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Reviewer: Chris from Essex
STEFAN FELD is one of the best of the German games designers and he has crowned his already impressive list
The Pillars of the Earth: Builders Duel (2009), The Castles of Burgundy (2011), Strasbourg (2011), Trajan (2011), Bora Bora (2013), Rialto (2013), Bruges (2013), Amerigo (2013) (to name but a few) - with the excellent AQUASPHERE for Pegasus Spiele.
This is for 2-4 players aged 12+ and plays for around an hour, hour and a half and is quite possibly the strategy board game you have been looking for, for a long time. There are lots of components, wooden and card, that are well designed for the main part - I'm still not sure about the submarines - with some excellent illustrations by Dennis Lohausen. there are times when a lot of components means a really good game and there are times when a load of components are there simply to cover the fact that there really isn't much of a game. AQUASPHERE is a game with a lot of components, a good strong mechanic and really good gameplay. AQUASPHERE has a great frustration factor, being one of those games that is played in turns with phases, and where each player usually has a number of options for each phase but never enough resources to do everything they want to.
The theme to AquaSphere is that the players are in control of separate Base Labs where they use a couple of assistants (an Engineer and a Scientist) along with a group of programmable Bots and half a dozen submarines for what is actually mainly non-specific research. Also if you hadn't already guessed by the name of the game "AquaSphere" then the use of submarines should make it pretty obvious that the whole research station is quite some way under water. However, this is just thematic as it could easily be in space and the subs would be rockets; what I am basically saying is that the chrome has little or no bearing on the game, it is the mechanics and components that give the game its excellence. The first thing you have to do is put the two game boards together. The first, the Headquarters, is a simple case of slotting the two halves together jigsaw style.
The Headquarters is the board where the players move their Engineer pawns when they want to program one of their Bots. The second board is the Laboratory which is made up of sections marked A-F; these are placed around a central hub but not necessarily in alphabetical order. The result, once the expansions are randomly placed in their slots (one per section) is a unique board for each game.
There is a third board, in this case it is boards as each player has their own. These are where the Bots sit waiting to be programmed and the submarines sit in the sections under the Bots. This is not just for aesthetics or because that's where they could be fitted onto the board during the design phase; they are specific to a portion of the scoring. The 14 Bots each sit on a VP number, 1-14, which are set out in pairs one number above the other so that you use the Bots in the correct numerical order. You first use number 1 then number 2, then 3 and 4; under the numbers 1-4 is one sub and the next 5 pairs have a sub under each pair. For the Bots numbers to score the space below must be empty - the submarine must be deployed on the Laboratory board. This is a very clever resource management game.
There is no specific order for a player's turn; they can do whatever they want that is possible according to the resources they have. A player's turn can be simply moving a piece or several pieces. The Engineer is moved into a section on the HeadQuarter's board allowing the player to place one of the Bots from its number space on their personal board to the Program pod on the same board that matches the Research icon in the Engineer's section. This means that the Bot is now primed and programmed for that specific research and can be placed onto the corresponding space on the Laboratory on a later turn - only two Bots may be programmed at the same time. When you activate the Bot it is moved to the Lab and you get to perform one of the actions available to you on the section of the Lab where your Scientist is. This may be placing a submarine, gaining a Research card, obtaining a new expansion for your personal Lab or getting hold of a rare crystal or two.
However, I haven't mentioned the best bit yet. There is no money or coin involved, no dice or random card number and no hidden surprises. What there is is TIME. Everything you do takes Time and that is something you never have enough of. You start with 4 or maybe 3 Time markers and it is not easy to get many more than this; and then if you manage to get more you can only hold onto a certain amount of Time. The whole game from mechanic to mechanic depends on Time and how you use it. At the end of each Turn players lose Time and at start of each Turn players gain Time. Meanwhile the centre hub of the laboratory changes with the beginning of the turn, stocking up the sections adjacent to each of its sides with the resources and Time Markers shown. These Hub sections are marked according to the number of players and also numbered 2,3,4 & 5 because the setup adds the resources for the first turn, the number 2 tile shows what will be added at the end of turn 2, then 3 and 4, the 5th Hub Tile being empty of all resources as there are no more Turns to follow.
There are so many randomisers in the game that ensure every turn is different. The Lab expansions can stack up around the Laboratory, the Research Tokens (these are what determine the Research for the HQ spaces) are repositioned according to a randomly drawn card each turn, and the letters on the Lab expansions gained from the Laboratory for the player's personal Base Lab add a random to the scoring system. It all sounds like a complete mish-mash but it plays beautifully and play actually flows so well that Time passes quickly. Also on the Laboratory are purple Octopods. These are another score leveller device as if you end your turn and your scientist is in a Laboratory section where there are then you lose points according to the number of Octopods in the sector.
When a player has made all the moves they wish to or can they place their Engineer on the left-most space of the Turn order track which is situated atop the HeadQuarters board; thus players can decide if they want to play on or play first next turn etc. It can occur that one player has no Time left and no Bots programmed, thus they have to place their Engineer on a Turn Order space. The other players can continue to play until they too end their turn, then there is an intermediate scoring. At the end of the last turn there is an intermediate scoring and then there is an end of game scoring. Points are scored and the players move their counters round the score track. Unfortunately there are 4 red lines that quarter the score track and there is a cost to pass over these red lines - the player has to forfeit a crystal or return a Bot to their personal Base. This is an excellent mechanic for keeping the scoring balanced as it generally prevents one player storming off ahead and becoming unbeatable. There is so much to do and so little Time to do it, that should be the sub-header for this game.
We have had so many good sessions and every one has been as or more enjoyable than the previous. The only time we weren't completely enamoured with the game was when we played two players. It was still good but not quite as good as with three or four players. IT is most certainly a game I would recommend to board games players who enjoy strategic games with a little luck (random) a little chrome (underwater theme) and a lot of entertainment (fun)