Varuna board game: (Kind of) expansion review

The Varuna board game box

The Varuna board game is also known as Demeter 2. I reviewed the original Demeter here not so long back. And as the rules are incredibly similar, I didn’t want to go over much of the same ground here. Instead, I’ll just talk about the differences and compare the two experiences.

But briefly, this is a small box flip-and-write game that costs just over £25 (check out Board Game Prices to buy online). It takes about 30 minutes to play once you’re used to the rules. And while the box says ages 14+, gamers of around 12 should be fine. Or perhaps slightly younger if they’ve already played Demeter (which is a little simpler).

As each player uses their own sheet and makes choices from the same card pool, numbers are essentially unlimited (the box simply says 1+). But it’s quite a complex game, so I wouldn’t suggest playing with many more than four. If you’ve played the original, you’ll find its the same artist and designer. The component quality is also pretty much identical, which for me is a good thing. But the sheets is just as busy. However at least this time the dinosaurs are very clearly different shapes, making some bonuses easier to identify.

What does Varuna bring to the party?

Setup and play basics are largely the same. You have the same five piles of action cards, plus a bunch of bonus tiles. Each turn one card from each pile is flipped and you choose one to use – first doing its action (could be anything) and then its bonus action (based on colour and how many times you’ve chosen that colour). There are 13 rounds instead of 12, so you discard two cards from each deck before play.

Probably the biggest addition to the game is damage. You’re now in a submarine, studying underwater. So the sub is your lifeline. Some action cards now have damage (up to five) instead of a main action (you still get to do the bonus action). If you take an action wit damage, you avoid it – but obviously do less stuff. And if two or more cards have damage on them, you’re going to have to deal with some of it. On the plus side, you can claim bonuses that give you shields. And you’ll need them. As racking up damage loses you points. And if you take too much, you can even be eliminated from the game.

Card changes in the Varuna board game

The study (yellow), upgrade (purple) and wild (grey) actions work identically to Demeter. However, there are no cards actions that make buildings. Instead, doing this is incorporated into the upgrade action via several new paths you can choose. The biggest departure here though, are the blue and red card actions.

In Varuna, you can’t just mark off any dinosaur you choose. You start the game marking off your submarine’s position next to one of the top three dinosaurs on the sheet. Lines now span between all the dinosaurs, with spaces between lines also holding bonuses. Using blue actions lets you fill in those lines, as you submarine moves around. Both scoring bonuses and opening up other dinosaur types. The red cards are your sonar, working similarly to the old observatory cards. These give bonuses like the old ones, but also open up new dinosaurs without having to make your submarine go to them first.

How much does it change the game?

These alterations make more difference than you might think. Damage can be a big deal in the Varuna board game. It adds a tension that didn’t really exist in the original. While also giving players the opportunity to roll the dice and largely ignore it, in the hope the worst cards are back in the box (two of each stack are removed secretly before play).

The fact you have to open up the different dinosaur types, either with the submarine or sonar, means there’s less initial flexibility. But you can soon open these avenues up if you want to. On the other hand, choosing your upgrades (the old buildings) via standard purple actions means you can choose a strategy early, rather than just hoping the right building comes up.

Interactive objectives

Objectives are also a little different. The old A-D scoring objectives still exist, but are triggered by a player when they achieve them (like the discovered species bonuses, which are unchanged). If you score one, it is similarly flipped over. But now it is harder for other players to score, while giving the same points. Just another reason why you need to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing.

There’s also now a third type of randomised objective. When you trigger a Discovery Token, you can choose any one of the four available – and could gain all four during the game. Each gives a different immediate benefit. But at the end of the game, you’ll multiply your tokens by your different discovered dinosaur types. Again, it’s just another thing to think about.

Comparing the Varuna board game with Demeter: Which to choose?

Demeter feels like the simpler game. And also the more random. Having to wait to see what buildings come up isn’t very satisfying strategically. Where here you have more agency when defining your chosen path. Generally, Varuna feels lie a more controlled experience.

But the addition of damage, and the extra way you can claim objectives before an opponent, mean the Varuna board game has also lost nothing to Demeter in the tactical department. And not only that, the threat of damage adds genuine jeopardy. I’ve not had someone lose their sub yet, but some have come close.

Generally, Varuna feels like Demeter 2.0, rather than Demeter 2. all the tweaks add to what was an already good game. Even small things, such as all the dinosaurs looking properly different, seem to have been taken note of from the first game. It largely feels like a group of small steps forward, rather than a straight alternative. Unless you really loved the luck and simplicity of the original.

I don’t think many gamers will feel the need to own both games. And for me, Varuna is clearly the better game. Your get more control and strategy with very little extra complexity. The slightly lower barrier to entry may make some choose Demeter. But I’ll be keeping Varuna on my shelves for sure. And it may become a Top 40 contender in future.

Have your say!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.