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Riding the wave – Tavarua Review

So here’s a theme you don’t see every day – a life on the ocean wave that doesn’t involve pirates or ships, but instead surfboards, hang-tens and perfect waves.  Now, while the very mention of surfing conjures up images in my head of Jamie Oliver heading down to the Cornish coast in his expensively restored VW camper van for some pukka tucker and some time alone with nature (and an eight-man film crew), the notion of a wave-based race game (just about) seems refreshingly different from the norm, and the inclusion of a solo career variant tipped me over the edge into wanting to find out what lay inside this box.

Tavarua Board Game

Text on boards and tokens is a great touch.

Surf’s up?  All a-board!

The creator of Tavarua, Cody Miller, designed the highly rated Xia: Legends Of A Drift System, so we could justifiably expect this new game to be of a similarly high quality.  Opening the lid reveals just that – Tavarua comes with a decent selection of components, and the names of its generous/brave (depending on your point of view) Kickstarter backers have been printed along the side of the box.  There is a double-sided game board, the two sides being only aesthetically different rather than altering game play, various cards, tokens and dice, while the surfboards and surfers are suitably brightly coloured and garish, allowing for as many as six players to paddle out together.  It is heartening also to see that the player mats and tokens have the name of their colour written on them, as well as small unique icons, making Tavarua playable by gamers who are colour blind.

The iconography is bold and clear, and while the cards and mats are maybe just a little on the thin side, the general quality of the components is pretty high.  The graphic design is expressive and bright, while the pictures of the surfers and the waves on the various cards, and those brightly coloured meeples, make me want to pull on my garish budgie smugglers and head for the shore.  This is a long way from the dark, oppressive atmosphere of yet another Cthulhu or zombie spinoff, and Tavarua clearly wants to go its own way.

Riding the wave?  Go long or go short!

Tavarua Board Game

“4” cards cannot be used by the longboard.

The premise of Tavarua is simple enough.  Players are taking part in a surfing competition and need to ride waves to the shore for the biggest score possible.  As the rounds progress players need to catch waves, and then will have to maintain their balance, anticipating what the waves might do as they try to ride them to shore.  You can bail from a wave if you prefer, and keep your score, or try to ride it to the shore instead and reap the bonus points, but players always risk wiping out, which puts a strict limit on how generous the judges will be.

The two types of surfboard are also a great little touch.  I must admit that I have only once been on a surfboard, and for only a minute at that, clinging on for dear life, panic-striken as I floated on the most placid of lakes, but I really felt that Tavarua has maybe helped me to understand just a little of what surfing might be about.  The shortboard is trickier in terms of balance, but more manoeuvreable, allowing for some fancy moves, while the longboard is a more solid performer, a better all-round bet.  Before heading out for a new wave players have to decide which board they will use, set their player mat to the correct side with their balance token in the middle, and place their meeple lying down on the board – it’s paddling out, you see.

Tavarua Board Game

Red is about to paddle out – purple is already on its way.

The key to success?  It’s all about balance!

Tavarua progresses via the play of your hand of five cards, as you paddle out into the sea and catch a wave.  The six waves progress down the board in each round of the game, a rolled die placed on each one, and if the number on the die equals or exceeds the number of the wave’s slot on the board then that wave is deemed to have broken, and you can catch it by playing a card.  If the die and slot number are the same you have caught a perfect wave, grab the appropriate token, and are on your way to some bonus points whether you make it to shore or not.

Once you are on a wave you play cards in order to add them to your score pile, but each card will shift your balance a certain amount and in a particular direction, even if you can mitigate this a little by playing Stoke Tokens.  These tokens are worth points when they are scored, but can also be used to buy Stoke Cards which give you a single-use ability, so their usefulness needs to be carefully assessed – thankfully players begin the game with one of these tokens already in their possession and also gain one whenever they catch a wave.  It is all simple enough, and if you are still on the board after your card and any tokens are resolved then they are added to your score piles.

Tavarua Board Game

Tokens mean points, and points mean prizes!

Wiped out?  Wave goodbye to (most of) those points!

There is a catch, though, and that is that a wave card is played at the end of each round.  The back of the wave card that is about to be revealed will give you a rough idea of what the wave will do to you, but its actual effect is only revealed when it is turned over.  Tavarua therefore allows its players to plan for all possibilities, but only at the end of the round nails those possibilities down to a single outcome.  It is all too easy to wipe out at this point, and while it would be sensible to operate within safe boundaries, players simply have to take risks in this game to score big, and that is part of the fun.  When the pile of wave cards runs out, that’s it – game over.

Tavarua Board Game

The backs of the wave cards indicate what might lie in wait on the other side.

The phases of the game play very quickly indeed, especially as all players can decide their actions at the same time – all you have to do is advance the waves, select and resolve cards, and then perhaps score the waves. But, the placement of the cards and the requirements of the various types of movement all take a little while to understand and play correctly, especially as they are all slightly different from each other.

Sadly, Tavarua’s lack of a decent aide-memoire means that yet another game enters my “it should have had a better player aid” hall of fame.  The player reference cards give the three phases of each round and the scoring, but an explanation of the choices available and how many cards can be played for each would have been really useful and saved me from having to explain the moves and exceptions over and over again.  Despite that, it took only a single wave for me to begin to feel that I knew roughly I was doing, and I was having fun very early on in my experience with Tavarua, from splashing around to riding the waves in very short order.

The extra niceties, such as barrel waves and hang ten tokens, can be learned along the way, but a little extra help to bring new players into the game would have been handy.  Thankfully the game is so much fun that by the time players have surfed a single wave on each of their boards they will already be thinking of new ways to eke out extra points for their radical moves (or whatever they are called).

Tavarua Board Game

Things can get busy with the full player count.

Only the lonely?  No need for friends here!

Tavarua comes equipped with some useful variants in the box as well.  The “short” game uses just the shortboards or longboards, particularly useful as a learning or family variant as it cuts out many exceptions as well as shortening the game time.  There is also an advanced variant for more cutthroat play, but probably of most value is the detailed and rewarding solo career mode.

There is a simple beat-your-own-high-score version, but the career mode is really where it’s at for the lonely surfer as you play through an entire season of events in your attempt to top the world rankings.  What is particularly impressive about this is that it has clearly been thought out with genuine care and attention, and is not simply a late addition to the game in a transparent attempt to add some kind of value.  The events are all different from each other, with varying requirements and opponents, and provide a real and satisfying long-term challenge.  Bearing in mind that Tavarua already accommodates up to six players this is a great move, and the way that the wave deck is customised for each event throws out the tantalising possibility that adventurous gamers could even go so far as to design their own challenges as well.

Tavarua Board Game

Players can buy Stoke Cards for a one-off ability.

Although Tavarua feels commendably like its own game rather than a rehash of somebody else’s design, it does remind me slightly of K2, Adam Kałuża’s mountain climbing game.  In both you have a hand of cards, a fair idea of what is coming your way, and have to combine this knowledge in order to come away from your turn with as many points banked as possible.  There are other similarities as well, such as the keep-only-your-highest scoring and the disasters that might befall your meeples.  Admittedly in Tavarua meeples only fall off their surfboards, while in K2 they can freeze to death, but neither fate will get you much in the way of points.  The similarity between the two games also makes me wonder how much replay value there might be in Tavarua, as I found K2 largely played itself out after 10 plays or so, and I suspect that Miller’s new game might do the same, especially as it presents similar problems from game to game.  The solo mode does promise to add some serious longevity to the box, however, and enhances its usefulness considerably, so maybe there is enough here for it to stay in a collection for the long-term.

Tavarua Board Game

Ride the wave to shore for the bonus.

Fresh and different!  But is it swell?

Tavarua undoubtedly does something genuinely fresh and different, and does it with ease.  It is quick enough to pick up and fun to play, and easy to teach even to a gaming novice.  Keeping your surfer balanced on the board is a challenge, but pulling off a great move for a decent haul of points by the skin of your teeth is real high-five stuff (or whatever surfers do).  The colours are bright and fresh and the components good, and it seems clear that this game inhabits a niche all of its own, one pretty much free of any direct competitors.

If you are a surfer who enjoys board games (or the other way round) then you really should get this to add to your collection to play while you are drying off, either with friends or alone.  The general consensus seems to be that it offers as realistic an interpretation of the sport as possible while keeping the game both simple and accessible.  For those of us who prefer the safety of dry land, though, it would not be a wipeout if Tavarua failed to make its way into our collections, but I really would recommend that any gamer who is looking for something fresh and interesting to play with the slight feel of a race game seek out the opportunity to give this a go.

Tavarua Board Game

If the die is more than the slot it’s game on!

Tavarua is not essential, but it is different and it is interesting, and I think I will be holding on to my copy for a while, at least until I have played through the career scenario a couple of times.  It is a quality game worthy of play and recommendation, and if the theme limits its appeal to some gamers, then that is their loss.  Cody Miller has come up with a solid and enjoyable design, one that deserves to be played by a broad span of gamers, and for that reason I am happy to give it a dayglo 8 out of 10.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.