Full disclosure: A review copy of Aqualin was provided by KOSMOS.
Another set of games from KOSMOS! I’ve been covering a number of their EXIT titles, so it’s always fun to mix things up with non-EXIT games. I’ve got The Liberation of Rietburg, Targi: The Expansion, and hopefully more to come! You’ll hear about all of them eventually. In the meantime, though, we’ve got Aqualin! Let’s dive right in (pun intended) and sea how this one plays!
In Aqualin, school’s in session (hopefully only in Aqualin, being honest). Your goal is to create schools that match your personal goal. Your opponent’s goal is not quite the same as yours; where you want creatures of the same color, they want groups of the same creature (or vice-versa. It’s not impossible for you both to be happy, but, why go through all that trouble when you could just mess each other up? It’s a points race; who will win big?
Almost none; that’s actually why this isn’t a mini-review. Very short setup and gameplay. So what you’re gonna do is take the board:
Set it in the center of the play area. Then, flip all the sea creature tiles face-down:
Shuffle them around, and reveal six to form the drafting pool. You’re ready to start!
The gameplay is pretty simple, as well. Your goal is to form schools, or orthogonally (non-diagonally) adjacent sea creatures. One player’s goal is schools of different animals of the same color, and the other player’s goal is schools of the same animal.
On your turn, you’ll do a few actions, in order.
First, you may move any one sea creature tile any number of spaces in its row or column. Not both! Just one or the other!
Next, take one tile from the drafting pool and place it face-up on any open space on the board.
Finally, finish your turn by revealing one face-down tile so that the drafting pool continues to have six face-up tiles. If there are no face-down tiles to flip, well, now the drafting pool is smaller. So that’s fun.
The game ends when all the tiles have been played. Look for each school on the board, and give players points depending on the size of the school:
- 1 tile: 0 points. Rough.
- 2 tiles: 1 point.
- 3 tiles: 3 points.
- 4 tiles: 6 points.
- 5 tiles: 10 points.
- 6 tiles: 15 points! Incredible.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
None! Two players only.
- You really want to break apart anything that your opponent can score. If you can force them into situations where all they have are schools of size 1 or 2, you’re definitely going to win. It’ll be extremely rude, but I have faith that you can eventually ground your opponent to nothing.
- Also, if the tiles are in your favor, try placing on your turn such that your opponent is almost forced to place a tile that’s advantageous for you. As the options for placement dwindle, keeping one area of the board open instead of several can do a lot of things to limit your opponent’s options. It’s harder to move tiles, which is great if you’re ahead, and the places you can place tiles are all fairly close together, so if there’s a group of tiles that benefit you in the drafting pool, they may have no choice but to place them all together.
- If you think your opponent is trying to trap you this way, start moving tiles to make room for your future plays. If you don’t want to get stuck in that situation, try to keep as many non-contiguous spaces on the board open as you can. It means you can avoid placing such that you’ll benefit your opponent since you’ll have more options.
- Use tiles on the board to barricade other tiles. This is a pretty good way to seal in high-scoring schools for yourself or lock your opponent out of completing certain areas. Pull another tile so that there’s only one space left adjacent to it, and then place your tile in the gap. Now, to get to that tile, your opponent will have to move the tile you just moved, which means that they can never surprise you.
- Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. Don’t keep fighting your opponent for one big school if you can make another pretty-big one work. Yes, large schools are better because they give you proportionally more points, but sometimes your opponent is just hell-bent on blocking that specific school and you’re better off trying your luck elsewhere.
- It’s very difficult to get a full school of 6, as your opponent will usually break it up. I’ve had this work out like, one time, and it required the board to mostly be full. I placed my sixth tile in a spot I had just barricaded, and all the other spots were closed off as well. There was nothing they could do about it, which was great for me. Lots of points.
- Similarly, it’s worth your time to invest in breaking up your opponent’s schools of 6. That’s 15 points, and that’s quite a lot. I usually win with 28, so, that one school is half a win for your opponent. Even knocking one tile out knocks 5 points off of that school, so, try your best to see if you can wrestle even one tile away.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The pieces are a very nice quality. They have a good weight to them, which is nice. The board is okay.
- I like the art style, as well. It’s a really neat kinda-line-arty sort of look. It’s very distinct; would love to see it in more games.
- The game isn’t too complex to learn. You basically just move one piece and place another every turn, and the move is optional. Your goal is just to achieve more and better groupings than your opponent.
- Despite the low complexity, there are still some fairly interesting strategic moves to make. I enjoy the tension of trying to figure out how to set yourself up for the big groupings while blocking your opponent from doing the same. It kind of explicitly means that you can track errors, I would assume, along with a second kind of error that’s more of a “knowing what we know now, that was the wrong decision”. That stuff interests me, but for social and “don’t want to alienate everyone I’ve ever played with” reasons I don’t necessarily look into or track that stuff.
- It also plays pretty quickly. Helps that there’s very little setup, but you can get through a game in under 20 minutes once you know what you’re doing.
- I like games that are easy to reset and reverse roles for. I call these “rack ’em” games, in the sense that in pool when you lose you can yell “rack ’em” at your opponent and quickly set up for another game. One of my favorites, Santorini, is very much like that, and 7th Night is a strong contender in the same gameplay-oriented part of town.
- Pretty portable. KOSMOS has a nice amount of smaller-box games like Imhotep: The Duel, Targi, and now Aqualin that aren’t big but can be pretty easily transported. I imagine you could draw a board on a piece of paper or something and just take the tiles around if you really wanted to achieve peak portability for this one.
- Given that it’s fairly portable, it would be really nice if it came with a cloth bag or something to make it more portable. Just something a bit more “Aqualin” than a resealable plastic bag, you know? I imagine that that was omitted to keep costs down, but, you know, I’m a bit about the aesthetics.
- Sometimes it can really come down to the right tile getting flipped at the right time. Thankfully, this game requires basically no setup and no teardown, so you can reset pretty quickly. As I mentioned, it’s very very easy to demand a rematch if it doesn’t go your way.
- Scoring can be a bit of a challenge. It’s just sometimes hard to see all the same-animal groupings. Same-color is easy enough for me, but it can be mildly annoying at the end of the game.
- The emphasis on color can always be a bit of a problem if it isn’t double-encoded by something else like outlines or symbols. I usually don’t have a problem, but I wonder if it will negatively impact people with color vision trouble? Usually for this stuff having a symbol or an outline that’s got a distinct shape to it helps a lot, and I’m surprised that they didn’t go for that, here.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I think Aqualin is pretty fun! I always admire a quick two-player abstract (7th Night and Santorini, again, being some of my favorites), and I think this one is pretty cool. I’m a sucker for a sea creature theme (octopus pun intended), so, I’m glad that they went for that one here. I do think I would prefer a bit more complexity, even if it’s something like certain creatures have unique abilities to just keep the game fairly fresh from play to play. As it stands, this is probably a game that, while fun, I may not keep in my collection forever. I do like abstracts, but I want a bit more from this one. It does have a lot going for it, though; it’s quick to set up and to play, it’s got great pieces, and the art style is strangely compelling. And a game doesn’t always need to be more than that! If you’re looking for a quick, two-player abstract to shake things up, you may want to see if Aqualin is a good fit for you! I think it’s pretty fun.