|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.81]
A review copy of Iquazú was provided by HABA in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Note: We have been playing this slightly wrong – bonus tiles get revealed when the water strip moves, not when it’s scored. That doesn’t change the accumulation of advantage that can make the game much less fun, but it does reduce how random it is. I’ve made some changes in the text of this and the accessibility teardown to reflect this.
Iquazú is a game that wasn’t even on my radar until someone brought it along to the game nights I’ve been running at work. At the time of writing it’s currently sitting at 5536 in the BGG rankings and I am going to say right now that’s an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand. This is something that I think deserves your attention. Iquazú is a surprisingly intense game of economic planning as expressed through the metaphor of secreting gemstones behind a waterfall. It’s also a strikingly beautiful thing that reclines lazily on your table inviting you to paint it like one of your French girls. Iquazú is pretty, and it knows it.
Okay, I’ll concede that the low-budget Avatar aesthetics on the box don’t do it any favours. I’ll also happily accept that it’s a bit of a pain in the hole to set it up. It arrives on your table with all the good-humoured insouciance of a piece of flat pack furniture. You don’t open the box and take out a board. You essentially end up committing yourself to a jigsaw puzzle. The inside of the box looks like what happens when you ship fragile woodwork through a Yodel courier. You’ve got a chore ahead of you before you get to play, and that’s not an insignificant problem. Look at your shelves – I bet you have a dozen or more games you could be playing within sixty seconds if you wanted.
That cardboard kindling in the box is going to eventually turn into a beautiful game board. You do get rewarded for the effort of setting it up. It’s just – well, we only get one life and every time I fancy playing Iquazú I have to mentally weigh up whether I actually want to spend five minutes on an arts and crafts project. It’s the same issue I have with Five Tribes – as much as I love the game, there is a enthusiasm barrier I need to work my way through in order to bring myself to actually take it down from the shelf.
Let’s show what setup actually involves here.
First you slot together the four quadrants of the board itself.
And then you slot in the rock strips, each of them marked out with a combination of coloured gaps that you’re eventually going to fill with gemstones and the deferred erosion of water droplets. This gives you a nice random setup to the board which keeps things uncertain each time you play.
Then when you have all these strips slotted into the board you shuffle and deal out the hidden bonus tokens onto each space from the top on downwards. There are forty-five of those, and they don’t shuffle well. You basically have to throw them on the table, make sure they’re all face down, and then do the world’s most unreliable wash shuffle because they’ll almost certainly flip over in the process.
Once you have those in place you build the frame that will hold the strips of the waterfall – you’ll be gradually moving these from the top to the bottom of the board as you fill up the various slots of the active game area. There’s a physical pair of runners that makes this easy to do but you’ve still got to set it up and constantly keep it moving.
It’s a pain, yes – but look at what you get. Lovely, isn’t it?
Well, it gets lovelier still because the production values on Iquazú are emoji chef kiss.
Wait, did I just write emoji chef kiss? I’m so old that I don’t even know if that makes me hip or just tragic. I remember when we all just used emoticons. And I even remember past that to when emoticons were called ‘asshole geek commas’. And to when commas were called ‘jumped up full stops’.
You’re also going to make up a crate that is full of shiny, shiny gems, one colour for each player:
You’re also going to make up a water bucket that is full of fiddly little drops that you’ll be dripping along the edges of the track to set the tempo of the game.
These two containers are going to rotate around the table in opposite directions like you just received poor table service in an elaborate Ealing style farce. You’ll be passing the water bucket one way and the gem chest the other. When they intersect you’ll take a droplet and place it on the first empty space on the lowest rock strip to keep everything chivvying along at a reasonable trot.
Each player is going to be holding a hand of cards of three different possible colours, and those will be spent to place gemstones on gaps in the rocks. It gets progressively more expensive to place gemstones farther along the waterfall, but those spaces are the ones most likely to yield you rewards for the long term. Each turn you get a choice – place a gem or draw four new cards into your hand. Like with most games of this nature you’re never really asked to do much in any given turn.
When a strip is filled up, an interim scoring round is conducted. All the visible scoring markers are flipped over, and they’re awarded to the winner of each row (the waterfall flows from big lizard at the top to the rocks at the bottom) and points are awarded to the winners of each column. The winner is going to be the player with the most of their coloured gemstones in each configuration, with ties broken by the player that has a gem further to the right or closer to the bottom as appropriate. It’s all very nice but I’m not entirely sure how thematically it’s supposed to cohere. The framing in the manual may as well just be the output of a Markov chain for all the logical sense it makes. It’s easy to forgive Iquazú this minor sin though because it’s exactly the right combination of puzzley gameplay and beautiful presentation that makes me happy to ignore the occasional weirdness. There isn’t a lot going on in the game, but that’s a good thing – what is going on is going to be enough to keep you engaged.
If Iquazú sounds like a run of the mill abstract game, you’re not wrong – there’s nothing in the design that is especially innovative or likely to make you aggressively advocate for playing it. Much of its initial extremely favourable impression is delivered by the very pretty game board upon which you end up playing. That same beautiful board is liable to be a cause of frustration as the game goes on and your old tired fingers slip and send yet another gem or water droplet skittering underneath the water strips. As impressive as the board is, it also makes everything a touch less playable than it would have been with less elaborate components. We’ll talk about that more in the teardown.
The thing about a game like this though is that it should succeed as a game whether you’re playing it with gemstones or bits of coloured paper. The real heart of Iquazú is the puzzle it presents to players, and it’s here that the game is at its strongest. It’s not complicated by any stretch of the imagination, but the rocks on which you are playing are slippery and it takes skill and a degree of gambling to gain the largest rewards. Playing this in the real world with actual gemstones is the kind of thing I imagine Warren Buffet does on his holidays.
Gaps in the rocks are going to fill up based on their perceived value, that’s obvious – but that’s the only thing on which you can really rely because the cost of placement increases linearly and you’re buying a gem in each gap with the currency of your cards. Gems closer to the right and closer to the bottom are better than those that aren’t… except that’s not always true because they’re going to have their greatest value at the same time their cost is highest. You’re constantly dealing with the question of value in Iquazú. It’s not just about what a space is worth but how its worth distorts the value of the spaces around it. By itself that would be interesting enough but really each space has three obvious axes of value – its value to a row, its value to a column, and its value to a colour. The special sauce here is that there’s actually a fourth and more subtle axis – it’s value based on momentum.
Consider the setup above. You’re about to play a red gem. You could play it to the fourth column for four orange cards. That’s costly but it’ll probably earn you that row and make it much cheaper for you to earn the column when the scoring gets that far. Four orange cards though could also get you the second column and perhaps two rows. There are fewer points for the column in that regard, but perhaps the two rows would make up for it? Regardless of what you pick you’re also changing the cost of entry for everyone else in each row and each column. You’re devaluing their investments. If you nab the orange gap closest to the rocks then they’ll need to place two gems to beat your one, and you’ll always be able to match them with the gap that’s easiest for you to buy. Essentially with every action you make the cost of doing business for everyone else much higher, and if that triggers a bit of competition maybe you want to use it to keep people at each other’s throats instead of at yours. On the other hand, probably nobody is going to fight you for the second column at all and you could maybe get it at a bargain price.
Ah, but remember those water droplets? They add a value multiplier on each gap because you only get so many turns before everything changes. When a strip is filled up with a combination of drops and gems it gets scored, and then everything gets nudged upwards. New opportunities are revealed, old opportunities get cheaper, old gem beachheads become obsolete. The value of a gem isn’t just in terms of what it opens up in terms of rows and columns. It’s how long it gives you value, how that value is going to curve over the medium term of play, and how many actions it saves you. Sometimes the real value of spending cards on a gem slot is that you have the time to benefit from its purchase. Sometimes the turnaround is instant, sometimes you’re investing for the long term. Sometimes though you’re buying a space just to deprive your most significant competitor of a scoring edge.
That’s really the odd thing about Iquazú – it’s an economic game where there is no obvious economy. No money ever changes hands. No trading occurs. You can’t make deals with anyone around the table. And yet everything you do is based on your shaky understanding of the value proposition of a gem space to your plans and to those of the other players around the table. The board evolves over time, changing everything in its wake. If you’re not careful the waterfall will wash away all your carefully laid schemes and purchases. The rock-face represents a kind of stock market where spatiality takes on the economic role of a dividend. Your cards are your funds. The gems are your investments. You use your funds in the most efficient way to create the most effective portfolio.
Iquazú is economics expressed as a puzzle game, and it’s really satisfying in a way that extends well beyond the incoherent framing and the abstract rule-set. It feels nice to claim a good gem slot that ends up levering open the possibility space of play like a crowbar into a treasure chest. It feels good to snap up a bargain that the momentum of the waterfall has briefly created. That’s a tremendous strength at the heart of the game, but it’s also the biggest problem with its design.
The thing about economic systems is that they are brutal. Capitalism is a largely zero sum endeavour – if someone wins, a different person must lose. If someone wins big, many people must lose. Advantage accrues heavily in Iquazú and a good early round can translate into an insurmountable lead. The score tokens you flip over as you make your way to the end of the game contain various bonuses – sometimes they’re raw points, added to your total. Sometimes they give you an extra action you can spend. Sometimes they let you draw more cards, and sometimes they let you use your cards as wildcards with no relation to their colour. These tiles are randomly distributed through the rock face except for the final three columns – those are always going to be points.
The problem is that in a game that is otherwise completely evenly matched, wits against wits, these have an effect that is disproportionate to the difficulty in obtaining them. Someone can claim three rows and end up with six points. Someone else might claim one and end up with four extra cards in their hand. Sure, the first player took an early lead in the points but those four cards make everything more affordable and they were obtained with much less initial effort. You might say ‘Well, the second player should have gone for the columns’ but that’s always going to be dependent in itself on the random draw of cards. You won’t always have the resources to make the optimal move you know you should make.
Taking a draw of four cards is an action of its own in normal circumstances – you do it instead of placing a gem. Getting four for free is essentially giving a player a free action that reduces their cost of entering a marketplace at its most expensive points. In the scenario we just outlined though the overall effect on the game is probably roughly equal.
Let’s flip it so that the player that got three rows ended up with eight cards and a free action they can spend at their leisure. The player that got one row got two points. Suddenly you have a situation where that one player is going to fall behind and keep on falling behind. The other will be able to lock them out of the greatest opportunities because the cost of doing so has become intensely asymmetrical. That in turn means the richer player gets more rows, which gives more bonuses, which accelerates the process. It’s a positive feedback loop that can turn an otherwise equally matched game into an economic harrowing. It’s a significant problem made more significant by how random it is. If everyone gets roughly equivalent rewards for their rows it’ll be a tight and well-matched battle. If one player gets lucky early, everyone else will suffer even if they are better players. Capitalism is a war fought with money, which in turn is a proxy for value. Value in Iquazú is defined by cost in cards and time for the slots to mature. When one player has more cards and more time, you can see how the systems can break down.
The extent to which this is going to be a problem varies from game to game. You might find it doesn’t rear its head at all. You might find it happens near the end, allowing a player to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. You might find it happens to two players, setting them against each other while the third player profits from their inattention. In those cases, it adds a dash of excitement to a game that would otherwise be too dispassionately algorithmic. It’s not that it’s a problem in and of itself. The thing is that it’s a problem that accrues compound interest. The earlier it happens, and the more it is concentrated in one player’s favour, the more it causes everything to fall apart.
You might well find that it happens in the first pr second scoring round and you spend the rest of the game watching yourself aggressively outpace your opponents to the point it’s not fun for anyone. There’s no joy in victory in those circumstances because it wasn’t really earned. It’s like coming into a huge inheritance and then boasting about how much you can outspend those that are too busy working every hour of the day to make ends meet. Anyone that can derive joy in such circumstances is an obvious monster.
It’s this more than anything else that keeps us from giving Iquazú a higher rating than we have. I think when Iquazú is working well it’s a game that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone who enjoys – well, fun I suppose. The puzzle at the core of this game is almost supernaturally enjoyable and the physical arterfact of the gamestate is a remarkable thing with which to interact.
The problem is that these intermittent and occasional sessions of accumulated advantage are almost no fun at all. You don’t know in advance what kind of game you’re going to get when you all sit down. It’s a blue-chip stock option – it’s probably going to be a wise investment of your time but every so often you’ll encounter a dip in the return that is all the more jarring for how uncharacteristic it is. At its best, Iquazú will be as joyful as swimming in the cool blue waters of Argentina and Brazil. At its worst, Iquazú is more like trying to build a career selling hand-crafted jewelry on Etsy. You spend all that time making something beautiful only to watch those selling cheap and flimsy T-shirts of a farting parrot earn the success that you yourself can never achieve. It’s a gamble, but on the whole it’s one that pays off more often than it doesn’t. Be lucky.
A review copy of Iquazú was provided by HABA in exchange for a fair and honest review.