Reef: A Colorful Coral Construction Favorite

    Reef is a tile laying game I love because it is also a card game: you draft cards from a river and play them to gather and place coral, then score the coral formation on the same card. It is in the same product line as Azul- but where Azul is pure tile-drafting, Reef forces you to draft a limited hand of cards that simultaneously control drafting and scoring. This makes each play as simple as take a card or play a card and a deeply engaging puzzle. In a half hour, when the last chunk of any color of coral runs out. And if you like chunky primary coloured things plastic pieces it’s very pretty. Easy to teach, easy for new players, extensively replayable with a delightfully ramping brain burn, Reef is the cream of the tile-laying crop.

Setup/Teach/PlaytimeEase of TeachAgeProductionToyness
5/5/20-40Family8+54
ThemeStrategyTacticsLuckInteraction
Reef Building1532
Theme ImmersionPlayer CountPortabilityMechanicUniqueness
22-43Tile-Laying5

    It can be hard, to be honest, to distinguish between my love of this game, and my love of the fact that I got it before it sold out at Origins and then had it as my special precious for a few months. But this is a standout game. Everyone I have played Reef with has enjoyed it- and all but one person who’s seen it being played wanted to learn. I don’t know if it’s the best game of 2018, but I haven’t gotten more fun out of one; it comes out easily in a variety of situations, and easily recruits with its colorful table presence. I know that I don’t know if Kingdomino is my favorite tile laying game anymore, and that hurts.

    It’s a great beginning/end of night game and surprisingly satisfying quick filler. It offers little jolts of dopamine as you build chains and execute big scores, a creeping itch in the back of the neck as your hand fills with plans and the coral reserve dwindles. Players tend to enjoy the big scores of others rather than resent them, and although the draft is a limited opportunity for interaction, intentional hate-drafting is difficult because it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s in your opponents hands. It scales well by varying the amount of coral available. Going two player with all the coral out doesn’t really work. You’d need new scoring cards and a greater height limit to scale this game up into something ridiculously complex, which I shouldn’t hold against it- but Kingdomino. The classy domino material muted color scheme design of Azul is admittedly way more adult & edible, and makes people unfairly judge Reef. I think because the coral tiles look like children’s toys by comparison, and we are sensitive about the perceived adulthood of our pursuit. I find that the coral pieces look like children’s toys delightful and think they stand out practically against the restrained and calming but evocative art.

    The mechanical heart of this game is card drafting and hand management. You start with two cards and on each turn must draft a new card or play a card from your hand, with a hand size of four. These cards are split into a top gather action and a bottom scoring action. So each cards allows, (makes), you take two pieces of coral, place them on your board, and then score a pattern of coral illustrated on the bottom half of the card. This sounds simple, because it is a simple process, but the thought required to manage these two processes simultaneously can be paralysing. The coal you gather is never the coral you need to score- and you have to place that coral before you score, often making you choose between efficiently scoring your card, (the pattern can score an infinite number of times), and setting up a big score later. Trying to build a plan while constantly modifying it to accommodate the cards that come down the river, managing your hand to maximize scoring each pattern without clogging it up, pulling off a four card sequence where each card scores: there is a lot to enjoy here.

    I think this mechanism gives a lot more depth to Reef than other tie placement games can claim. Even my favorites tend to introduce complexity by modifying the tile drafting mechanism, which one would think can only go so far. But combining the tile drafting and scoring mechanism into a combined card draft is sheer brilliance. And all this crunch can’t push the game to an hour. Although Azul and Sagrada are dominating the lane right now, if you’re looking for something a little deeper to scratch that tablou building itch, try Reef.

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