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[Review] Tongiaki

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

Many games have beautiful pieces, making them tempting targets for purchase; as I’m a sucker for a pretty board covered with many different colored wooden bits. Such was the case of Tongiaki (Uberplay, 2004 - Thomas Rauscher). I had read mixed reviews about it on the internet; but when I saw the game set up, thoughts of whether it was a good game or not fled my mind - I just wanted the nifty components.

Then I read the rules and was thoroughly confused, as the game mechanics seemed extremely abstract and not entirely clear. After a second reading, and then being taught by those who understood the game, things became clearer but no less abstract. I did have one major problem with the game, and that was a lack of valid strategies. The game frankly felt like it was playing me, and my options seemed limited with only one good choice each turn. The results of players’ tactical decisions did produce some fun, but I still felt like I was playing a fairly boring (albeit beautiful) abstract game.

A starting tile - Tonga - is placed in the middle of the board, with six beaches on each of the six sides of the tile. Each beach has three “moorings” at it, each which can hold one ship token. Players take fifteen boats of their color, and then take turns placing two boats, one at a time, on the start tile, leaving at least one open mooring at each beach.
Thirty-two tiles are stacked in a face down pile near the board, one player starting the game as play proceeds clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player first “expands,” placing new boats on any island tile. They place a number of boats equal to the boats already on that tile (maximum boats = number of beaches on the tile). Boats can be placed at any mooring, but only one per beach. If a beach is completely filled by this action, the player proceeds to the migration phase; otherwise, their turn is completed. When a beach is filled, “migration” occurs, with all boats at that island traveling to a new place. The top tile of the pile is turned over, and placed at one of the footbridges that connect to the beach (decided by the player prior to turning). Each tile, either a water tile or land tile, has a red symbol on it that must be placed adjacent to the footbridge on the previous tile. Water tiles show foam water trails on them, with possibly numbers on each one. The traveling group of ships passes over these trails only if there is an amount of different colored ships in the group equal to or exceeding the number on the trail. If they fail to meet this requirement, then all the ships are lost. On a successful voyage, however, the next tile is turned over, which could be another water tile; and this continues until the ships are lost or until a land tile is reached.

When a land tile is turned over, it shows two or more beaches, each with two or more moorings. Each island is also worth a certain amount of points, from two to five. The player moving the boats places at least one boat at each beach, if possible, then places the remaining moving boats where they please, at any open mooring. This could possibly send another group of boats on a migration. Once a player is finally done with their migration(s), the next player takes their turn. On a turn, if a player is the only person to have boats on a particular island, they may move one of their boats to the middle of the island, making that island a “Royal” island. No boats may move from/to/through that island for the remainder of the game. Players may have a maximum of two royal islands.

The game is over when either the sixteenth water or land tile is placed, after the current player’s turn. Each player then totals up their points, adding the numbers on every island that they have at least one boat. There are a few other rules that govern certain situations, such as when a player runs out of boats, endless loops created on the board, etc.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: When set up, the game has some of the nicest eye candy of any game I’ve ever seen. The curved edges of the “hexed” tiles are much nicer than straight edges; they are more aesthetically pleasing and fit together better. When jostled, they don’t move around the table quite as much. The colors on both water and land tiles are bright, and when combined with the six bright colors of the boat, create a cheerful atmosphere for the table. The boats are little wooden ships in colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple, and are fairly easy to move around the board. Everything has the same tropical island feel that I’ve gotten from other games such as Kahuna or Sunda to Sahul, but more pronounced.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on four pages, with full color illustrations and a few examples. I didn’t find them remarkably intuitive; but once I saw the game in action, it really wasn’t too difficult. The theme, while looking nice on the table, really didn’t help the mechanics or the flow; although I think, if properly taught, that the game could be understood by pretty much anyone.

3.) Auto-play and strategy: Yes, there were choices in the game, as to which tile to place ships, and how to correctly place them. But the layout, unlike a game like Carcassonne, felt forced. Because I had to play the next tile, matching the red symbol to one of only a few choices, I didn’t feel like I had many options. It felt like I turned a tile over, moved ships, then turned over another tile, etc., as I watched the game unfold. After the game was over, I sat there thinking about my strategy and realized that I hadn’t any. After more thought, I still can’t see that strategy plays much in the game. Yes, there are tactical decisions, but with the game board changing so much between turns, it was extremely difficult to try and form any kind of coherent strategy. With six players especially, it was mostly an exercise in just trying to see the best move each turn.

4.) Tactical decisions: I will grant that some decisions required some thought, such as what islands to make “Royal”, where to put ships, where to expand, etc.; but the decisions were usually easy and automatic. Perhaps the game could be used with younger gamers, where they could think that they were making important decisions, preparing them for real gamer games.

5.) Fun Factor: Turning over a tile was pretty fun, as it was kind of like a crap shoot - you hoping to get what you needed. It wasn’t very strategic, but it sure was fun to watch someone get hosed. Other than that, the game really wasn’t fun; and most of my fun during the game came from talking to other players about other things.

The game isn’t horrible; it works fairly well and seems to be well balanced. I just didn’t enjoy it that much, despite the fantastic components. The theme is definitely pasted on, and plays more like a multiplayer, chaotic, abstract game. I didn’t enjoy the game, and I have some friends who like it a lot; but I just couldn’t see the fun in it. Don’t be blinded by the pretty pieces, the mechanics here are too weak, and the fun factor is too low. I’m not sure that I would recommend this to most gaming groups. There are just too many other games that accomplish more than the weak, positive points of this one. The part of this game I like the best was the funny commercial at www.uberplay.com. I don’t recommend mutilating the game like they do there, but I don’t recommend playing it, either.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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