As a fan of abstract strategy games and anything with an aquatic theme, I found Aqualin an enticing proposition. A simplistic two-player game with lots of depth (excuse the terrible ocean pun).
My eagerness to play Aqualin was well-founded. The game proved itself to provide a solid opportunity for escapism during its short twenty-minute play time. In a lot of ways Aqualin is reminiscent of those tourist boats with glass bottoms. The game allows you a brief glimpse into the ocean depths before swiftly returning you to reality.
The Surface: The Components
Aqualin is a minimalist’s dream with a compact box and a rulebook only boasting three pages. The game board itself is relatively small. It displays some fairly basic but not unattractive artwork of underwater rocks and seaweed.
This is a tile placement game and the tiles themselves look nice enough with their simple depictions of various ocean dwellers including crabs, turtles, seahorses and more. The tiles are made of plastic and don’t feel cheap. However, I did notice some quite substantial grazes on the tiles. Although this is a fairly minor complaint, I found that towards the end of the game, my eyes kept being drawn to the grazed tiles rather that appreciating the awesome sight of the multicoloured schools of fish we had filled the board with.
The Depths: The Gameplay
As mentioned previously, the rulebook for Aqualin is incredibly short. Also, the gameplay is simple but not to the game’s detriment. The game board is divided into a six-by-six grid. Players take turns moving a previously placed tile as far as they would like either horizontally or vertically. They follow this by drafting and placing a new tile anywhere on the board. The drafting tiles are then replenished. There is a subtle element of asymmetry to the game. In that one player wants to create runs (schools) of adjacent creatures with the same colour, while their opponent is after creature types.
Both players share the same pool of tiles and any pieces can be moved, resulting in some exceptionally creative moves. It is possible for your opponent to scupper your plan to line up six tiles perfectly by using a tile you had previously placed against you. The awareness of this mechanic must remain a constant influence in your decisions during the game. If not your opponent can quickly turn your forty-point run of tiles into a near-worthless mess.
The scoring for the game is very easy and the rulebook provides a clear scoring guide. Depending of whether they are scoring the colours or types of creatures, players count the number of tiles they have connected horizontally and vertically of that particular colour or type. This does mean that both players can sometimes gain points from the same run of tiles. Players add up the total points received from all of their separate tile runs. The player with the most points wins.
Repetitive Dives: Replay Value
I have played Aqualin several times over the last couple of weeks and I have yet to tire of it! It must be noted that this is a filler game through and through. This is very much a quick after-dinner, mid-morning coffee or waiting for guests to arrive type of game. I do believe that Aqualin could be over-played and I certainly think my long-term interest in the game could dwindle. This is not so much due to the game’s simplicity but more due to its lack of variation.
This is a game that could have really benefitted from some extra features to spice things up once you have mastered the base game. There were points in my recent playthroughs where I was itching for some sort of bonus that allowed players to lay or move two tiles at once or even remove and replace a previously laid tile. This lack of variation does make me question whether Aqualin is a game I will continue to enjoy for years to come but this observation should not detract from the fun I have had with the game over the last couple of weeks.
I have a soft spot for Aqualin and it is certainly a game you could play with anyone from your gran to your grandchild.
The simple gameplay and depth of strategic decision-making result in an immersive twenty-minute experience where you won’t say much to the other player but will occasionally groan when they ruthlessly separate one of your larger runs of creatures. This is definitely a good game but does fall short of being a great one. Unfortunately, the grazed tiles, lack of variation and prospective diminishing replay value do slightly fog my rose-tinted glasses.
However, if you are new to the hobby and want to dip your toe into an abstract strategy game without paying out for the Knizia tile-laying trilogy, then Aqualin is a good, inexpensive and simple introduction to the genre.