With the number of different board games out there, it’s not surprising that the same ground gets covered multiple times. There are some themes which are particularly popular with designers; I’ve played lots of games which revolve around trading goods across the Mediterranean, several that involve building railways, and dozens which involve killing different Fantasy Monsters. I own a lot of deck-builders which all boil down to the same basic premise, and there are even a dozen or so variations on Carcassonne alone.
Into this sea of games, it’s pretty rare that I encounter something completely different, which is why I was so intrigued when I came across AYA recently.
AYA is completely unlike anything else I’ve played – it’s a cooperative game where you need to ‘take’ photographs of landscapes and endangered animals by placing dominoes, and then knocking them over! It sounds strange from the rulebook (this was definitely one of those games where I got plenty of “you what?” looks whilst explaining it), but once you play it, it’s actually quite fun!
What’s in the box? Lots of Dominoes!
Opening up AYA, you’ll find a rulebook, a few punchboards worth of tokens, and LOTS of Dominoes – the 156 Dominoes are the heart of the game, and they are what you’ll spend most of your time stacking up.
They come in 5 different climate types (Desert, Snow, Rock, Forest, Fields), and each climate has both the normal domino type, and the Camera.
Camera symbols are important, as they are what bring the other elements into play – the Animal photos, and the Landscape tiles – every time you place one of these dominoes, you can fetch a cardboard token of the matching landscape type, and add it to the game.
Lastly, are the “Extraordinary Garden Tokens” – strategically very important, as they allow you to branch out, and change terrain type without penalty. There are only a limited number of these tiles, (which can be recognised by the fact that the river forks on them, as well as the mottled red colour for the land), so they must be used carefully.
Ok, so what are we doing?
The main phase of a game of AYA takes 20 minutes. On their turn each player takes a tile at random from their supply, and either stands it somewhere in the playing area, or places it face-up in a reserve.
There are very few rules about where you can place dominoes, which can make getting started on this game a bit confusing – it’s not as simple as choosing between 2 or 3 actions for your initial turn. However, there are rules about where you want to end up, so with a bit of thinking you can work backwards.
The top tile is scored, because it has all its entrances covered with the right type of tile: the middle one has 2 entrances uncovered, and the bottom has the wrong terrain type
When the main phase ends, you will knock over a single domino, which stands on the starter landscape tile. If everything has gone right, this will trigger a chain reaction, until every domino lies flat, image-side up. Your dominoes should form a single river: branching and curving, passing through landscape tiles, and decorated with animals which make these areas their home.
Once this is done, you will be scoring points, based on what you have created. Points come from the animals and the landscape tiles. If an animal is on a line of dominoes which entirely match its landscape, and there is no other animal sharing a stretch of river (divided by forks or landscape tiles), and it is not (even partially) on top of a landscape tile, it scores you a point.
If a landscape tile has all its entrances and exits irrigated (i.e. they have face-up dominoes) and all its dominoes match its terrain type, it scores you a point.
There are also bonus points to be had for collecting a full set of Landscape tiles (3 the same), and penalty points lost if your river doesn’t all tumble at once, and you have to “re-trigger” the cascade.
Decisions to be made? You bet!
AYA is very different from most other games out there, and so it requires quite a bit more explanation than some reviews (hence the fairly lengthy overview above). Once you get down to it though, the game is really interesting, and challenging in an unusual way.
At the start of the game, you have a fork, so you can have 2 different terrain types flowing straightaway – of course that means that the other 3 types have nowhere obvious to go – do you put these in the supply? or do you start building somewhere else on the table, and hope that you can join them up later?
Generally speaking, when playing a game of AYA, It’s hard to keep all of the different elements in tension. For example, when you add landscape tiles, they need to be close enough to each other that they can all be linked up, and that the dominoes will all fall down in one go, but you also have to leave yourself enough space to twist around, and arrive pointing in the right direction.
As mentioned earlier, you also have a “reserve.” Instead of placing a domino out in the gameplay area, you can put it face-up on your reserve pile. However, you can only ever take the top tile of your reserve to play, so things can quickly get buried here if you try to over-use it. The game also ends if a player runs out of dominoes in their stock (not their reserve), so if you put too many in the reserve, you’ll end the game too early, without making use of all the tiles.
I think AYA is the only dexterity-based game we own, and has been since we sent Twister to the charity shop (unless you count my wife’s intermittent inability to roll a dice without getting it caught in her sleeve and/or accidentally throwing it up in the air and on to the floor behind her). I don’t want to overstate the physical aspect of this game- it’s only standing dominoes up. But you do have to get it right: place them too close, or too far apart, or incorrectly angled, and they wont all fall down- physics doesn’t care about your intent.
The placing dominoes phase of a game of AYA lasts 20 minutes, so this isn’t a frenetic, panicked game. That said, there is still a time-limit, and when the sands are nearly gone, it can make things tense—inevitably causing you to hurry and fumble again. The very first time we played this game was the only time we ended up with lots of dominoes left over at the end, and generally, the time feels about right.
It’s also worth mentioning that, inevitably, there will be times when you knock dominoes down mid-game. At that point, the rule is simply “stand them back up again as quickly as possible.” Depending on what you knock, where, and when, this can be a big hindrance (when we played yesterday, we were still trying to stand things up as the timer ran out – doing it in a rush meant that we left lots of gaps, and forfeited all our re-trigger tokens).
Where AYA? It’s behind you!
Even with the limited pool of games to draw comparisons against, there are some things about AYA which immediately leapt out at me.
The first issue is that, with the tiles only having an image on a single side, it’s very easy to get into a position where you can’t actually see what terrain-type a particular fork is, and the more players there are in the game, the harder it gets to position yourselves so that everything is visible. Obviously it would have increased the manufacturing costs to have made all the dominoes double-sided, but I can’t help but feel that it would have made gameplay a lot easier. On the plus side, the fact that AYA is a fully cooperative game means that there will generally be someone you can ask, and no reason for them not to be forthcoming with an answer.
What’s that animal? Let me see
The second issue I have with AYA, is that the theme feels quite un-focused. Once you’ve grasped the basic concept, the AYA rulebook is actually a fairly short and simple document, and the designers have decided to give the last 2 or 3 double-pages over to extra information about the animals you can photograph. Now obviously, enabling people (in my head it’s mostly children) to learn more about wild animals is a good thing, but it just felt a bit forced to me.
AYA tells us it takes its name from a nature goddess, something which is then ignored and never mentioned again, as the narrative goes into a collective river-boat ride, in which you place dominoes to build the river, and are notionally taking photographs.
Adding conservation on top of this just felt a bit too far, especially as most of the animals we had managed to snap fell into the “least threatened” category, which made them rather anti-climactic. “Oh what’s that?” – “It’s a common bat…”
AYA; Some final thoughts
Overall, I think AYA is a really interesting idea for a game, and fun to play. It’s so different from anything else that I own or have played, that it’s hard to predict how long this will keep our interest, but for now it’s definitely providing a fresh, new experience. Our scores have mostly been around the 20s, which is a long way down from the maximum, so we definitely still have plenty to learn, and I really can’t see this becoming “too easy” or something we have somehow “solved” any time soon.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.