New releases from Days of Wonder are always highly anticipated and The River was no exception. The publisher known for Ticket to Ride, Five Tribes and Smallworld rarely produces a dud. Slick gameplay, stunning art and high-quality components are all par for the course.
Our initial look at The River suggested that it would be on the lighter end of Days of Wonder’s releases. But with designer Sébastien Pauchon bringing pedigree from hits like Jaipur and Jamaica and the freshness of design debutant Ismaël Perrin, it looked like there was a lot to be excited about.
The River’s Theme
I’ll be honest, The River’s theme is not the most engaging in the world. Players are tasked with leading a team of pioneers (presumably North American) as they build and improve settlements made along a nameless river. Players will lay tiles to represent their growing influence over the river banks’ space and resources at the same time as building buildings in their settlements.
But I don’t want to be too hard on The River. It’s a classic Euro game in almost every way and theme is undoubtedly secondary to the gameplay experience. Yes, you could whack just about any generic theme on the game and it would make sense (anyone want to build buildings in their newly erected Martian domes?), but the theme is simply a backdrop to the gameplay. I should also say that the components of the game are very well-produced, with lovely wooden meeples and resource tokens and bright art on the boards and box.
The River is a worker placement game for two to four players. It works very well as an introduction to that category of games and has many elements that worker placement fans will recognise.
Every round, players take it in turns to deploy their four or so pioneers to empty spaces on a central board. You’ll then take the action associated with the space you chose. Some spots will give you resources (wood, stone, brick or “wild” turkeys), others let you build buildings, still others let you take tiles for the settlement on your player board and more.
These actions are taken to push you towards your ultimate goal of the highest points total, which will be calculated once one player has either reached the building limit (four for two players; five for three or four) or settled the entire length of their personal stretch of river (i.e. placed 12 tiles).
To progress in the game, players will need to settle their boards in the right way and gather the right resources to build publicly available building cards. There are interesting limitations on resource gathering. When you go to a resource spot, you can gather as many of those resources as you have corresponding symbols on your player board. You can then store as many resources as you have empty storehouse symbols on your board. Adding new settlement tiles will increase both your resource production and your storage space, so there’s a very interesting coupling of mechanics there.
Competition for places is another natural limitation. Over the course of a round it is inevitable that some spots will fill up. Working out where you need to prioritise is a core skill of many worker placement games and surfaces in a fun, strategic way in The River. Like similar games, players can also use a pioneer to claim the first player token, which could give them the edge in the next round.
There isn't much more to the gameplay than that. It’s simple and easy to teach, especially if you’ve played other worker placement games. The River occupies a nice space in my collection as a quick (30-40 minute game) that I could pull out with almost anyone who wants an introduction to modern strategy games.
Thoughts on The River Experience
One of the things that The River does well is accommodating all player counts well. There are different boards for two-player games which help to keep them tight and competitive. The key difference is that there are fewer open slots at many of the board’s locations. I’ve played the game at two and four and had an equally enjoyable experience at both. I would say that it plays faster at two, but has more diverse interactions at four.
I should also say that I don’t think this game adds anything particularly new to the worker placement genre. If you own a lot of worker placement games already, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying The River, as well.
However, I think it’s a fantastic new release for players like me, who don’t own many worker placement games and want a fun, accessible title. As I’ve already mentioned, The River will definitely work well with less-experienced gamers, too.
I think the game’s length will divide opinion. It shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes or so. The first game I played at two players actually felt a little short, like I hadn’t quite got going before it finished. On my next play at two, I was more prepared for this and the game’s length felt a lot better. I was able to focus on what I needed to do with a better idea of the time I would have available to me. If you go in expecting this play time, I think you’ll be fine.
In short, The River is a bright, streamlined worker placement game that will be accessible to a wide range of people. It’s not a game that everyone needs to own, but it’s a great choice if you don’t already have a similar game in your collection.