School or get Schooled
Publisher: Thames & Kosmos (Kosmos)
Designer: Marcello Bertocchi
Publication Date: 2020
Publisher Recommended Age: 8+
Player Count: 2
Favourite Foe score: 8/10
Under the sea…….
Worry not, dear readers. I will not be launching into a rousing, out of tune chorus from Disney’s “A Little Mermaid”. (Well, not unless you reeeeallly want me to. Think very carefully before you answer, however. For once you hear something, you can never un-hear it!).
Instead, I will be telling you about a new game from Thames & Kosmos called Aqualin.
A new addition to their brilliant Two Player range (uniform, Kallax friendly box size alone gives it bonus brownie points!), Aqualin is an abstract tile placement, set collection game taking place, you guessed it, under the sea!
But will it be shoaltasticfantastic or a damp squib? Let’s find out!
Sea-sy Set Up!
This could not be simpler. 3 steps: Open box. Take out board. Tip out tiles. That’s it. Pour and play!
Once the tiles are loose, somebody does have the task of turning them face down and selecting six random ones for the draw pool, but, with tiles as satisfyingly chunky as these, picking them up and flipping them over is no hard labour.
Players also have to decide who is going to be grouping colours whilst the other collects sea creatures of the same type. But with the board placed in between and the tiles within reach, it is time to dive-dive-dive!
Plaice those Tiles!
Just like the set-up, this game could not be simpler in terms of how it plays. 3 steps: Move tile. Place tile. Replenish Tile. I know I risk sounding like a broken record but yup. That’s it!
And don’t worry. This isn’t the part where I then reveal that each of those creatures or colours have prescribed moves or abilities which you then have to commit to memory a la Chess or Hive (where bishops can only blast a diagonal line and beetles must bounce one space at a time – or do they? Have I remembered that right?!).
First turn, the starting player has to skip action #2 as there are no tiles on the board. After that, however, it is consistent pattern of play throughout the game.
A player will draft a tile from the shared pool of six, but, before they place it on the board (on any free space – no orthogonal or adjacency rules in the deep ocean, my friend!), they can decide whether to move an existing tile along the row or column to a free space in which that tile currently sits.
This electric-eel slide step is not compulsory, but it is available. Once picking and moving are complete, that player replaces the just used tile with a randomly selected tile from the face down pile and it is the next player’s turn.
Moving, placing and replacing continues until the 6x6 board is full.
Soft Shell Shuffle
This game is simple to learn, simple to play, but is definitely not without some strategic play. With points increasing as the number of tiles in identical sets of colours and creatures goes up, the ability to slide a tile into a growing shoal could mean points a plenty at end game scoring. With your opponent seeking a different objective using the same tiles, however, the risk that they ruin your run and then double-whammy block you from recapturing those runaways provides a sprinkling of crabby crunch!
Aqualin will have you making decisions throughout – do you concede tiles that result in points for both players so that you can fight the bigger battles elsewhere, or do you block and do your best impression of a hammerhead shark intent on destroying every set your opponent tries to make? The desire to plan ahead is also there but difficult to achieve as the board is constantly changing, further restricting freedoms and forcing players to make a trade-off on each turn.
Aqualin is a fun, fast, abstract, family, strategy game. It is colourful, it is tactile, and it is portable. No big table required. No lengthy rule book to plough through. 3 actions. 18 turns.
Playing with my husband, we experienced more thinky amongst the inky sea creatures than we were expecting. The ever decreasing game space presents an escalating and enjoyable challenge which had us calculating in our heads as we tried to predict what the other would do in light of our available options.
Further, the recommended age is 8+ but our Mini Meeple insists on testing all new games. And, although only just shy of 6, he grasped the basic actions within the game and pretty quickly became able to form groups of matching coloured tiles as well as smashing sets of my own. Not only that but he asked to play again which definitely gives Aqualin a seal of approval around our gaming table. He was better at making groups when collecting colour rather than shape as the pattern recognition (and scoring) appears slightly easier when hunting out identical hues. However, as the game mechanic doesn’t change from game to game, with practice this should improve for him.
Overall, Aqualin is a quick, accessible, family abstract game and I like it for that reason. It isn’t trying to tie players up in knots, and the confidence that comes from improvements through repetition in the game play is a great way to introduce younger or less experienced players to more weighty games in the same genre. When you need a quick two player game which you can explain and start playing in under a minute, this is a great go-to choice; the Finding Nemo of abstract filler games.
If you would like to check out my 1 minute rapid video review of Aqualin, please click here
[please note that a copy of this game was kindly provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review but any opinions expressed are my own]