Launched at Essen SPIEL 2019, Aquatica is a game designed by Ivan Tuzovsky and published by Russian company Cosmodrome Games. In the game, which supports up to four people, each player possesses their own underwater kingdom and seeks to become the most prosperous monarch of all.
The game is card-driven, but Aquatica isn't a deck builder - rather, it's a hand-builder, familiar to those who have played Concordia. The goals each player is attempting to complete mostly revolve around conquering or buying access to location cards, which are found in a shared pool on the main board. To do this, they use a hand of character cards which they gradually improve over the course of the game - playing just one character per turn.
At first glance this is simple in the extreme, but Tuzovsky's design uses a novel mechanic that Cosmodrome call "card rising". Locations which a player already owns slot into a special player board, and the cards have resources and special powers printed on positions called "depths". To win, players need to carefully synergise their character card each turn with the potential afforded to them by their depths - bearing in mind that each can be used only once. Additionally, each player begins with a number of manta miniatures which also provide resources and powers. Acquring more of these, and timing their use carefully, is also key to victory.
Before getting into Aquatica's many watery charms, it has to be remarked that there are problems with the quality control of the copies of the game made available at SPIEL. The card stock is not ideal quality, the solo rules are simply wrong, and most annoyingly the depths on the location cards don't match up with the slots on the player boards. These errors are mostly just visual, and all are minor, but they add up to a disappointing blemish on what is otherwise a great production. Very likely, they will be fixed on the main retail release.
With that being said, Aquatica is an excellent game. The central idea of the gameplay is of chaining actions together, to make turns as efficient as possible. Tuzovsky's design beautifully exploits this idea, and it's hugely satisfying to plan and then execute a clever turn which racks up a lot of points. The number of location cards in particular is quite large and the setup has a high degree of variability, so one game is significantly unlike another. This is magnified by a small variable power assigned to each player colour, and unique starting king cards allocated via drafting.
While it's immediately obvious that several artists worked on Aquatica, their various styles mesh effectively. As you would imagine given the aquatic theme, there is a lot of blue in the game but Cosmodrome's team manage to work other colours into the palette as well. The main board is generously proportioned and lovely to look at, and the special player boards designed for "card rising" give the game a unique table presence. The manta miniatures are a welcome flourish - they could very easily have been just cards, but as miniatures they become one of the most memorable aspects of the game. Don't be surprised if your group begins to refer to "the manta game", or just "mantas"!
Generally, games of Aquatica will take between 45 minutes and an hour. Turns will naturally lengthen as the game progresses, because players' hands become larger and decisions grow more difficult. Still, the actions that players will naturally want to take draw the game to its end, so it won't outstay its welcome. The game is also quite easy to teach, with the specifics of chaining actions together being the part that needs most care to explain.
An attractive and accessible midweight game which makes good use of its ocean theme and memorable components, Aquatica is definitely worth diving into.
Find out more about Aquatica on BoardGameGeek.