Yeah, a piece of land of our own would be nice. A little farm with everything that goes with it. Then I wouldn’t have to stand in the cold river every day digging for gold. But maybe I should also break up my tents here and move further upriver. I hear there’s still enough free land there, even if it has to be tamed. But here on the Frontier Line that’s the normal situation. Wow, what is that glittering in my pan, that is not…
Days of Wonder are actually known for offering sophisticated and unusual board games with great graphics. The River, however, is a little different. We’ll explain why in our review of the game of the same name.
Follow the River
Yes, life in North America is not easy. For one thing, you have to discover landscapes while moving further and further upstream. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to or should build houses. This is exactly what you do in The River. Honestly, that’s all it is.
The River is a classic worker placement board game. When it’s your turn, you place one of your 4 or 5 workers. With him you can collect resources, build houses, explore landscapes or become a starting player. That sounds very clear. You need resources to build houses. Houses, on the other hand, earn you victory points at the end of the game, whereas houses with more resources also earn you more victory points. And resources are obtained from landscapes that produce them with the appropriate action.
A special feature is that the resources clay, stone, wood and turkey – which is considered as a joker – are only available in limited numbers and you can only store as much as you have warehouses available. Warehouses can also be found on the tiles that contain the resources.
Exploring and placing a new landscape on your tableau does not cost you anything, only one action must be spent. New landscapes not only bring you new warehouses and resources, they also bring you victory points or initiate the end of the game. If you have either placed 12 landscapes on your tableau or, depending on the number of players, you build your 4th or 5th house, the end of the game will be triggered. Afterwards, the player with the most victory points wins.
Retirement for workers
There is still one small special feature about The River. The further up the river you go, the fewer workers and associated actions are available to you. As soon as you cover certain spots on your tableau with landscapes, you will have to give up a worker. The worker will no longer be available to you after the next round. Actually it is a reverse principle, just like in other board games, where you get more workers to do more actions and not less.
This is how a tactical component comes into play. So when you take a new landscape tile, you need to plan well. Too early and you’ll lose valuable actions, too late and you will be left behind. Because of the few action possibilities The River is also a racing game. Everyone at the table is either building houses or exploring the river with new landscape tiles. You can’t use any other strategies and since everyone at the table is doing it, it’s a “Who gets the right houses and tiles at the right time?
A flat river
When Days of Wonder announced The River for SPIEL 18, I raved about the board game in our article shortly after. I was particularly taken with the lack of action as the game progressed. After we had the game on the table a few times now, however, a different picture emerges. Because The River is a simple worker-placement board game, nothing more and nothing less. That’s not bad per se at first. Not every board game has to come up with new innovative mechanisms and set the game duration to a minimum of 3 hours. The River takes a completely different approach here. I explain the game within 10 minutes and 30 minutes later the game is over. So there is time for another game.
But unfortunately for me as a veteran player this is too short or too little. I want to try out other strategies and see if they work or not. The River with its narrow limits, however, does not offer much room for flexibility. And so after a few games it quickly became clear that building lots of houses quickly is the most lucrative way to get victory points.
The only strategy that is just as strong is to try exploring landscapes as fast as possible. But even here you build houses on the side, because I can only place a maximum of 2 landscapes per round on my tableau. But the landscape strategy needs a lot of luck because only with the right landscapes I can score points. If these do not appear, I watch how my wife builds one house after the other and literally leaves me behind. So for veterans like us, it’s more like a race.
However, the situation is different for beginners. Here I could observe that The River offers just the right amount of complexity. It’s not too many actions for new players to get stuck, but it’s not too few for them to have no consequences. When I place my worker where, is a common dilemma for us as veteran players. Newcomers have to learn this first, precisely because the actions are limited.
Thus The River together with Ticket to Ride: New York actually form a team. Both were released in the same year and clearly appeal to beginners and casual players. Both board games are broken down so far that everything unnecessary and complicated is gone overboard. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and I also find the board game The River to be quite solid. From my point of view it has no flaws. The only thing I find too weak is the action of changing the starting player. As a veteran, I’m used to getting compensation when I grab the starting player token. That doesn’t happen in The River. On the other hand, I also understand that this action is as minimalistic as the rest of the game. Because for the beginner it remains exactly one action: I get the starting player and that is manageable.
For me, personally the amount of luck is too high for a worker-placement board game. If I absolutely need a grassland tile and only one is drawn, I have to be lucky that no other player is also speculating on this tile and snatches it away. The available houses are also dependent on luck. If my opponent has specialized in stone as a resource and only houses are revealed that have this resource as their main component, it looks bad for me.
What I would have wished for, would perhaps be additional bonuses or special features as an extra module or variant through built houses. Sure, for the beginner this is again too much complexity, but as a variant for the veteran it would have been quite practicable. And this is not a new feature, but is already used by many other board games. Looking back on the current year, Solenia or The Taverns of Tiefenthal would be mentioned here, for example.
Of course, the quality of the components is back to the usual high level that I know from Days of Wonder. All the game’s components fit perfectly into the inlay, even after you’ve picked them out. The rules are written in a clear and structured way, so I can quickly find my way into the game. Just one little thing I noticed: In the rules the bonus points are described and which ones you use in a game of 2, but whether you use these extra marked points in a game of 3 or 4 was not immediately clear to us at the beginning.
However, The River gets a thick minus with its design especially for people with color blindness. If you are red-blind or green-blind, the landscapes are simply not distinguishable. Why no symbols are used here or why the illustration is not clearer and therefore more distinguishable is not clear to me. Exactly this led to a game where a player lost a handful of points.
The bottom line is that The River is a quick break for the veteran player, but for me, it doesn’t have enough strategic options to keep me at the table for a long time. I still keep the board game in my collection to be prepared for beginners. If you don’t know much about worker placement, The River will give you a solid start.