Designer: Thomas Liesching

Artist: Victor Boden

Publisher: Rio Grande Games

You figure it might actually be easier for them to just pick up the gems from the river bank by walking instead of canoeing…… (Photo credits: Andreo@BGG)

Playing Niagara reminded me of Colt Express and Camel Up. All three games are SdJ winners albeit many years apart and share a similar DNA: player actions are rapid and low down time, highly tactical and situational, a strong luck component and a fair bit of chaos in planning moves. Also, all these games are phenomenally thematic and eye catching. At least enough to catch the attention of the casual gaming crowd and the SdJ jury.

Half the battle for attention in Niagara is won by how well the theme, mechanism and components aligns with the actual game play. The visuals are compelling. To setup the river and the falls, players flip over the box top and bottom and place them side by side so that one can lay the game board spread across the surface such that a small part of the board hangs off one edge to mimic the cascade. To simulate river flow, a set of transparent discs are placed on a double-layered carved river surface. Discs pushed on one end of the forking river will eject the discs off the edge of the cascade much like a conveyor belt action. In this way, canoes placed on the discs upstream will slowly make its way down river toward the cascade as the discs are pushed. It is gimmicky, but it works.

Niagara is an action point movement game where players will each choose a movement tile, reveal it in turn order and execute their canoe movement on the river. Each player has two canoes that move between the transparent discs on the river. Both canoes in the water will move the same number of points (1-6 movement point tiles). You must use all action tiles before the stack is reshuffled and reset. So proper planning is necessary to time usage of the movement tiles.

With the movement points, one can choose to paddle upstream or downstream or use it to load and unload gems along the river bank. There are several gem caches along the river bank with a couple locales right at the edge of the cascade, making it highly dangerous but valuable to pick up those gems. Each canoe carries only a single gem and must be unloaded at the dock before it can venture out again. In this way, boats make multiple trips in the river loading and unloading gems. The goal is to pickup a combination of gems of varying counts and colors to fulfill objectives and win the game.

Of course, the game is not without some tension or conflict. As players go about paddling on the river, grabbing gems, the river flows at the end of each round. How fast the river flows also depends on the weather. Apart from movement tiles, players also have a single weather tile they must play from their stack. The weather tile will modify the river flow either making it calmer and slower or stormier and faster. If in the process of pushing the discs on the river, a player’s boat is pushed off the edge of the board, the gems on the canoe will be lost and another gem from your reserve must be used to reactivate the lost canoe.

Probably the highlight of Niagara – and the source of most of the chaos and frustration – is the theft of gems between canoes. If your empty canoe lands on the same disc as another loaded canoe, you can steal the gems from the other canoe. This part of the game is opportunistic, hard to anticipate or plan and at the mercy of the turn order. You can try to position yourself to steal but must go early in turn order and have the exact movement tile to do so. Still, there is no way to know if someone else will steal that same gem from under your noses – sometimes in the same turn. I think this part of the game is comparable to the shooting and punching in Colt Express. You will try, but won’t always get what you want. While this may sound like a huge negative for the game, it should not be viewed as so, given the context of the game. It is meant as a light, family style game with a dash of unpredictability.

The board looks beautiful with vibrant colors and the artwork is more on the cartoonish side. Also, the transparent discs on the river looks different and inviting, even by today’s standard. Overall, the presentation of the game will bait you in for a closer look, much like what Colt Express did for many casual gamers. However, with all the KS bling and chrome these days, my guess is that Niagara will feel underwhelming to many modern gamer who will think the illustrations are crude and not adequately photo-realistic. Still, I particularly like the simple drawings and clear illustrations of the yesteryear and the artwork in Niagara suits me fine.

I think with this genre of rapid action, blind programming, direct conflict games, you need a different mindset going in. Casual gamers won’t mind it but the serious gamer will probably complain about the lack of control and randomness in some of the actions, particularly the gem stealing aspects events. It is inevitable. I don’t even disagree with that assessment necessarily, but I can guarantee you are likely to moan, groan, snarl, glare, threaten, laugh maniacally while playing Niagara than you would Barrage. Whether you think it is worth paying money for the game willing likely depend on your gaming group. Would I buy this game if my group comprise of serious, adult gamers? I might not. For those who game with kids and family, including elders, I do think it’s worth a look, if you can find a copy. Unfortunately, I believe the game is currently out of print.

Final word: Average

Kids Corner

7 years 6 months: My kid is slowly being weaned from the HABAs in her collection and transitioning to more mature games in my collection. Right now, the intermediate games we are enjoying are mainly Knizia card games and thematic games like Niagara, Colt Express and Camel Up. I think she is mainly enjoying these games because she feels more immersed in the narrative and also has a decent chance of winning the game against her parents. The luck and chaos in stealing a gem is also something she enjoys….. though as much if she ends up being the victim. Still, she is now used to playing “mean” games and doesn’t mind winning or losing. Niagara is definitely a winner in that sense. I think it is a good transition step from the kiddie games and will hopefully allow her to take the next step toward the heavier strategy games. The only thing about Niagara is that with 3 players, I think the game is a bit dull. Yeah, you can move around and grab gems from others, but they are mostly opportunistic. The game is probably more fun with 4 or more players. But, that’s from a parent’s perspective.


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