Okay, I know you’re wondering. What the heck is an aquicorn? Well, they are small magical seahorse-like creatures that live in the coral reef. And they are super cute, if the little meeples included in this game are anything to go by! The next in a series of games based on Katie O’Neill’s whimsical graphic novels for Oni Press, Aquicorn Cove is a gorgeous family-weight co-operative game that puts players in charge of balancing the caretaking of the reef, with keeping their little fishing village flourishing at the same time.
Over the course of two “years”, the game plays out with rounds that represent the 4 seasons, and an epilogue to wrap it up. Players will select a character (there are four to choose from) along with that character’s deck of cards, and throughout the game will play cards to be activated in certain points during the round for various effects. Each deck is just a little different with its mixes of the 4 actions, but every player will have access to each type of action in their deck. It’s lovely to see the beautiful art on these cards and the diversity that’s represented in such a small group of options. And really, the art everywhere, not just the cards, is beautiful – not surprising, given its source. The quality of production matches this too, with robust boards, cards, tokens – and even the rarely used dice and meeples! Plus, I love a little of that spot UV on a box cover to make the art really pop.
As well as looking good, the graphic layout of the board gives players a lot of guidance — the progression of rounds, the spots for pollution, and the 7 parts that each round goes through. This is a clever little bit of gameplay integrated with the board – players will select an action card and place it at a point along the progression from 1 – 7. Once everything is ready, players then perform all of these actions (card or no card) with the helpful guidance of the board – fishing, planting and harvesting food, building in the village, cleaning up the bay and the like. My only quibble here is once things really start happening in the game there needs to be some clarity in the rule book. It took me a moment or two to realize that winter was a special round of its own, without card play at all – just rolling the storm dice.
Somewhat unfortunately, parts of the rules can be vague, which isn’t the greatest for a family-weight game (and one that might be played by non-gamers at that). My biggest issue is the bay and pollution, and those cute little aquicorns. Depending on where pollution comes from, it will either go in the fishing bag or the bay and that can be tough to remember when there’s a lot going on. The game setup also tells you to place the aquicorn tiles in the “bay”, yet shows them not on the slots for tiles but just above that. This can mean things get messed up a little bit and I may have been placing tiles in and taking them from some wrong spots – not to a huge detriment, but I wish things had been clearer (especially with no FAQ document on the web). The small player aid has plenty of room on it for a couple of lines of reminder text for things like this, and it’s a shame that was a missed opportunity.
Beyond that, the game is really cohesive and flows well. It encourages co-operation and discussion – and genuinely not just one person taking over everything. Players look at the board state and seeing what needs to be addressed, what can be, and act upon that while also planning ahead for future seasons. Is the bay too polluted right now, and will that jeopardize the reef’s health? Are we going to have enough food to cover our town’s population this season? Not to mention there are events to consider! Every round is trying to balance the care of your village and the ocean to make sure nothing gets out of hand. This can get quite thinky, and may be too much for younger kids depending on their experience with these sorts of games. And it can be quite difficult too, making tough decisions to hopefully make things thrive, only to have a storm perhaps wreak havoc on the shore of your village, or dangerously overfish your supply.
Speaking of which, there really is a great presence of a theme of conservation in Aquicorn Cove. Not only are there repercussions to overfishing when feeding your village (a harsh effect on the bay’s health) but also the issue of keeping the environment pollution-free, and a healthy reef lessening the effects of bad winter storms. None of it is included as a boring lesson, but it’s integrated really well into the situation the game is set in. I’d honestly love to see more of this in co-operative games. Once the two years are up, and players have finished the epilogue round, it’s time to assess where your little village has gotten to. Between the health of the reef and the prosperity of the village, you’ll read two short blurbs that are a bit of a story summary. It can be quite an interesting way to end a game – no win/lose, no score necessarily, just a state of the community and its environment. Of course, if you’ve not done well it can be a bit dispiriting!
In my efforts to give this game a good number of plays, I came across some hesitation in my local game groups. The cute art and theme seemed to put a number of people off – and even those who tried with me expressed frustration at the lack of rules clarity and how tough it was to have both the reef and the village flourish. I’m concerned this may put off more casual players and families, but I hope they give it a go. It fills a nice little niche in co-operative games that isn’t too serious but still offers up a little bit of a challenge that means it’s not just for kids.
Aquicorn Cove is a co-operative game for 2 – 4 players ages 10 and up, taking approximately 30 – 60 minutes to play. Designed by Ben Eisner, Tim Eisner, Steve Ellis & Tyler Tinsley with art by Katie O’Neill, it is published by Renegade Games Studios. Thanks to the Renegade team for sending a copy of the game to try out!