Friday, 2 April 2021

Blue Lagoon

The Game

Blue Lagoon is a recent game from Reiner Knizia. He is a master level game designer and has produced many classics. Boardgames is in an age of abundance now. We have many published game designers and many new games every year. It is no longer a hobby dominated by only a handful of well-known designers. Still, whenever I hear that Knizia has a new game, I pay attention. Blue Lagoon is from Blue Orange Games. It reminds me a little of the classic Through the Desert

You are tribes in the Polynesian islands, and you send your tribesmen to populate the islands and collect resources. The game is played over two halves, with a reset in the middle. Scoring is done at the end of each half, based on how well you have spread your people across the islands and the resources you have claimed. The highest scorer wins the game. 

At game setup, you randomly seed the map with resources and statues. You place them on the spaces with stone circles. In the photo above, the brown pieces are statues, and the yellow, green, white, and light blue pieces are resources. Statues are worth 4pts. Resources are scored in two ways. Every set of four different resources scores 10pts. For each resource type, if you have two or more, you also score points. You score for both breadth and depth. 

These are your tribesmen. One side of the tokens is used when placing them on land, and the other side when placing them at sea. The different artwork is only for aesthetic purposes. It doesn't really matter which type you use or which side you use. 

In the first half of the game, you may place a tribesman on any sea space, or you may place a tribesman next to an existing tribesman. What this means is usually the tribesman you place at sea will be the starting tribesman for a connected group of tribesmen. You stake a location, then expand from there. Think of a group of connected tribesmen as a village. You create new villages, and then grow them. When you place a tribesman on a space with a resource or statue, you claim that resource or statue. 

As you expand your villages across the islands, you have to keep in mind the various scoring rules. Every island has a point value, ranging from 6pts to 10pts. Whoever has the most tribesmen on an island scores these points. Your villages will usually span across multiple islands. You pick one largest village, the one which spans the most islands, and score it based on the number of islands it covers. There are 8 islands on the board. If you have presence in either 7 or 8 islands (even if they are not linked up to one same village), you will score a bonus. So in terms of spreading across the islands, there are three ways of scoring you need to remember. This is in addition to the statue and resource scoring. 

Every player has a number of huts. In the first half, you may place a hut in lieu of a tribesman. Huts are important because they will be the start of your villages in the second half. In the second half, you may not longer directly place tribesmen at sea. Instead, you must grow your villages from your huts. During the mid-game reset, all tribesmen are removed, and only the huts remain. 

This photo above was taken in the first half. The yellow player had placed a tribesman at sea. This was a good placement, because in the next turn she could go left for the brown statue, or go right for the white resource. 

Once the first half ends and the scoring is done, the board needs to be reset. All resources, statues and tribesmen are removed. Only huts stay. After that the board is randomly seeded with resources and statues again, before you start the second half. Scoring at the end of the second half works the same way as the first half. 

The Play

I played with Michelle and Chen Rui. They complained that I took too long to think. There are quite a few ways of scoring in this game, so for new players it is challenging to keep track of all of them. This is an open information game, so I can't help studying the board and analysing the many possibilities and opportunities. What I remember most about the game is how I am constantly torn between the various ways of scoring. You can't have everything, so you need to weigh which one you want to go for. 

What you do on your turn is very simple. You simply place one tribesman. In the first half, you have the option of placing a hut instead. But that's it. You are just placing one thing. Easy! The game can certainly be played very quickly. One big difference between Blue Lagoon and Through the Desert is that in Through the Desert, you get to place two camels on your turn. In Blue Lagoon you only place one tribesman. Although the design decisions are different, I find that they both work very well in their respective games. 

The spatial element plays a big part. It is important to block your opponents, and to avoid getting blocked. You race to extend your reach to resources and islands. On the 6-point island in the photo above, Yellow has blocked off access to the remaining empty spaces from Purple. Currently the strengths are Purple 5 vs Yellow 3. However there are three more empty spaces on the island, and if Yellow is determined to win this island, she can place three more tribesmen to secure victory. It is only a matter of whether she thinks it's worthwhile. 

In the first half of the game, where and when to place your huts is crucial, because this is setting yourself up for the second half. On this 8-point island above, all three of us had huts, so competition was fierce in the second half. 

In this photo, Blue has a large village spanning six islands. Only two islands are not yet connected, at the top left and at the bottom right. It is already impossible for Blue to get to the island at the bottom right. It is technically still possible to connect to the island at the top left, but it will be easy for Purple to block Blue. 

On the island on the left, Blue and Yellow both have five pieces. When the island is scored, the points will be shared equally. If either player wants to monopolise the points of the island, she only needs to place one more tribesman. However the other player can easily neutralise that by adding just one of her own tribesman. If this escalation goes on and on, the players may find themselves spending a lot of effort here and losing out elsewhere. 

The Thoughts

Blue Lagoon reminds me of an age when most of the hot games were concise. That was the 90's and 00's. I find that most hot games nowadays tend to be rather complex. Not that complex is bad, just that being complex for the sake of itself is not meaningful. In some games, after I remove the veil of complexity, I find them uninspired, and the complexity unnecessary. I don't blame the designers or the publishers. This seems to be what the market wants. Boardgame hobbyists are like drug addicts. I am often guilty of this too. They crave for more, more, more. More complexity, more mechanics, more ways of scoring points, more actions types. Because of this, we have plenty of new complex games, but not all of them are innovative or have good depth. 

Rant over. Let's return to Blue Lagoon. It is swift and clean. You just need to remember you are trying to do two things - expanding your villages across the islands, and claiming resources (and statues). Every turn, you just play one piece. Often you can plan a few turns ahead because you can see which are the islands you want to reach and which are the resources you want to claim. You are in no hurry to advance in areas where you are safe from competition. You will probably prioritise areas where you are at risk. Still, sooner or later you have to spend turns grabbing those islands and resources which are safe. 

Playing one piece per turn is like Go. Such a simple action, but there can be much thinking behind just this one action. Not to say that Blue Lagoon is as complex and intellectual as Go. It is a light game, but not a brainless one. It is an open information game, and it is a strategy game. The rules are simple. Half the rules are about how to score points, because the actual actions you can do are very straightforward. 

I did a 3-player game. The game supports 2 to 4. I think the game will feel quite different depending on the number of players. When you collect four of the same resource, you score 20pts. With 2 players, it should not be too hard, but with 4 players it seems nigh impossible. The same applies to the competition for the islands. I suspect the game will be more interesting with 3 or 4 players than with 2. 


nathan woll said...

This sounds a lot like Dokmus.

Probably too similar for me to own both. What's the play time like?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

3 player game was about 45 minutes, and that was our first game.