Welcome to Aquatica. You are a King, a King of an underwater kingdom. You need to bring glory to your realm by capturing and buying locations, recruiting new characters and complete goals.
Aquatica is a one to four-player hand management card game designed by Ivan Tuzovsky and published by Cosmodrone Game and Arcane Wonders. In Aquatica all players will start with the same hand of cards, during your turn, you will simply play a card from your hand and perform the action. Actions include conquering a location, buying a location, recruiting characters or gathering up all your cards. Locations go on to the player's triple-layered board.
Locations have a variety of actions on them and you can, as a bonus action, "explore the depths" to use one of these actions. This is represented by a unique card rising mechanism of pushing your card up into the triple-layered player board. These actions might provide additional money to buy a location, additional might to conquer a location. After using an action the card is pushed up the player board and the action is covered up. Once the card is fully raised (i.e. the card has been fully pushed up) then it can be removed from your player board (with the aid of an action) and can be scored at the end of the game.
Once a player has claimed four of the displayed objectives or either of the location/character deck is empty the game ends and the player with the most points is the winner
Aquatica is one of those games that has a simple ruleset but a hidden depth. It looks gorgeous, the production quality is fantastic and it can be played and enjoyed by new and more experienced gamers.
All players start off with the same deck of cards and you can select any one of these cards on your turn and play it. The actions on the cards are clear, concise and easy to understand. Yet when you play these cards, in what order and when trigger certain actions is an interesting and often complex choice as the game progresses. Once players start gaining locations and new characters the game opens up. With the bonus actions on the locations, you can create some cool combos and really powerful turns.
When you can chain three or four of the locations together to help you gain a card, character or fully raise a location and add it to your scoring pile. you feel good, you feel powerful, you feel like an underwater King ruling a kingdom (ok, maybe not, but you get my point). So the simple act of playing a card can really be a tough choice as you work through the path that you can take to increase the usefulness and power of that one simple action.
Chains of Fun
The act of chaining multiple actions together with the locations and the card play is where the fun factor of the game presents itself. When you figure out that if you activate this location, to do this, which can lead to that, to trigger this to help you play that card and gain a location that triggers something else it is a truly wonderful feeling. This can present itself as analysis paralysis for some people but it is not a huge issue, as the game is relatively quick. Games are somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes depending on player count so the game length is totally spot-on for this game.
Swimming with the Rays
I have also not mentioned the manta ray tokens. Each player starts off with four of these and can gain more during the game by fully raising certain locations. These can be used to make up for missing power, money or help to raise locations. So, combine the manta rays with the combos from the locations and you can have some truly epic turns. However, your four starting manta rays get exhausted and can only be refreshed using specific cards. Also, when you score an objective you have to place one of your starting manta rays on to the scoring objective spot. So the timing of when to use them, when to score objectives is another interesting facet to the game.
Deck Building Adjacent
One of the actions you have in the game is to recruit a character that gets added to your deck, so there is an element of deck building to the game as well. The more cards you have to perform actions the less time you have to spend retrieving your cards. Although you are gaining cards to add to your deck, it doesn't really feel like a deck builder. You are, in essence, giving yourself more actions/options to choose from.
This is not a negative, it is more something to be aware of if you are looking at this from a deck-building aspect. Also, there are limited character cards in the game, it is not a massive deck and there are two of each character in the deck. After a game or two, you would have seen all the cards. I think this plays into my thought of it not feeling like a deck builder per se, but maybe an "action builder" (my totally made up mechanism).
Bringing the Changes
There are pre-printed bonus actions on the board which are good for the first few games, but the game also comes with additional, more interesting tiles to overlay and change these spots. If you are comfortable doing so I highly recommend using these instead of the basic ones. There is also the option to include a draft of a starting King card which adds a new and unique card to your deck. These are another great addition that I highly recommend, it adds some individuality into your deck and changes the game in a subtle but interesting way.
Overall, Aquatica is a fairly accessible game (rules-wise) but can lead to some satisfying turns and combos. The game doesn't outstay its welcome and moves along at a fairly quick pace. For me, the drafting of the king cards and using the non-standard bonus objectives are the way I like to play the game. But I appreciate that it has the option to play in a more beginner-friendly way if needed. I really like chaining the bonus actions together to create some truly great turns and I like the race element that the game provides when chasing to be the first to gain the objective for the bigger points score.