Board Game Review: Aqua Sphere

Last week, my husband informed me that he had put a game called Aqua Sphere (by Tasty Minstrel Games and Hall Games) in our Amazon cart. I had seen one or two advertisements for it that week and it had intrigued me. Naturally, I was pleased we had both noticed this game and was happy to purchase. I mean, it has wooden octopus pieces!  Buckle up for a bit of a long read; this game is a bit complicated, but good fun once you learn it.

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We sat down to play it last Saturday in hopes of learning it prior to teaching others. Aqua Sphere is a worker placement game with a twist, and a minor tile placement element. It plays 2-4 people, and according to the box takes 100 min to play (which I found oddly specific hehe). With two players, our first game took only 50 min, so I can see it extending well with four players to about 100.  So despite the somewhat unusual specificity, the number seems accurate!

The game takes place over four rounds. At the end of the four rounds, the player with the highest points wins. Points are scored every round for several things and then a final round of scoring is done at the very end of the game.  More on scoring later.

The Premise

You are essentially a team of research personnel, including a scientist, an engineer, and a bunch of bots. Your team is working at a sea lab consisting of Headquarters – where the Engineer chooses what your actions will be for the round by programming the bots – and the Research lab – where the scientist and bots actually perform actions to acquire knowledge (points).

Every round, players take turns doing either (a) a bot programming action with their engineer or (b) an action in the lab with their scientist corresponding to a previously programmed bot action.  One of the most challenging aspects of learning this game for me was remembering that my scientist couldn’t do anything without the engineer first planning for it – despite working in software …

The Headquarters Board (ENGINEER)

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There are seven actions available to program a bot with, represented by each of the colored circle tokens.  These tokens are shifted using a random card draw mechanic every round so that they are available in different orders each time.  Your engineer starts each round at the bottom of headquarters, and can choose which action to program a bot with.  From each box, you can tell by the arrows which actions are available to program for the next time your engineer takes a turn.  You’ll notice there are no arrows pointing down.  You can program up to 3 actions (unless you have cards allowing you to do more) each round (one per turn) – but if you start with an action on the third row, you will have nowhere to move, and will have to pass on the engineer track afterwards.  The first player who passes, will get to go first next round.  Pass order is tracked at the four numbered circles at the top of the board, and turn order is tracked at the four numbered circles on the right of the board.  Once all players have passed, the round is over.  The Headquarters board is also used as a knowledge point tracker along the outside when scoring is done.  At four spots on the track, each player must pay tribute to move forward (tribute is not done on the final scoring).  Tribute is one crystal – if you cannot pay, you must un-program a bot.  If you don’t, your piece stops at the red line and no further points are accrued.

Programming Actions Available:

1)  Take Time Markers (Yellow) – Take as many time resources as you can accommodate in your personal supply. These are necessary for your scientist to move through the research lab.

2)  Program a Bot (White) – Technically, all the actions in Headquarters program a bot.  This action is kind of like a wild that allows you to program an additional bot based on when and where you use it in the Research lab (I’ll explain more on this later).

3)  Take a Research Card (Red) – Take the top research card from the research lab sector your scientist is currently in.  You can only have two research cards – and you cannot trade them out for a new one.  Research cards do a lot of different things, which you can read in detail in the rule book.  During our play through, I had two cards that allowed me to gather some extra resources every time my engineer programmed a red bot.

4)  Take Crystals (Black) – Take as many crystals are you can accommodate in your personal supply.  Crystals help you earn knowledge points and are used as tribute on the point tracker.

5)  Catch Octopods (Purple) – You can catch up to as many octopods are you can accommodate in your personal supply.  You immediately gain knowledge points based on how many octopods you catch.  It is important to clear octopods because if you control a research lab sector that has octopods in it at the end of the round, you will lose points – more for each octopod.

6)  Expand the Lab (Green) – Take the top lab expansion piece from the lab sector your scientist is currently in.  You can then add this piece to your personal supply lab.  The lab expansion pieces allow you to collect letters (which contribute to more points at the end of the game) or additional resource symbols (octopods, crystals, cards, and time).  Completing your personal supply lab earns you points at the end of the game.

7)  Place a Submarine (Blue) – Place a submarine in the sector of the research lab where your scientist is.  You can only have one of your submarines per sector, and each submarine in the sector makes placing a new one more expensive.  You gain knowledge points for placing a submarine, and at the end of the game earn a bonus if you have submarines in all sectors. Submarines also help you replenish time resources in between rounds.

Every time you program a bot with your Engineer, you must use your player board to keep track of your programmed bots.  On my player board below, you can see I have a single yellow “Take Time Markers” bot programmed.  When you take a turn with your scientist, you only pull bots from the programmed spots on your player board.

FullSizeRenderAs an aside, it makes me happy when games use good symbology to let you know what your options are, and Aqua Sphere did a lovely job with this, especially on the player cards.  Onward!

The Research Lab (SCIENTIST)

Once you have programmed a bot (or two or three), your scientist is ready to help you conduct some research in the lab!

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Each of the six lab sectors contains the same options for actions (time markers, research card, submarine, lab expansion, crystals, octopods) except for the “Program a Bot” one.  The “Program a Bot” spot on each sector corresponds to ONE of the actions from Headquarters, except for “Program a Bot”.

Each turn you can move your scientist for the cost of varying amounts of time, depending on the number in the hallways connecting the rooms you move through.  Once you are in the sector you want to do an action in, you take your programmed bot from your player board and place it in the center of the lab sector, which indicates that you now control the sector.  Then you perform the bot’s programmed action (take the card or your crystals etc).

Controlling lab sectors with your bots is worth points every round.  Only one person can control a sector at a time.  If someone controlled the sector before you, when you place your bot in the center, the bot that was there goes into the loading station (rectangular space off of each circular room).  There is a limit to the number of bots in the loading station depending on the number of players.  Whenever the loading station exceeds the limit, each player must remove all but one back to their player board.

At the end of each round, points are tallied, the research lab is replenished, and new research cards and lab expansion tiles are added to the top of the piles in each sector.

Scoring Knowledge Points

There are several phases of scoring.

  • During each round, a few things are scored immediately, including points for clearing octopods and placing submarines.
  • At the end of each round, the person in control of the most sectors gets six points.  If there is a tie for most sectors controlled, the folks who tie each get three points.  You also get points for the number of bots you have in play (you can tell this from the empty spaces on your player board), and the number of crystals in your supply.  Then you lose points for any octopods left uncaptured in sectors you control.
  • At the end of the game (after the round scoring) you do final scoring.  You get points for the number of unique letters in your personal lab, the time markers left in your supply, some points if all six of your submarines are placed, and some points if you have a completed personal lab.

Review

Typically when I review board games, I give them a rating out of 5 stars.  But with this review I am changing that rating system to a 10 point system – I just don’t feel that 5 stars allows me to rate with enough specificity.  So assume I give some of my favorite games like Power Grid, Stone Age, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and Keyflower 10/10s.  Things like Manhattan Project rate around a 9 on the new system, and Quarantine maybe a 7.  Imperial Assault would also get a 7 (just because dungeon crawlers aren’t my favorite type of game; it’s at the top of my dungeon crawler list).  Don’t forget – BoardGameGiveaway.com is giving away a free copy of Star Wars: Imperial Assault this month!  Make sure you go enter your name!

OK.  I found Aqua Sphere to be quite a complicated worker placement game.  For me, this is a good thing as I tend to enjoy board games that are more strategic and challenging.  Expect your first play through to be a little frustrating, but as you learn the game, it starts to feel more interesting.  I haven’t played it a second time yet, but I think I’ll have more of a strategy.  Overall, this game is up there … maybe a little higher than Quarantine, but not as fun as Manhattan Project.  If a game’s rules are complicated enough to make someone who games as often as I do a little confused, I feel I should rate it a little lower.  The instruction booklet is  done well though, and of course nothing helps like a play through.  Ultimately, Aqua Sphere is really fun, and OCTOPODS!  I rate this at an 8 out of 10.

 

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