- -1 point.
- -2 points.
- -4 points.
- -8 points.
- -12 points.
- -15 points. Lose 3 additional points for each Interference Tile you have after that. Seriously; don’t be a jerk to the environment. It’s the only one we get.
The player with the most points wins!
So for the Advanced Game, the major difference is how bidding works. Instead of having the cards on the board (save for the Advanced Cards, three of which are placed on the board), you can choose any card from the Period Deck and bid on it on a turn, as long as there are spaces remaining. This allows you to plan a much longer-term strategy, but you risk losing cards to your opponent. That’s about the major difference.
Player Count Differences
The major difference you’re going to see at various player counts is that things are just going to take longer. At two, you’ll probably be able to hit the 45-minute mark fairly consistently; at four, you’ll be lucky to get anywhere below 90 minutes. There’s also some nuance around how the cards shake out, but that’s true of any game where players can take cards. The player count isn’t going to really affect the draft beyond adding variance, as well.
Given that, I’m much more likely to play this at two than at four — it’s a much longer game with more players. No fault of the game, just kind of how the thing shakes out.
- Ship lanes are important! They’re not the be-all-end-all, but you definitely need some if you want to make headway.
- If you can’t get cards, use the money to buy Harbors. Just having five Harbors at the end of the game is 19 points. That’s not nothing, by any means.
- Find places where you can combo. You really want to spend 2 fuel to move onto a space that gives you 2 fuel and then place a die to get 2 more fuel and a fish and use the 4 fuel to move two more spaces to get 2 more fuel. That’s an ideal combo for quickly moving through a Ship Lane for that 7 points.
- If you can move through a Ship Lane quickly, do it. You’ll score that ship during each of the Mid-Game Scoring steps, so that’s even more points if you can do it before the end of the second round.
- If you finish a Port, don’t forget to go through it. Sure, that card is worth 20 points, but if you don’t send a ship through it it’s worth 0 points. That’s extremely not good for you, so make sure you don’t forget.
- Honestly, I’m inclined to say skip Ports in the basic game. There’s a lot of randomness around which cards come up and if you want to make Ports work you really need a system for quickly getting Goods. If you don’t have one, don’t bother; the game’s only four rounds. In the Advanced game, though, try your best to bid on cards that will let you construct a good-friendly Ship Lane to maximize your potential.
- Construct a “good” Ship Lane, too. Don’t forget that cards are only worth something if a ship passes through it, so creating a lane where there are lots of high-value cards is good, but risky; make sure you don’t forget (just like the ports) to score them before the game is over, or else you’re going to seriously regret it. I’ve seen Lanes worth at least 10+ points.
- Penguin Parks are really good? You can use them to reclaim spent dice (and use those dice to win bids, since generally speaking players tend to use those dice to gain income and move themselves down in the turn order, so those dice are slightly-more-likely-than-not to be high-valued). That’s super handy. Once you have three you’re gaining back two dice every round, which gives you a distinct auction advantage over other players. Don’t let that go to waste.
- It’s a really good idea to draft a 1. Getting to randomly buy a card from the deck can get you set up really well, really early, especially if you get one of the cards that decreases the cost of other cards (or a Penguin Park). Just make sure you have the money to buy it.
- Have ways to make money. Some people get it off of selling fish, others build the income cards; you just need to have something, otherwise you’re going to get pretty stuck pretty quickly.
- At the start of the game, take the fish. It’s the most versatile, since you can sell it for 4 coins, 2 fuel, or 1 good. They’re all equivalent in value, but the fish lets you choose; always take it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the theme. The whole game is just about going around trying to see penguins; it’s delightful. I’ve played with several people who (sure, fairly) argue that the theme doesn’t come out that much in the gameplay, but that’s usually because I hoard the Penguin Parks like a dragon. If you want to see penguins, you gotta be aggressive, you know?
- Love the art. The art is also particularly great. It’s got a nice sort of pastel / hand-drawn sort of look to it that feels intimate and personal while still being pretty high-quality. I’m a big fan, and some of the cards I kind of wish were available as prints or something. It’s a very pleasant and relaxing sort of visual style to the game, which makes sense.
- An auction game I don’t hate. I think that’s because it’s easier to understand the cards’ values (for me, at least), whereas I find the whole value of money in other auction games to be kind of arbitrary and difficult for me to parse correctly. Here, it’s just spending an action.
- The route-building via the Ship Lanes is interesting. I really like how hubs are created between cards and you have to make a legitimate strategy around which cards you get in order to create powerful hubs.
- The variety of cards offers a lot of different strategies from game to game. There are a lot of cards (many of them unique), and you won’t be able to dive deep into their interactions in just one game. This adds a nice bit of discovery to the game as you figure out how to use certain cards to their full potential, but also means you’ll be going back to the rulebook basically every game to remember what certain cards do.
- Box needs an insert. It’s kinda just all in baggies right now and that’s both stressful for me and it makes it very difficult to put stuff away, so it’s still on the table as of when I wrote this (it’ll be put away by publish time; don’t worry).
- The variant cards should still have their original effects on them. Players are likely to miss the section in the rulebook where it notes that the 2nd period variants of some cards still count as the original card, they just also have a bonus effect. Once you know, it makes sense, but in your first game or two people are going to get really confused.
- I feel like making Ports work in the basic game requires a bit too much luck. What you need is a good system of generating fuel and goods, which just doesn’t happen unless you can chain up 2x goods hubs, which are decently rare. If you can, then yes, you can make it work pretty well; if you can’t, well, you’re stuck with an expensive card that gave you a lot of Environmental Interference and ended up being worthless. That’s kind of a bad deal, and it might leave new players feeling a bit stumped.
- The sheer variety of cards and an auction mechanic combined make this game pretty tilted towards players that already know it. I find this to generally be true for auction games (since you have a better sense of what things are “worth” once you’ve played it), but this game in particular has a variety of cards with specific symbols or effects that require you to read the rulebook. It slows down the game a fair bit on your first few plays, which is also frustrating, but it allows for a lot of strategies to be successful, which is nice. I think the game gets faster and easier to get through the more you play it, which unfortunately doesn’t benefit a reviewer much (since I tend to play it only a few times with a small group), but should be great if you’re digging in deep with your game group.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think A Pleasant Journey to Neko is solid! I’m proud of myself, as between this and The Forgotten City I’ve played several heavier games in the last month or so. They’re tough to review (note this one is pushing 4000 words!), so I don’t play many, but if they’ve got a great theme and great art like this one it’s hard for me to turn them down. Fans of dice placement or auction games will find a lot to like here, and I think the Ship Lanes would interest people who are fans of multi-use cards (as they have effects and can be passed through by your cards to gain you bonus resources [and you can place dice on them, a bonus]). The heavier aspects of the game are the lengthier rounds and the need to actually understand what all the cards do in order to strategically plan for long-term combos, but fans of those kinds of games are already familiar enough with that that I’d be surprised if it were a problem. All in all, I really have enjoyed A Pleasant Journey to Neko, and if you’re looking for a challenging / thinky dice placement game with some solid route-building, some fun strategic planning, and a great theme, this might be the game for you as well!