Saturday, February 12, 2005

Review: Niagara

One of the games that made a splash at the Essen trade show in Germany is Thomas Lieshing's Niagara. From the moment I saw this title I was intrigued. I'm a sucker for pretty bits and a good gimmick and this game has both.

In this game for 3-5 players, players paddle canoes up and down the river above the Niagara falls, collecting gems deposited along the river and attempting to return them safely to shore without getting pitched over the falls.

The gimmick here is that the game employs a very clever three-dimensional board. The box top and bottom are set side by side on the table and the sturdy board is unfolded and draped over them, so as to form a river with the falls cascading down the side of one of the boxes. Running down the center of the board is a groove into which are placed large clear plastic disks that represent the water. Each disk also serves as a playing space on which players move their canoes. After each turn, new disks are inserted at the top of the river, forcing the others to move down stream, carrying the player's canoes with them. Leave your canoe too close to the falls and you could end up taking a tumble.

Also included in the box are a set of sparkly plastic gemstones, five pairs of wooden canoes (one pair for each player), five sets of movement cards, and a wooden life preserver that is used to indicate the starting player. And of course there is the requisite instruction booklet (two actually: in French and English) which is a lovely full color affair that does a very good job of clearly explaining the rules and is filled with examples and illustrations.

Game play is relatively simple. Everyone has a set of small cardboard tokens or cards numbered one through six, as well as a seventh card bearing a cloud. When a turn begins, each player selects one of his seven cards and places it face down. Then, in turn order, each player reveals his card and moves his canoe(s) the indicated number of spaces up or down the river. Taking on a gem costs movement points, as does unloading a gem. There's a rule that allows you to steal a gem from an opponent's canoe (provided you're going up stream and your canoe is empty). If both canoes are on the water you get to move both canoes; otherwise you get to move one canoe or bring a canoe onto the water.

Once a card has been played, it is out of your hand until all your cards have been played, so on average you can only use each card once every seven turns. A big part of the strategy in this game is deciding when to play your large numbers and when to bide your time by playing the small ones.

If a player plays his cloud card then he gets to move the weather token (a small wooden cloud) which dictates how fast the river moves.

After all players have taken their actions, the river moves. It moves a number of spaces equal to the value of the lowest number card played, plus the number of spaces indicated on the weather chart. So if the lowest card played was a two and the weather indicator hadn't move since the start of the game, the river would move two spaces. The players would take two disks and, one at a time, put them at the top of the river and slide them downstream, causing all the other disks in the river, and all the canoes on them, to move one space closer to the falls. It's a clever mechanism that is both fun and effective.

Play continues in this fashion until one player has collected either four gems of one color, one gem in each of the five colors, or seven gems of any color.

Niagara is a simple, light strategy game that is both attractive and entertaining. It's easy enough to be played by youngsters (it's rated at 8 and up) and its lovely bits and attractive artwork are sure to attract attention. It's also deep enough to be engaging for adults. While the mechanisms and basic game play are simple, the strategy is not. This is a great "family game" in every sense.


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