Bora Bora: A four-sided game review

BoraBora_boxBora Bora is a board game from renowned German euro game designer Stefan Feld. It’s certainly not a game for beginners, but still falls into the ‘medium weight’ category – largely due to play time (under two hours) and familiarity (anyone used to playing euro games will be on safe ground).

It plays two to four players with very little discernible difference in play between numbers. The art style is consistent and high quality throughout, while the components are standard if not spectacular; so well worth the £30 price tag.

In terms of mechanism, Bora Bora follows in the seemingly limitless line of Stefan Feld designs that combines dice rolling with action selection, resource gathering and multiple ways to score points (or “just another Feld point salad game”, if you’re one of his detractors). So what, if anything sets this one apart from the rest?

Each player rolls three dice on their turn and will use them for actions. High rolls tend to make actions better, but you can only place dice onto action spaces if they are lower than any already there – making low dice good blockers. But there are plenty of ways to mitigate this, meaning it tends to be more of an inconvenience than a deeper frustration. You then get to do up to two extra actions, depending on who you have added to your tribe during the game.

Like any good euro game, the real problem is wanting to do way more in each turn than your limited actions allow – other players may get in your way, but your frustration with yourself is likely to be higher than with others. It can be hard to stay focused on what the right options are to maximise your points, and when to do them, while keeping an eye on possible blocking moves and ways to mitigate against them.

Teaching

Bora Bora player boardsThanks to an intuitive board layout, great icons and actions that make at least basic thematic sense, Bora Bora is relatively easy to teach to semi-experienced gamers. This isn’t a thematic game by any stretch, but nothing about it jars.

While the iconography is good, the player boards have pretty much all of them squeezed on, making them look daunting rather than informative. They’re useful after a play or so, but at first it’s best to steer player attention away from them!

Luckily the main board itself is more useful. One whole area is dedicated to the end of turn sequence, while the actions you use during a turn are straightforward. Hidden information is limited to a few cards and these are also relatively simple to grasp – plus there are only a few different types on offer.

Another plus is that each player starts with some objectives, one of which they’ll need to complete in the first turn to score some points. This immediately focuses the mind on an objective, giving new players a route to take in what otherwise could’ve been a pretty bewildering set of choices.

At the start of each turn, all players roll their dice then take it in turns to use one each to do an action. This means turns are snappy and players soon get to see how each of the available actions works. Yes, there is a lot going on – but if you encourage players to hone in on the things they need to do to score their tiles in the first play it will focus minds.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I’m always charmed by this kind of colourful island setting in a game (Maori is another great example), while I’m also a pretty big Feld fan, so Bora Bora was always likely to be a winner. And while it doesn’t add much that’s new I do find it has a unique tension, cleverly exacerbating the ‘want to do everything’ feeling with the promise of end game bonus points. Sure, I’d prefer a shorter set up time but once the game gets going that little bit of effort seems well worth it.
  • The thinker: In terms of balancing strategy and tactics, this could well be Feld’s best design so far – although I can see it being a little busy for some, who may prefer the more mechanically streamlined Luna. But as a fresh challenge, once you’ve got past the graphical bombardment to the game’s subtleties, I think this is one of the designer’s finest achievements so far. There may also initially be a little too much luck for some, but I haven’t found it stops the best player winning – it just presents some interesting problems in achieving it.
  • The trasher: While Bora Bora definitely isn’t my kind of game, there is some solid space for screwage; especially when thinking about turn order. You get one new end-game tile per round, chosen in turn order, so a late choice can leave you high and dry. These are worth six points each, which is a significant amount, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. But overall I can take it or leave it and certainly won’t care if I never play it again.
  • The dabbler: I don’t think people expected me to like this one, but – surprise! The lovely artwork and colours drew me in, then the gameplay hooked me; love it. It’s not a game I do well at, but that said it’s one I’m determined to improve at. You learn a little something each time you play and can see where you’ve gone wrong; nothing in the game is complex, it’s more about managing your own expectations and not trying to do too much. There’s also more interaction than it at first seems, with the dice placement and turn order jostling creating a nice game atmosphere.

Key observations

Bora Bora board and bitsThe most common complaint you can see coming a mile off – nothing new, boring, just another euro/Feld, themeless etc etc. Well done for playing a game (you were pretty sure you wouldn’t like anyway) once and walking away before really giving it a chance.

However I have seen arguments that there’s a pretty clear winning strategy that makes the game a little formulaic once you’ve discovered it. However this isn’t oft mentioned and I can’t say I’ve spotted it yet (which will come as no surprise to anyone who plays with me!). Even if this is true, I think it will only be an issue for a certain type of hardcore gaming group – and they are very much in the minority.

Another criticism is the game’s components are overly busy and that Bora Bora is a very fiddly game (even for Feld) – or that the artwork is garish and annoying. I think these are fair arguments (the art style is purely a matter of taste) and if I could have a version that was slightly less graphically bombastic I’d take it. But after you’ve played half a game I don’t think it gets in the way any more. Overblown? Yes. But a long term problem or barrier to play? Not really.

Conclusion

Bora Bora actionsBora Bora has already taken its place alongside my older Stefan Feld favourites (Notre Dame, Macao, Castles of Burgundy, Rialto) as one of my collection I regard most highly. It’s intelligent, colourful, fun and engaging in all the ways his best games tend to be.

Is it a point salad? Yup. Is it typically Feld? Abso-bloody-lutely. Sure, it’s not going to change the hearts and minds of those who aren’t fans of his work, but what do I care? As long as there are still Feld fans to play with (and there always will be), I’ll be happy.

If you’re a fan of the likes of Trajan, Macao and Castles of Burgundy this comes highly recommended. If you’re new to the designer and looking for a good starting point, I’d say this is great for a semi-experienced gamer or above – but if not, perhaps Castles of Burgundy or Notre Dame may be better places to start your Feldian adventures.

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2 thoughts on “Bora Bora: A four-sided game review

  1. Pingback: The best of 2014, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games | Go Play Listen

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