Aqualin board game: A four-sided review

The Aqualin board game is a two-player-only abstract tile-laying game. One play takes about 20 minutes and the listed age is 10+. But gamer kids a few years younger won’t have a problem with it. As is typical for games in the Kosmos two-player line, the rules are very light and simple to follow.

This is a pure one-on-one abstract. So Kosmos has sensibly just used the theme to make the game look pretty, while keeping it functional. In the box you’ll find a small player board and 36 nice, chunky Bakelite tiles. That’s it. It’s great to see Kosmos return to nice components in this range. The move from wood to cardboard in the The Rose King reprint was worrying. But this is a definite return to form. You can pick the game up for less than £20 including shipping in the UK, which is a good price for a nicely produced game.

Teaching the Aqualin board game

This really is one of the easiest games you’ll ever teach. The 36 tiles are in six colours, with each colour depicting one of six sea creatures. Before you start, decide who will score colours and who animal types. At the end of the game, the 6×6 grid will be full. Scoring is all about getting orthogonally connected groups. And the more the better: a pair will score just 1 point, while a full set of six will bag 15 points. But all groups count. So if you had a pair of blues and a triple blue, you’ll score a total of (1+3) 4 points. Most points wins.

To start, all the tiles are placed face down on the table, with six then flipped face up. On a turn, you (can) first move one piece already on the board in an orthogonal direction. You can move it as far as you like, up to where it would hit another tile. Then, you must take and place one of the six face-up tiles in a free space. Finally, flip a new tile face up so there are always six to choose from. Until you start running out of tiles. But even then you keep going until all the tiles are out. So you know you’ll see, and place, every tile.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I’ve constantly flip-flopped on the Aqualin board game. At first, I loved how simple it sounded and good it looked. Then, early in my first play, it felt kind of pointless. I couldn’t understand why I was doing anything. But then the decision space opened up and I realised how clever it was. And most lately, I saw the lack of further depth. It’s like the serious older brother of the fun but chaotic Ominoes, which I also really enjoy. But in terms of longevity we’ll have to see. It just lacks that little spark to make it special.
  • The thinker: I’ll enjoy the odd play of this one. But in reality it’s a little too light on rules and options. Two good players will cancel each other out, as there aren’t multiple paths to victory. There are decisions, for sure. With what you try not to play often being as important as what you do. And you do find yourself playing tiles to places where your opponent can’t score well on them, rather than always looking for your own advantage. But for accomplished gamers, it’s going to come down to luck of the draw. It’s a nice design, but doesn’t have the extra level needed to engage me.
  • The trasher: I like Aqualin. It has an airy-fairy theme, but in fairness it works. The game is so passive-aggressive it couldn’t be about armies etc. You’re not taking pieces, just moving them about. And it’s an interesting challenge: breaking down your opponent’s plays, while trying to set up your own big scores. Once you see that a couple of big areas will win out, it comes down to not allowing that to happen. Making most games scrappy and low scoring. I quite like that in a game, trading blows for narrow wins. But it won’t work for everyone.
  • The dabbler: Pretty! And super simple. I’ve really enjoyed the games so far. Although we’ve had a few draws and the tiebreaker seems stupid! Going second feels like an advantage – but the second player wins if its a draw. I guess we need to play more to see what the first player advantage is? But either way, we prefer to just go again. It’s so short to play and easy to set up. This will definitely go into my rotation of games I ask for. Without becoming an instant favourite and not every week. But yes, I like it. Thumbs up!

Key observations

Early comments from players rating the game low centre around Aqualin being for casual gamers. That seems fair. And the “simple and quick” compliments are balanced by the “too simple for repeat plays” ones. Which are probably also fair. Not every game needs to be played every day/week/month. Especially if you have a large collection. Or if you have a wide scope of players – friends, family etc. So, while not as all-encompassing as some in the Kosmos two-player line, it does fit in the line (just, at the lighter end).

Component wise, there may be a problem for some. Blue and green tiles look similar in bad light, which has caused some double-takes. I have no idea how the colour blind will get on with it. Please let me know if it’s an issue and I can update the review. Needing six colours meant this was going to be an issue. Especially when the images needed to match. But I’m sure a bit of thought could’ve led to little icons (or similar) being added. I guess in the end it’s a tough call. And hopefully it won’t negatively affect too many players.

Finally, I should mention scoring. You need to count everything, which can be fiddly and hard to follow. It’s a game that was crying out for a score sheet – which, sadly, Kosmos failed to provide. But as always, it took the Board Game Geek community about five seconds to fix that for them. Two Aqualin scoresheet pdfs were available at the time of writing. And make the job a whole lot easier.

Conclusion: The Aqualin board game

Aqualin will be staying in my collection – for now. As someone who operates a ‘one in, one out’ policy, this is never an easy decision. But the game has enough charm to have won us over. And Sarah likes it too, which tends to sway decisions on any games on the fence. However, I do doubt its longevity. I have a nice pile of Kosmos two-player games on my shelf. And despite this being the newest, it immediately feels the most vulnerable to a cull. So while it is without doubt a good game, it isn’t a classic. And feels it lacks something. But in these ‘cult of the new’ times. that feels wholly appropriate for the modern audience.

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