Whale Riders

Designer: Reiner Knizia

Artist: Vincent Dutrait

Publisher: Grail Games

Can whales swim on the surface of the water indefinitely without diving? (Photo credits: Grail Games@BGG)

I rarely support Kickstarter games but I was really thrilled that a local gamer purchased Whale Riders from Grail Games in bulk and had an extra copy to spare along with the Card Game. I think Grail Games really develop superior products at a really affordable price. Their collaboration with Knizia to reprint old gems and also develop new ones, such as this game, makes supporting them easy. That said, I am sad that they will no longer collaborate with my favorite designer on future projects. However, what they have right now on their catalog, is pretty good.

Whale Riders appeared on my radar about a year ago. It sounded like a very typical Knizia. Really. The game has simple rules and clear cut victory conditions as I have come to expect. I also know that like most Knizia designs, the game play itself will be more than what is described by the rule book. Which is a grand total of 2 double-sided pages. Yeah. It took me all of 6 minutes to read the rules before playing. Setup though, is a little more challenging than your usually Knizia game, I must admit. The goods tiles must be fished out from a bag and the first three ports on the board cannot have certain types of goods tiles and none of the ports can start with any storm tiles. So if you draw these tiles, you must set them aside. I have found the draw bag a little too small for my hands. So, I just pour out all the tiles in the box cover and randomly pick out the tiles sight unseen. All minor issues.

In Whale Riders, players….. ride whales, to different port cities along an icy coast line. There are 8 ports along the coast and each port will be selling different goods. At any particular time, there will be four goods tiles in each port that will sell their wares to players. The goal of the game is simple: players must ride their whales starting from the Sun port from one end of the coast to the Lobster port at the other end of the coast. Once the Players reaches the Lobster port at the opposite end of the coast, they will turn their whales around and head back to the Sun port via the same route. As they travel from port to port in both directions, players will be buying goods tiles from each sea port at various costs to fulfill contracts. Once the whales reach the Sun port, they can no longer move, but can purchase the pearl tiles at the Sun port for bonus points. The game ends when all the pearl tiles in the Sun port are purchased.

There are 4 basic types of goods: kelp, shells, pottery and fish (tuna?). Each tile can have between 1-3 goods. To purchase tiles, players must pay coins and the cost of the tiles depend on their relative position on the market, with the tile closest to the coastline being free, and the one furthest away being the most expensive. As tiles are purchased and refreshed after each turn, new tiles are placed on the most expensive slots allowing pre-exisiting tiles in the market to become cheaper. The goal of purchasing these tiles, not surprisingly, is to fulfill contracts. Each player will have a starting hand of three contracts and will always replenish to a maximum of three when contracts are fulfilled. Fulfilling contracts will bring fortune (more coin) and fame (victory points in the form of pearls). To help players along, some goods tiles have are “wild” and can substitute for any goods. In addition, there are also a handful of tiles with pearls that will award instant victory points. Importantly, there are also quite a number of storm tiles in the bag. These storm tiles when drawn, will clog up the market as they are permanent and can’t be purchased. As tiles are purchased from the market, these storm tiles will slide toward the coast, occupying the “cheaper” slots. In essence, they will make new goods tiles more expensive since the free or cheaper slots will now be occupied by these storm tiles.

Each turn, players will carry out 2 actions from five available choices. Players can move once from one port to the next, buy goods tiles from a port, pick up one coin, discard and refresh contracts or fulfill contracts. Duplicate actions are allowed. For example, players can use both actions to pick up two coins, or move their whales twice. As players move along the coast pick up goods tiles, there will be some tension to either move or stop to purchase goods. A balance must be struck because one key decision of the game is to control the pace of the game. There is some urgency to moving the whales up and down the coast. That’s because at the Sun port, which is the starting port, there are pearls that one can purchase from the market. These pearls can only be purchased once players loop around the coast line and return to the home port. Once safely at home, these pearl tiles can be purchased (worth 1-3 pearls per tile) and the game ends when all the tiles are snapped up from the marketplace. Hence, there is some urgency in pushing toward the home base and to not linger in ports indefinitely. Moreover, as storm tiles start to clog up the marketplaces, goods tiles in all the ports will become more expensive as the selection dries up. This storm mechanism really makes the game tick. It pushes the pace of the game and acts as an internal timer to disincentivize players from loitering. This also makes the game brisk and avoids excessive drag if all players choose to move at snails pace. If you ask me, it is also darn thematic. The story being that an ice storm is approaching and the whale riders must hurry to buy the supplies they need. As the storm approaches, the marketplace dries up over time and the selection is limited. How’s that for a theme?

When playing Whale Riders, there is an unspoken tension to push the whales along the coastline. Perhaps it’s the theme, perhaps it group think or perhaps, it’s the fear or allure of the bonus tiles. I have not played enough to know if pushing hard all the way to the end with only a handful of contracts fulfilled is a winning strategy, nor do I know if hanging back and picking up goods to fulfill more contracts can earn enough points to win the game without having to purchase any pearl tiles. If I am right about Knizia, I suspect, both routes to victory are possible and this will largely depend on the interaction between players. If there is a rush to go back and everyone is clamoring to get their hands on the bonus pearl tiles, then staying out of the competition may be better off. Conversely, if everyone is languishing, then pushing hard and fast maybe enough to win. This sort of victory condition is what Knizia is known for and I wouldn’t be surprised that Whale Riders will allow several styles of game play depending on how the board develops.

As always, the game has real depth beyond just picking up tiles at the sea port. I have only played with two players and the game feels very tactical. It is already clear that picking tiles is not always straightforward. One has to consider several things when purchasing tiles. For each tile you pick, it costs an action which prevents you from doing other things. It also means the goods tile adjacent to the one you purchased is suddenly cheaper for the next player. So, do you overpay to pick up a tile now or do you move along to push the pace. If the gap between leading and lagging player is huge, there is a tension for the lagging player to catch up and that can really alter the lagging player’s decision tree.

At a certain level, one cannot play Whale Riders too defensively. You cannot predict the actions of another player without getting too bogged down. The original rule calls for unfulfilled contracts to be hidden. That’s a wise choice. Some will want contracts to be open information to make things even more strategic as you can purchase goods tiles defensively to prevent others from finishing their contracts. I think all this additional analysis will just bog down the flow of the game and is unnecessary. I much rather work on pushing my own contracts and agenda rather than constantly looking around the table to see who I can hurt most. It’s true that you shouldn’t make things easy for the next player, but each action is also an opportunity cost for not doing something else.

The game also has a race element to make the round trip back to the Sun port. The contribution of the race toward victory feels subtle though. The first player to reach Sun port isn’t necessarily the winner. However, they do get first dibs at the high value pearl tiles. Still, the most valuable pearl time awards only 3 points. After that, there are a few 2 and 1 point tiles. As with other markets, purchasing pearl tiles slide remaining tiles toward the coast, making it cheaper. The tiles aren’t refreshed and once all 7 pearl tiles are gone, the game ends. I am sure if you let one player monopolize all the tiles, that would be bad news. But, some contracts award up to 6 points, making it just as viable an option to go slower and finish contracts. The 2 player version of the game is extremely tactical and I think if the scores are close, you may want to compete for the pearl tiles, but you don’t always have to be the first to reach home base. With more players, you can perhaps rely on others to help pitch in for the competition. The game will likely feel different at different player counts as the tempo of the game is really dictated collectively by players.

Grail games decided to include two modules to Whale Riders. The first module adds decree cards to the mix. Four decree cards are flipped over at the start of the game and they show specific conditions that when fulfilled, will award the winner some coin or victory points. These are standard first-come-first-serve bonus scoring that are ubiquitous in many Euros. I feel that this module will benefit those that choose to go slow and not rush back to the Sun port to end the game. While the point values on these decrees aren’t huge, they may help balance the scoring from the pearl tiles . The other module is called “Magic of the Whales”. They basically assign unique powers and benefits to each player during the game. This type of customization can be quite potent and will certainly inject some variety into the game. These powers are also notoriously hard to balance. That said, I am not convinced either of these modules are necessary for Whale Riders. Knizia games are usually complete out the gate and most of his games do not have promos, add ons, modules or expansions (this is a Geeklist waiting to happen…..). In fact, they usually just detract from the main game (Tower of Babel, Duell action cards, I am looking at you). Still, I will probably end up trying them out at some point.

Overall, the production quality of the game is very high and Grail Games is just a fantastic company that doesn’t skim on the production values. The tiles are thick, the cards have nice linen texture and the board and game art is vibrant without being overbearing. The icons are easily identifiable and there is no confusion stemming from art work. Heck, even the whale meeples that come in 6 player colors each spot a different design. Really unnecessary, but also very appreciated. Besides, the cardboard standees actually look very good and I almost prefer them over the whale meeples. I understand that even though the Kickstarter did not hit the goal to make these wooden whale meeples, they still decided to include it anyways for the supporters. Great job! The two page rule book is fairly unassuming and does its job. The biggest thing though, is that Grail Games managed to keep the costs low for players. The game Kickstarted at USD19 per copy. If you included the card game, I think it bumped it up to $26. I want to say this is under-priced in the current market. These prices are cheaper than even the Rio Grande Games-Hans im Gluck, Alea-sized publications some 15-20 years ago.

In brief, I feel Whale Riders is a Knizia original. It doesn’t really feel like anything I have played from his library before, even though none of the mechanisms in the game feel particularly unique. On paper, the game does sound most similar to Sumatra, but since I haven’t played Sumatra either, I can’t really comment on that either. Whale Rider certainly has some meat in the game play, but I would still consider this a fairly light game. It is less complex than Orongo, Quest for El Dorado and probably more in the realm of Through the Desert or Samurai. Simple games with depth and complexity are Knizia’s calling card and in that sense, Whale Rider does not disappoint. I think Whale Riders can be safely added to the “Knizia-is-back” pile of games and I hope to add more to the ever growing stack.

Edit: We have played the clan decrees. It is indeed not bad, and somewhat balances out the rush for home. It makes collecting and fulfilling contracts even more potent and I think blunts the pearl tiles somewhat. I stand by review: it’s nice but not necessary.

Initial impressions: Good (and almost great)

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