On an Island With You – Bora Bora review

BoraBora COVER

It honestly seems like Stefan Feld, the golden boy of gaming, can do no wrong at the moment. Every game he’s involved in is quickly declared as the Next Big Thing, and even the slightest mention of his name attached to an upcoming release looks to be both a guarantee of quality as well as decent sales. Like many other gamers, I’ve become increasingly fanatical about his work and with a copy of Bora Bora hitting my table, I felt it was time to put down my thoughts in words.

With any Feld game, the keyword is options. You are given a huge variety of ways in which you can win, all of them balanced and as equally viable as the next. Concentrate on maximising a few of them and you should be on the way to a satisfying victory, but spread yourself too thin and you’ll be left well behind when final scoring comes round. Bora Bora, released through Ravensburger’s Alea line, follows this style but still feels fresh and new. Yes, there’s an awful lot to keep track of and it may initially come across as daunting to a less experienced player, but if there was ever a designer who deserved you spending the time to get a proper feel for their games, it’s Stefan Feld. The investment will pay off, I guarantee.

Bora Bora sees players taking control of tribes on the island of the same name as they attempt to spread their people as far as they can, taking control of the best fishing areas, collecting resources to build temples, placing offerings to their gods… the list is pretty long. Played out over the course of six rounds, planning your moves from the very beginning is vital if you’re going to end up the winner – a single mistake can cost you dearly when it comes to handing out bonuses at the end of the game, as only perfection is enough to claim those game-changing points.

Each player rolls their three dice at a time, placing them one by one on the various action tiles available. The rule here is that you may only add a dice to that tile if it is lower than one already placed, so putting a high value on down leaves the action open to others. Of course, plumping a 1 down locks it out for everyone – including yourself – so it’s here that the first difficult decisions have to be made. As all dice are open information, it’s possible to work out what others might end up doing and plan accordingly but the Gods could well have a say in that. Actions available include expanding your tribe across land or sea routes, adding a new male or female member to your tribe,  building, visiting the temple or – last and most versatile – the Helper Action. The Helper allows you to perform mini-actions, the amount of which are dependent on how high you roll, all of which help in some way. Immediately after a dice has been placed, the action is resolved and play moves onto the next person in the turn order until there are no dice left.

Oh my, so many options... what to do, what to doooo?

Oh my, so many options… what to do, what to doooo?

At different periods in the game, certain actions will become more important to you but there’s a certain “build the engine” element to Bora Bora – at least at the game’s beginning. Moving into new areas on the island not only gets you into those precious fishing holes, it also frees up space on your player board that will allow you to take more people for your tribe. Those people can then be used to collect shells that can be traded in for jewellery or tattoos that will build up an influence track during each round, scoring you points and deciding future turn order. Of course, you could decide to ignore that whole aspect of the game completely, building and focusing on the temple instead – this will also bring in plenty of points, but it less useful at the end of the game when the bonus points are doled out.

Once the actions have all been completed, it’s time to put your tribe to work. The special abilities of one male and one female can be triggered to give your side a small boost, increasing your tribe’s reach yet further or their numbers even more. Points can be scored, more shells, more influence… basically, these are little extra rewards that will hopefully put you in a stronger position and help you get closer to completing tasks. We’ll cover those in a moment…

The final part of each of the six rounds sees a bit of a clean up occur. The entire right side of the board is run through, beginning with the influence track getting scored and a new turn order decided. Points are awarded for those who are in the temple, then players may spend shells to take jewellery. Finally, a task can be completed. You begin with three at the start of the game and are looking to complete at least one every turn – this might be something like “have three female tribe members” or “get two different types of jewellery”. Whether you manage to complete one or not, a new one is taken from those available then everything that was up for grabs during the round is wiped off the board to be replaced with a host of entirely new options.

Now, if the game was just this, I reckon it’d be great but… well, hard to do as much as you may want. Thankfully Feld has given you a little wiggle room with the introduction of God Cards that allow you to skew the rules temporarily, opening up your range of options further and making your life a little easier. Only usable if you’ve got an offering to pay for them, they’re also limited to certain phases of the round – and on top of that you might also need them to complete tasks if you happen to grab those tiles. One scores you extra points for a certain fishing area, while another doubles the ability of one of your tribespeople. A couple change rules regarding the dice you play, but you’ll regularly be hoping that a yellow card ends up in your hand as it lowers the requirements for those all-important tasks. Sure, you’ll get two points less, but in a game where you’re clawing for every single one they’re vital.

Bora Bora, put simply, is bloody wonderful. Keeping tabs on everything is a challenge, but you don’t even have to do that – it’s entirely possible to put in a good showing without claiming any tribespeople, for example, or not grabbing any jewellery. It’s a question of balancing out your actions, reacting to what your opponents are doing and attempting to squeeze them out of doing certain things while not blocking your own progress; precisely what you want in a quality Eurogame. Sitting down for a couple of hours with Bora Bora feels like a glorious combination of work and pleasure – every decision you make is filled with weight and worry. Have you done the right thing? Should you have done something else instead? And you’ll wonder that after Every Single Decision You Make, constantly second guessing what moves you make (especially during the first few rounds when you’re trying to work out your plans while figuring out your opposition).

The production is up to the usual good quality you’d expect from Ravenburger and the Alea Big Box series in general – the (many) tiles are nice and thick and there’s a metric ton of wood in there too. One particular nice touch is that the whole game is icon-based and language independent. Sometimes this can prove to be a game’s downfall, but thankfully in Bora Bora it works exceedingly well. Sure, there’s always going to be the odd referral to the rulebook to get the details down, but it all becomes second nature quite quickly. For anyone with even a passing interest in Eurogames at all, any release by Stefan Feld should be amongst the first on your shopping list  – and Bora Bora has to be well up there.

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