Blue Lagoon is another recent Reiner Knizia release, this time by Blue Orange Games. However, I think it has been rather overlooked, unlike the flashy rereleases by Z Man or the rather excellent Quest for El Dorado by Ravensburger. I am a big Knizia fan; while I don't have his full canon I think Tigris and Euphrates, Battle Lines and Quest for El Dorado are some of the best tight, tactical competitive games I have enjoyed playing. Will Blue Lagoon live up to this high benchmark?
How to play
The rules are devilishly simple. On your turn, you place one of your double-sided tokens (or a wooden hut) onto a hex on the board. This depicts a Polynesian archipelago of eight islands. Take it in turns to repeat until you have no tokens left - then score up.
Sound fun yet? No? Well, of course, the play is in where you place them. How that contributes to scoring goals and how it messes up your opponent.
The game is in two phases, and you score at the end of each one using the same criteria. Three conditions are linked to placement/area control You get points for presence on all, or all bar one, of the islands. You get points for majority presence on each island and, most fiendishly, points for the chain of your counters joining the most islands. The other three conditions are about collecting wooden resource tokens which are randomly placed on the board's stone circle spaces.
You claim these simply by placing a counter (or hut) on the circle space. There are points for collecting sets of the same resources and for collecting sets of one of each of coconuts, bamboo, water and gems. There is also a fifth type of wooden piece that comes out of the bag and goes on circles, statuettes, for which you get a flat rate of points per head claimed. At the end of the second phase you total the two, phase scores and the one with the highest points wins.
What is different in the two phases are the placement rules. In phase one you can put a token boat- side up on any sea space on the board that is not already occupied. Alternatively you can place an islander or wooden hut onto a hex adjacent to one of your existing tokens or wooden huts that is un-occupied. In the second phase you remove all your tokens leaving only your five wooden huts. Unless you have huts on a stone circle in which case they are removed too. Then, repopulate all the stone circle spaces.
Now you can only place tokens (or huts) in un-occupied spaces. Adjacent to pieces of yours that are already on the board. So, in phase one you scatter across the sea. Then spread out across the archipelago. In phase two, you spread from the huts you placed in phase one. In both phases, there is a fair amount of racing for position and/or resources and plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth with calls of, "Oi, I wanted that!".
How does it play
I am a big fan of Reiner Knizia: I like the competitive interactivity of his games; the way he blends mechanics and the underlying 'easy to learn, fiendish to master' nature of his designs. All of this is eminently evident in Blue Lagoon and makes it, for me, an easily overlooked gem.
The mechanics of this game are just so simple. Yet where you place our piece is everything and informed by some proper thinking. How are you planning on scoring your points? Are you veering to the 'area control' side of the score sheet or the 'collect the set' side? If so, which element of this will give you the best return? What's your opponent(s) up to? Have they forced a rethink to your next move? Do they need blocking?
There's plenty to make your brain work - it's a real puzzle, and a darn good one at that. It's also highly competitive: you will be blocking each other, denying each other spaces and nabbing resources that others were planning on having for themselves.
And while there's strategy and tactics in each of the two phases of the game, hut placement in the first phase will also affect the second. Likewise, despite the continuity in scoring mechanics, the change to placement rules between phases may well mean you adopt a different strategy in phase two from phase one. These are subtle but meaningful differences which add additional richness with little additional complexity.
It plays really well with all player counts. Two players will give you more space, so you have a greater choice of how confrontational to be, and potentially a greater opportunity to focus on strategy rather than tactics. With four you are forced into confrontation. While strategy remains important you are going to have to be more flexible and tactically agile. It is perfectly suitable as a family game but also can be enjoyed by more hard-core gamers as a bit of lighter (though still competitive) relief.
Firstly, I am struggling to offer any really meaningful criticism of Blue Lagoon. I think it is very replay-able, though I guess its simplicity means I think it will come out in fits and starts. I have been enjoying playing it since I bought it for my daughter's Christmas present, and it is getting regular table time. But not with the sort of excessive frequency of something like Res Arcana, where there is enough variation and complexity to keep you wanting to try different combinations of the puzzle again and again and again in short succession.
The theme's a bit pasted on - no surprises there - but, so what. It's pleasantly, if stereotypically, executed and not incongruous. Production values are fine. Design is attractive if much less flashy than the Z-Man re-execution of some of his earlier releases. However, if you look at the price tag, it's easy to understand why.(Especially on Zatu at the moment, where it is a steal!)
I know that this has been compared to Through the Desert and reading around this the general consensus is that you probably don't need both. Likewise, it's generally suggested this is probably better, though the fact that Through the Desert plays with up to 5 may off-set that. I haven't played Through the Desert, so I cannot vouch for this personally, but I thought it worth mentioning.
Overall I have been impressed with Blue Lagoon - quick, straightforward, thinky, highly competitive and easily accessible. All in all a lot for very little - you should give it a try!