One of the things a good game does best is give you the sensation that you’re just barely competent. When you’re staring at the board, and you almost don’t find the move that will save you, but then you do find it, and make it, and you’re saved? A word I’ve heard to describe this is ‘chewy’ which I think fits because you’re grinding your teeth or biting your lip until you find the morsel of genius at the core of it. That makes you feel clever, and feeling clever is a wonderful, rewarding feeling. It’s also stressful, though, and when a game presents a buffet of chewy choices, the result can be quite hard to swallow.
David Chott’s Lagoon: Land Of Druids from 3 Hares Games provides a lush, vibrant orchard with all kinds of deliciously chewy decisionfruit for you to (nearly?) choke on.
Lagoon looks like a CCG, with its vibrant artwork, fantastical otherworldly setting, and paragraph-of-rules-on-every-component design. The core rules are quite simple. On your turn, you can activate any of your wooden-nickel (unless you have the peasant edition, in which case they’re very thick cardboard nickels) “druid” pieces on the board to use the ability of a tile you have a druid on.
(You almost certainly missed something crucial just there, but don’t worry! I’ll come back to it in a second. )
You can activate a druid to move it one space. You can activate a druid to make a new druid. (Druids have interesting biology, you see.) Once a turn, you can activate your player token alongside a druid to explore, picking a new tile out of the bag and placing it either side up, expanding the landscape. Each tile has a new ability on it, so you can move your druid there to gain access to that ability. Also you can eat dirt of various colors. I’ll get back to that in a second as well, because first I have to address the first thing you almost certainly missed.
When you have a druid on a tile, ALL of your druids have access to that tile’s ability, no matter where they are on the board.
This tends to rather explode the realm of possibilities on your turn. I could use druid X to move Druid Y to tile Z so you can… well, no, I need to use druid Y on tile Y, so maybe I use druid Y to use tile Y, and THEN use druid X to move… but then who will use tile Z? A huge portion of the abilities deal with movement, either moving druids or moving tiles themselves, so when you do find the perfect move (Moving Tile Z closer to druid X? maybe so.) it will feel like one of those thriller movies where the genius mathematics guy has a bunch of figures floating around his head but the wrong ones get foggier and foggier until the right answer is suddenly SO CLEAR. Also you need to eat the dirt.
All of that puzzle, moving your druids around and swapping tiles into position, all of it leads to your primary method of scoring (and influencing scoring) in the game, which is, as I mentioned, eating dirt. You see, the game’s tiles come in three flavors, and whichever is most dominant on the board at the end of the game (called the “destiny of Lagoon” in the game’s language) will determine how (or IF) you score points. As you place tiles of a color, you’re essentially gaining “stock” in that color in the form of “seed” chips. You can spend the chips of a color – or just be hanging out on that color’s tiles – in order to have one of your druids unravel an enemy-colored tile, Rock-Paper-Scissors style. Your guy will devour the very ground (mushroom, building, salamander, whatever) beneath him, tossing that tile into your scoring pile. Chowing down on a tile has the double payoff of denying everyone that ability AND depositing their druids back onto a “home” tile, which is hopefully inconveniently far from anything else of interest.
Now for another layer of chewy peel around the morsel of this game: You can’t break the board into multiple parts, and you can’t “eat” the last home tile on the board. These restrictions add ANOTHER thing to consider as you scoot your druids around the board gobbling up gardens and canyons and what have you. They’re also the source of most of the game’s interactivity, which is surprisingly kind of a lot. For the most part, you can’t move your opponent’s druids or react on their turns, but by changing the shape of the board, you can trap them on inedible peninsulas or whisk them far away from useful tiles. So, do you spend this turn exploring and gathering energy? Or do you bump a tile over to the other side of the board, pinning an opponent in place and keeping him from eating or moving the tile he’s standing on? Manipulating the board to deny your opponent points or abilities is crucial to success, and means that the position of the tiles is as important (actually much more important) than the druids standing on them.
However, there are a couple of lets-call-them rough edges, things that keep me from recommending this game to everybody in the world. First of all, the scoring is… well, it’s novel, but it can obfuscate what are sometimes VERY binary win-or-lose decisions. The rulebook sheepishly admits that the scoring is misleading, but that’s quite an understatement. ONLY the winning color’s “stock” is worth points at the end of the game, so you’ll score points ONLY for that color’s seeds (and for other-color tiles that you’ve eaten). One rather irritating outcome of this (in terms of players’ perceptions) is that the closest, toughest-fought games tend to have the largest discrepancies in score. If I’m heavily banking on Red to win, gobbling up blue tiles and hanging onto red seeds, and you’ve sunk a lot of effort into Blue, and it comes down to the last tile? One of us is going to score next to nothing, while the other rakes in the big nature bucks. Scores will be a lot closer in a game where early on it seems inevitable that Yellow will win, so we’re going to be chewing up points moreso than influencing the “destiny” of Lagoon, but the game won’t have been nearly as intense. Player count has a big impact on how this works; two-player games tend to be more likely to result in chasms between player scores, while multi-player games are more chaotic and see players with more varied “portfolios” so to speak. Anyway, the exclusivity of the scoring can have a discouraging effect on less persistent (masochistic?) gamers seeking a friendlier experience with less seemingly-crushing-defeats.
Also, hey, I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but the decision tree in this game is actually a decision mangrove, or some kind of large bushy shrubby thing with a billion branches and ten-billion leaves. There’s room for planning, for sure, but on every turn there are about a billion TERRIBLE choices to eliminate. There’s an engine builder buried under a spatial puzzle, buried under ANOTHER spatial puzzle, each requiring a little bit different thinking, and all of it matters. So, if you’re “that guy” or you play with “that guy” I’d keep this game far away from him. Most of my plays have been 2-player, and as an ex-M:TG lifestyler (and ex-Chess high-schooler) I’m used to spending a bit of time pondering and watching others ponder in games like this. In a multiplayer game, that would not be so tolerable.
The last thing is that, despite the cool artwork and the TCG-esque terminology (For example, let’s say you Spend one seed and exhaust 1 of your druids to unravel the invoking Eldrid’s site and swap it with an unlocked site of thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh) I’m not quite sure what I’m DOING in this game, or in this world, for that matter? I guess I’m a druid leader? And we’re… destroying, er, “unravelling”… places we don’t agree with (except some of the places are plants or animals or people)? To change the “Destiny” of the world? …Am I the bad guy? Anyway, the art’s gorgeous but there’s next to no thematic resonance here; the theme doesn’t inform the mechanisms at all, it’s just nifty dressing. If you want to feel like a magic man on a magical quest, this is not that game. This is a game where you feel like you’re playing Hive and Magic: The Gathering at the same time. You glower at the board for not being how you want it to be. Your head probably hurts. Whether or not you like that depends on what kind of person you are.
I like it.