Aquatica is a card game that involves grabbing locations and recruiting characters by playing cards from your hand. Play one card per round, do what it says, and you’re done. To
execute your strategy, you had to look at different combinations of cards successively in sequence, and you were able to accomplish all this within an hour.
Many moons ago, I wrote a review on Aquatica. I praised the simple card system for providing an engaging experience. I enjoyed the quick pace and commented how it is one of the few games that understands itself more than most heavier games. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one with my impressions, as many other reviewers also echoed similar thoughts.
With such widespread recognition behind this game, an expansion was inevitable.
What’s interesting about Cold Waters is it adds quite a bit of content without making it feel foreign to the original game. Most board game expansions tend to go overboard, marching their game into a field of complication only to watch it die. I can’t say that about Cold Waters.
Going off the deep end
Cold Waters comes into three parts: A fifth player, more content, and a Tribes module.
If you’ve read my Five Red Flags of Board Game Expansions article, you know how I feel about expansions adding another player to the mix, and for those who didn’t, I don’t like them. Cold Waters failed to sway my opinions on the matter. It is a game where you play one action at a time and have your next two or three moves already planned out. Having more players at the table increases the downtime, notably since this game’s interactions are limited to passive-aggressive plays. There isn’t any value created by having more bodies at the table.
Adding more content was necessary to allow for the fifth player and this is where I become a little nicer. There is a fifth location type now, with two new abilities to exploit. The first one is a Mirror that allows you to copy an existing power from your locations on your board, giving you absurd potency such as double scoring or taking two character card discards instead of one. The other ability forces your opponents to flip their Mantas, leaning hard on the passive-aggressive interaction I’ve mentioned previously. Nothing too complicated to understand.
One of the most noteworthy features of this expansion is the new character cards. The original character cards served as a good foundation for the base game but didn’t give you many options to get creative with your plays. The Cold Water character cards change that by offering different avenues for your typical strategies. Like a National Geographic photographer, it wants to cover all the angles.
Seas the day
Go back to the base game with your military strategy, and you find that you are often struggling to recruit new characters and the only thing you can do is conquer more land. Now some cards take advantage of your attack power, such as the Killer Whale, which lets you recruit a character using military power instead of gold.
There are a plethora of new recruitment cards, as well as scouting cards, in the deck. This means both the location and character cards will move a lot faster than the base game. Don’t be surprised if your Cold Water games are filled with loud groans as the location cards constantly walk themselves to the discard pile or character cards are snatched by ambitious players. I hate to use this word since I keep using it, but it feeds into the passive-aggressive nature of the game.
Additionally, some character cards now have discard abilities. Like the rest of the game, it’s quite easy to understand. At the start of your turn, if the top card on your discard pile has an ability, you use it before you do anything else. If it says “you may scout” then you may scout. Extra gold? Use it for your recruitment or buy a location character card. You get the idea.
What I love about this is it introduces the concept of bridging your turns properly. Most combo-centric games focus on making the most of one turn by firing all your abilities like fireworks. It’s still true for Aquatica, but these new discard abilities now make you think about your future turns as well.
I would be perfectly fine with the expansion if it was just what I described, but we still have to talk about the Tribes module.
The champions of this expansion are the Tribes cards. This module completely replaces the Objectives. Using eight random Tribes cards, you and your friends will race to earn the favor of the tribes by bribing them with money and locations. Locations? Yes, your scoring pile is now treasury.
Tribes will either have a passive bonus and a fixed victory point value or an instant effect with a scoring condition at the end of the game. Like the objectives, you place one of your trained Mantas to claim a Tribe using a recruitment action. After deploying all of your trained Mantas, that signals the end of the game.
This module’s purpose is to address the common criticism towards the original game about pacing issues. Many people thought the game was over too quickly, a viewpoint I don’t agree with.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Ivan Tuzovsky, designer of Aquatica, is a fan of Race for the Galaxy. Aquatica is about being efficient and quick with your turns, an idea that I grew to love over the years.
The Tribes module certainly slows down the pace, but not in a negative way. There is more of a build-up as you grab locations, score them, and then use them to earn the tribes’ favor. After getting a tribe or two, you start to take advantage of their abilities to fine-tune your underwater machine.
Grab those Royal Penguins, and it becomes easier to conquer with their bonus military power every single turn. If conquering isn’t your tune, the Treasure Keepers are a nice addition since they allow you to grab two character cards from your discard pile after Scouting. Blind Seers are also potent since they immediately let you score one location, and every location card on your player board still counts at the end of the game.
The Tribe cards allow everyone to specialize within this underwater world, creating their own vignette in this universe.
Kraken it down
Is Tribes better than the original Objective end game? That’s a cat versus dog question. There isn’t a wrong answer here, and it comes down to preference. (If you’re curious, I’m a cat person.)
Everything sounds pretty good, yet there is one area I want to cover. As I mentioned in my Aquatica review, there are King cards that can be added to your game to give every player a unique character card. I didn’t get into more details because I only played it once or twice.
So for this review, I decided to focus more on the King cards. That was a mistake.
I’m so glad that this is an insignificant part of the game. The concern is the lack of balance and making Aquatica feel scripted.
There are some King cards that are too good to ignore. In the expansion, you have some ridiculous abilities to abuse. With Cassandra the Enchanted, you can recruit one character and conquer the top of the discard pile for only flipping two mantas. Why would I not use this? Additionally, Bjorn the Fearless is a pretty strong King, scoring 2 location cards and having a discard pile power identical to the Killer Whale, using military power to recruit characters.
While I have my grievances about balance issues, the King cards push the game into a direction it doesn’t need to go. Since they have powerful abilities, your entire game is completely focused on exploiting them. The engine blueprints are no longer created by your hands; you are faced with a metaphorical gun to your head.
My complaint isn’t exclusive to Aquatica either. Asymmetrical games that dictate your decisions and gameplay have always been a turn off to me. I won’t even attempt to play Eric Lang’s Rising Sun or Chaos in the Old World. Cole Werle’s Root is also off limits to me. Games that let me explore the game’s mechanics are my siren’s call, and I am willing to drown myself in those experiences any day of the week.
Is this an essential expansion? That would imply something was fundamentally wrong with the base game, which there isn’t. It is an inevitable expansion. If you like Aquatica, you’ll love this. If you enjoyed Aquatica’s rules but felt the pacing was off, that Tribes module might help with that wound.