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.

My Top 40 board games of all time 2022: From 40-21

Here we go again! It’s my 9th year of doing a ‘favourite games of all time’ list. And while little changes at the top end, I still find it an interesting process. It’s a time to reflect on whether some old favourites are losing their shine. And to see if any recent acquisitions have really made the grade.

As usual, the bottom 10 were the hardest. The top 25 pretty much chose themselves. But I then had around 30 to narrow down to 15. So honourable mentions go to Bad Company, Rokoko and Finca (numbers 41-43), which were last to fall from the list and the hardest choices I had to make.

Links in the game titles go to full reviews elsewhere on the site, which is why the entries are quite short. I’ve reviewed pretty much all of these games. And these are just some of the 200 reviews you’ll find here (there’s a link to all the reviews at the top of the page). I’ve played thousands of games over the years, so anything that has made my Top 40 is – for me – pretty special.

If you want to support this site, please follow this link to Board Game Prices before making any purchases online. Every little helps! And if you find something you like via the site, please let me know in the comments. It’s a great feeling knowing that people are getting some joy from finding these great games.

My Top 40: Numbers 31-40 (alphabetical)

NEW! Almadi
(2021, 2-5 players, 56-60 mins)
Online: BGA
A simple tile/tableau building game that gets just about everything right. It’s a properly thinky puzzle experience with lots of interesting decisions to make. Plus some really satisfying moments when you chain things together, or complete a tricky challenge. There’s not a huge amount of interaction, but you are competing to complete a limited number of bonus tiles. This can swing the game, so certainly makes a difference.

Archaeology: The Card Game
(2007, 2-4 players, 30 mins)
This small box card game is an impressive take on simple set collection mechanisms. You’re basically trying to collect colour sets to score points. There is no hand limit. So it should be easy, right? Well. Some cards let you steal from opponents. While others create sandstorms, making all players put half their current cards into a shared central area. This push-your-luck element really makes it shine.

Basari: Das Kartenspiel
(2014, 3-5 players, 30 mins)
A fabulous negotiation and bluffing game in a small box. It plays fast and, with the right people, is such good fun. You each play a card each turn, trying to collect gems and points. There are only three card types and if you’re the only one to choose an option, you do it. If more than two choose the same one, you all do nothing. But if two choose, you negotiate with gems. And with all info visible, its a great game of bluff and counter bluff.

(2013, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours)
The Caverna vs Agricola debate will roll on forever. I like both, but prefer the openness of Caverna to the front-loaded experience of Agricola. What you get is a long and involved worker placement game with multiple paths to victory.

Caverna rewards long term strategy, but the competition for worker spots means you often have to pivot tactically to get what you need. For me, one of the best games in the genre and my favourite Rosenberg design.

RE! Just One
(2018, 4-7 players, 20-60 mins)
I love a good word game and this is just that. The game is incredibly simple – One player chooses a word blind from several on a card (they’re numbered), and the other players write down just one word that gives a clue to it. They then compare their words, and any duplicates are removed. Leaving the guessing player to deduct their own word from those that are left. Families, gamers, anyone can play and enjoy this one.

31-40 continued

NEW! Kanban
(2014, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours)
Online: Boite a Jeux
After playing this online, I had to pick up a copy. I’d presumed it would be too heavy for me, but the theme makes sense – which really helps you get your head around the gameplay. Yes, there’s a lot going on. And while it is probably one of the heavier euro games I never find it gets overwhelming. Its largely an action selection game, but timing your moves well is crucial. Generally, you really have to keep an eye on your fellow players.

Lift Off
(2019, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours)
Online: BGA
This card drafting euro went largely under the radar on release. But it found some life during covid thanks to its online implementation on Yucata. There’s a solid element of engine building, as you build up your rockets and launch pad to complete missions. And the drafting is competitive enough to keep you on your toes. And I love the artwork, although some think it should be a smaller box game. I disagree, as it looks great on the table.

NEW! Sobek 2 Player
(2021, 2 players, 20-30 mins)
Online: BGA
The original Sobek suffered from odd scoring and lacklustre card selection, but the set collection part was really nice. Sobek 2 Players replaces and improves the crappy bits and keeps the good one, making for an excellent game. You take tiles from a grid, but your opponent is limited in what they can take afterwards by direction arrows on the tile you choose. This makes every decision important.

Tales of Glory
(2018, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
Tile laying with a fantast theme and cute artwork. You’re building the legend of your hero, showing where they’ve been and what they’ve gathered by matching tiles to gain rewards. It’s fast, simple and elegant. With enough personality to keep me coming back for more. It really sings with more players, as the competition for tiles is more fierce. This is done with a clever take on bidding/drafting which makes it stand out from the pack.

That’s Pretty Clever
(2018, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
I could have put any one of the series here, as I only wanted one on the list. And my favourite changes depending on my mood or the group playing. It’s a roll-and-write game where clever choices can lead to hugely satisfying combos. Better still, your dice choices affect your opponents. Which means sometimes its better to take something slightly worse to leave others with even worse ones. Quick, clever and thinky.

My Top 40: Numbers 21-30 (alphabetical)

Adios Calavera
(2017, 2-3, 20 mins)
A wonderfully clever little two-player abstract game (or three-player with an expansion). The gorgeous ‘day of the dead’ artwork sold me on it, but it has gameplay to match. You’re simply trying to get all your pieces across the board. But you play at right angles, and your opponent’s pieces also count when working out movement speed. So one player is counting rows, the other columns. Ad special powers and you have loads of replayability.

(2003, 2-5, 60 mins)
Online: BGA, Yucata
Another tile-layer, with players building their own tableaus. Walls and having to keep the tiles oriented the correct way creates a great solo puzzle. As do having to buy tiles with multiple currencies. But the majorities scoring by tile colour makes it hugely interactive, as you vie to both accumulate and deny. A raft of mini expansions really help replayability and it looks great on the table.

RE! Castles of Burgundy
(2011, 2-4 players, 60-120 mins)
Online: BGA & Yucata
The first in an unlikely run of three Stefan Feld-designed euro games. This is perhaps his most popular ‘point salad’ game and one of the lighter ones. But don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to think about here as you first but and then place small tiles on your player board by using dice for actions. But the tiles available are limited each turn. So while there’s no direct interaction, you have to quick to get the ones you need. A very satisfying game.

(2009, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins)
Online: Yucata
One of Feld’s more frustrating euros, but also one of my favourites. You draft cards with various abilities, which need to be activated by collecting cubes. Weaker cards need single colours, but ones needing combos are much more powerful – but you need great planning and some luck to trigger them. I think it gets the risk/reward about right and triggering some of the cooler cards is very satisfying if you pull it off.

Notre Dame
(2007, 2-5 players, 60 mins)
This is light and fast euro, which seems to be strangely marmitey. There’s a small card drafting element leading to a really tight worker placement mechanism. You always feel as if you don’t have enough of anything, while the constant threat of disease needs to be kept on top of. I love the dread of doom this creates, as you pivot to deal with a surprisingly tough round. But I guess it’s not for everyone!

21-30 continued

(2018, 2-4 players, 60 mins)
Yet another tile-laying game, this time with a space station theme. You’re trying to balance your mix of accommodation, recycling, power and farms. Which isn’t made easy by some very strange tile shapes (made up of long diamonds) and an incredibly tight economy in which to buy them. Taking big tiles can be a big help. But if you run out of money, you also run out of choices – which can finish you.

The Rose King
(1992, 2 players, 30 mins)
Online: Yucata
The only pre-2000 design on the list has certainly stood the test of time. This excellent abstract is still in print after 30 years, and rightly so. You’re trying to group your pieces on a tight board. But are restricted by a small number of cards that let you do so. Worse still, your opponent can see all your cards too. So while the card draw is random, shaping play tactically, you are working with perfect information.

(2012, 1-5 players, 90 mins)
Online: Yucata
A fantastic worker placement game that continues to offer something a little different, even 10 years on from release. The ‘building the railway up Snowdon’ theme is wonderfully leftfield, while the weather mechanism remain one of my favourite unique euro ideas. It sets the speed your workers go at, while a second mechanism sees the game itself finishing part of the endgame requirements for you – which really keeps you on you toes.

(2012, 2 players, 60 mins)
Online: BGA & Yucata
The third two-player only game on the list and the second from the excellent Kosmos small box series. Targi sees players claiming cards from a 4×4 grid by placing workers around the edges of the grid to claim actions on those spots and the cards at your workers’ intersections. Which in turn creates plenty of opportunities to get in each other’s way while trying to get the cards you need, making for an excellent two-player experience.

Tumblin’ Dice
(2004, 2-4 players, 45 mins)
What do you get if you cross the idea of darts with dice? Something much like this. Tumblin’ Dice has a lovely wooden board which is separated into increasingly tricky scoring areas. Players flick their dice trying to land in good spots or knocking opponent dice off the board – or preferably both. The fact the dice numbers are multipliers makes it super random, which is a great leveller in a game which is clearly just a bit of fun.

Online play

You’ll see a lot of the games above are listed as having online versions. These are all browser based and mostly available for free. Here are the links:

Tune in next week for the Top 20. And please post any comments below.

Paris La Cité de la Lumière: A four-sided review

Paris La Cité de la Lumière box artwork

Paris La Cité de la Lumière is a two-player tile-laying game that plays in about 30 minutes. It’s part of the Devir/Kosmos small box two-player line and is recommended for ages 8+, which feels about right. But that’s a ‘gamer kid’ age range, as it’s quite a thinky abstract.

The production quality is gorgeous. You’ll be creating a tile grid within the box itself then populating it with buildings to score points. While the theme is doing very little work, there are lots of nice little thematic touches that help make the game come to life. for example, action choices are on late 19th Century postcards that look fantastic.

In the box (which doubles as the board) you’ll find 16 standard tiles, 12 raised building tiles, 14 wooden pieces, 17 more cardboard pieces and 12 action postcards. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for just under £20 – good value for the work that’s gone into it.

Teaching Paris La Cité de la Lumière

Paris La Cité de la Lumière is a game of two halves. In the first you’ll be placing the 16 cobblestone tiles that form the game’s foundation, while also choosing building tiles. In the second half you’ll be placing those buildings into the shared grid you’ve built, while also using the action postcards to make small tactical shifts and adjustments. Or, if you’re me, to make up for mistakes you made when mentally ‘planning’ during the first half of the game…

Each player starts with a defined set of eight cobblestone tiles. Each tile is split into quarters and contains a mix of your player colour, your opponent’s colour, a neutral colour, and/or streetlights (used for scoring). These are shuffled and you take one randomly if you don’t have one in hand at the end of your turn.

On your turn, you can place your cobblestone tile onto any free space within the 4×4 game grid. Or alternatively, take any one of the 12 building tiles – all of which are different sizes and shapes. This continues until both players have placed all of their eight cobblestone tiles or have passed. So the amount of building tiles you each end up with for the second half of the game is not predetermined and could be different for each player.

Building the cité

The player who placed their last cobblestone tile first begins the second half of the game. If you choose to place one of your buildings, it can only cover up yours or neutral-coloured spaces. Alternatively, you can carry out an action. There are eight (randomly selected from 12) in each game, each of which can only be used once – after which it is marked in your colour and flipped over (some can be used on a later turn).

These actions variously break rules and/or give scoring opportunities. For example, there are tiles that add a streetlight, extend one of your buildings or change an opponent’s space to a neutral one. While others let you swap one of your unplaced buildings for one that wasn’t taken, or to avoid end game penalties. The second half of Paris La Cité de la Lumière ends when the last of the eight action cards has been used, regardless of whether players have any remaining buildings left to place.

You each score for your largest contiguous building area, for every lamp that borders each of your buildings, and for any end game action card scoring chosen. But you’ll lose points for any buildings you chose but didn’t manage to place on the board. Highest score wins.

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’m not usually that bothered by appearance. But Paris La Cité de la Lumière is a gorgeous looking game. However, don’t let the romance of Paris fool you; this is a cutthroat abstract gaming experience. And before you start thinking about your opponent, you have your own puzzle to solve. You try to create areas for the building tiles you hope to pick up. But even the building tiles are against you, as they can’t be flipped over, leaving even less room for mistakes. That’s just plain mean.
  • The thinker: An excellent game. Your tile placement and building selections show your strategic intent. But the neutral spaces (and some action cards) make it largely impossible to guarantee success, bringing in the crucial tactical element. There’s an element of luck in how your tiles come out in phase one. But once the stage is set, it’s purely about your decisions.
  • The trasher: Paris La Cité de la Lumière is a classic push or pull puzzle. You usually have at least two good options to choose from. And know that your opponent is in the same boat – with the same limited placement/pick up options. Do you deny your opponent a great spot? Or claim a benefit that will help in the long run? Knowing that neither option works if its opposite is taken away from you. A very good game, despite a dull theme.
  • The dabbler: I absolutely love this game! The artwork beautifully captures the romantic magic of Paris past. And the rules are really simple. However, there’s so much to think about on every turn! So, you soon get the hang of the mechanics, but the choices remain really tricky. It also sets up and plays really quickly. So is great if you just have a little break in real life in which to squeeze a sneaky game. However, you do need to be able to think in several directions at once! It says ages 8+, but I wouldn’t play with kids.

Key observations

Paris La Cité de la Lumièr is a lovely looking production and does exactly what it set out to do. It won’t be for everyone though, as it is deliberately mean. I can see some care bear types almost agreeing what each other can/will take as they each try to get massive scores. But most will throw each other under the bus at every opportunity. Of course, the problems arises when one likes one style, and one the other.

Some players won’t get on with the tough choices you have to make here. It’s a strong contender for breaking ‘analysis paralysis’ players. While a player who is naturally good at this kind of game will smash an opponent that isn’t. Which is never fun in a two-player experience. I’m pretty rubbish at it, but enjoy the challenge. And I don’t really care if I don’t win. I can see it being very frustrating for some players.

I’ve seen complaints that the postcard actions open up the decision space to much. Especially as they have no text to describe these actions on the postcards. However, there are only 12 different actions – and only per game. Most are self-explanatory. And we found the others were in our memories by the second play.

But I’d like to have seen a bit more thought going into the actions. Choosing eight of 12 means you’ve seen all the game has to offer after two or three plays. As always with a good two-player abstract, it’s as much about playing your opponent as it is about requiring variety. But in the modern board game arena, we tend to expect a bit more variation.

Conclusion: Paris La Cité de la Lumière

Paris La Cité de la Lumièr has become the sixth Kosmos two-player game in my collection. And it was a very easy decision to make. It looks great, Sarah likes it, and there’s loads of game for something that sets up fast, plays quickly and takes up hardly any room. So, beyond a slight worry about long-term replayability, I’m all in on this one.

Quordle: For when Wordle just doesn’t cut it anymore

A screen grab of the Quordle game

So, what’s Quordle? Back in January, online puzzle game Wordle was boasting more than two-million users. And since moving to the New York Times website, they’ve been recording more than 300,000 daily hits. But for many, the challenge soon wears thin. You come up with a system and can pretty much guarantee to get the word every day. Which is where one of the Wordle clones, Quordle, comes in.

Quordle works on a very similar premise. But as the ‘q’ in the title might suggest, you get four Wordles for the price of one. You still type in a five-letter word. But here it populates four different answers at once. Instead of finding one word in five guesses, here you need to find all four words in just nine guesses. You can find it online here.

In addition to the extra challenge, it offers some other compelling features. When you’ve typed in your Wordle word and hit enter, it comes up with a message if your word isn’t in its dictionary. With Quordle, your word highlights in red before you press enter so you know it’s not going to be accepted. A small thing, but every click counts.

Quordle has no daily limit

Another issue for some Wordle fans is the ‘one per day’ limit. This makes sense, as all users are doing the same one each day. But Quordle gets around this limitation by adding a ‘practice’ mode. Users can still share their daily answer via social media. But if they want to put in some extra practice, they have the option to do so. There’s even an ‘achievements’ section.

But largely, Wordle fans should find themselves right at home. The layout and colour use are identical to the original. Which is hardly surprising, as it was developed by a group of Wordle fans, including original prototype creator David Mah and coder Freddie Meyer. Unlike some of the other Wordle spinoffs, Quordle takes the original flow of the base game and adds an extra challenge.

And it has clearly taken off. Many major international news sites already publish daily Quordle hints and answers posts. So, it looks as if this particular Wordle clone is here to stay.

(Note: I’ve been applying for writing jobs all week, having to do a bunch of samples. This was a failed application, so I thought, waste not want not! And it felt relevant, because it really is good. Board game stuff should return next week.)

Neko Harbour The Card Game: A four-sided review

Neko Harbour The Card Game is a drafting and engine building game for 2-4 players, lasting 1-2 hours (30 minutes per player). Although it says 30-60 minutes on the box (maybe we’re slow). It’s listed for ages 12+, which feels right. It’s not overly complex, but the way things fit together makes it very thinky.

The theme works well enough, but isn’t doing any heavy lifting here. You’re fuelling and improving a fleet of ships and sending them to tourist destinations. Which just happen to home penguins. Yes, it could’ve been a fleet of anything going anywhere. But who doesn’t like penguins? If anything, they’ve missed a trick by not squeezing more cute critters onto the cards.

It fits neatly into a Kosmos 2-player-sized box. Inside you’ll find 220 cards, half full-sized and half small, plus a scorepad. This works well, as the small cards are largely just resources that never go into your hand. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for just under £30 including shipping. Perhaps a little steep, but I presume it is currently only available as an import.

Teaching Neko Harbour The Card Game

NHTCG (as no one is calling it) has an interesting take on drafting. The game is split into halves, and each player drafts six cards at the start of each. Once you’ve finished drafting, players take it in turns to play a card until everyone has played all six. There follows a short intermediate scoring/reset, then you do it all again. Then its final scoring.

For 3/4 players, each player drafts a pile of one, two and three cards (making your hand of six). It’s a nice system, forcing you to decide what you really need – and what you’ll happily be stuck with because of your early choices. For two players, you simply lay out eight cards and draft 1-2-2-1, discarding the other two cards – then you do it again. So the start player chooses one, then the second player two, etc. Both work fine, but the 3/4 player version feels a little more interesting. There are cards left over in both scenarios, so its unlikely you’ll feel you’ve got a bum hand.

Playing your cards

Neko Harbour The Card Game has six types of card, which can be added to your tableau in one of two ways: their main use (as a location), or to bolster any location already in play. Cards of the same type are placed in a stack, so you’ll have up to six stacks in total. When activated, three of these trigger the game’s core actions, while the others give ongoing or end game bonuses.

After adding a card to your tableau (in either way) you trigger each of your card stacks (or ‘harbours’). And when you do so, all card in that harbour (played for their main action) activate. In addition, the three core actions can be triggered at the end of your turn if they haven’t been already – meaning you don’t have to have played them yet. This is important, as if you’re frozen out of a card type by the draft you’re not necessarily frozen out of the action itself. You just need to have the required currency to do said action.

Moving your ships

Each player also has six ship cards, which you use your actions to move and improve. The cards are double sided, with each having flipped numbers like a dice (so 1-6, 2-5, 3-4). So, if you don’t have a particular number available, you can’t do the upgrade. Which can be a particularly tricky part of the puzzle.

Moving your ships is essential to success. Firstly, moving a ship across your harbours can activate those locations, triggering bonuses or letting you do an action an extra time. This happens if your ship’s value (plus those already at that location) is lower than the harbour’s value. Hence why you may add a card to bolster a location, as this adds to its harbour value. Secondly, a ship can only be sent to a tourist location (read: end game scoring) if it has moved across as many spaces as its upgraded level. Sending ships away gives a small bonus, while the totals of your ship values at each location will determine end game points.

Points also come from ships you’ve moved into harbours, but that didn’t make it to a tourist location. While other actions or location cards reward you with bonus points.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Neko Harbour The Card Game’s rulebook is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. But when you start to see how everything here interacts – and try and succinctly explain the rules yourself (see above!) – you realise why. Everything here is familiar, but comes together in surprising and tricky ways. There is little elegance here. But once you get your head around some of the strange timings and interactions, there’s a very rewarding puzzle at its core. Especially for a game that plays in such a short time.
  • The thinker: Don’t let the cute penguins fool you – this is a tricky strategic puzzle made all the better thanks to a well-implemented tactical majorities scoring system. Its quickness works in its favour, as you have limited – but known – time to build and execute you engine/plans. Send boats away early can gain you extra bonuses. But will that mean sacrificing end game majorities? As well as limiting your scope for upgrades. I’ve been very impressed and surprised by the game and am looing forward to more plays.
  • The trasher: I agree that the puzzle of end game scoring is a good one. There’s great tactical interaction here, especially as you can move your boats (as long as you have fuel) between tourist locations after the fact, so aren’t tying yourself to a location by going early. The question is, do you want to fight through a brain-burning euro game to get to this point? And the truth is, it won’t matter where you want to send your ships if you can’t get your engine going. so ultimately its a good game, but its not for me. I’d rather get my area majorities kicks via a game in a purer form.
  • The dabbler: Don’t let the cute penguins fool you – but not for the reason the thinker said! How can a game about penguins and the sea be this dry? It should’ve been about moving water biscuits across the desert. And it could’ve been, for all it has to do with penguins or Neko Harbour. Hard to get your head around, frustrating, and really not for me.

Key observations

It takes a lot of work to learn and play Neko Harbour The Card Game. Players who love a meaty puzzle will feel its worth the effort. But it seems an odd theme, and cover, for such a tricky game. I’m not saying its dishonest. I just hope that the game manages to find its audience, without disappointing those who may pick it up on a whim without doing a bit of research. In my opinion, this is not a game for new or even gateway gamers.

In his video ‘final thoughts‘ for the game, YouTuber Rahdo (who clearly likes the game) picked up on quite a few issues he had with the two-player rules. He didn’t like the two-player drafting, which I thought was absolutely fine. That’s very much a personal preference. But I do agree with him on some of the card restrictions. The game has a bunch of unique ‘research station’ cards. But a set few are always used with two players. This could be house ruled. But its an odd restriction, especially as it has a real impact on replayability.

Talking of replayability, the game comes with a 10-card ‘fishing boat’ mini expansion. These add a small amount to the game, in particular a way to get an extra harbour. This means you can ignore a basic card type and still get to six harbours, allowing you to still send level six ships away for scoring. But beyond that, as you use all 10 each play, they fail to add that ‘random cards each play’ element I feel the game is missing. That said, the tactical nature of scoring should keep players on their toes over multiple plays.

Conclusion: Neko Harbour The Card Game

I was very impressed with Neko Harbour The Card Game. It takes some tried and tested euro mechanics, throws in some real interaction, and makes something that feels unique but also familiar. Particularly impressive from a small box game that can easily play in under an hour. But it won’t be staying in my collection. I found it a bear to teach. While you really need a specific type of player who is going to fall for its charms. If that sounds like your group from what you’ve read here though, I highly recommend it.