A couple years ago, I stopped by my buddy Fil’s place to play Tidal Blades: Heroes of the Reef. I sat down and marveled at the luxurious production: massive board, cool components, and a “dice arena” where players chuck their dice. (Those dice were also pretty sweet!)
The game itself was good, but not spectacular. There were a lot of elements mashed together into a game that had individual elements better than the sum of its package. Tidal Blades: Heroes of the Reef is a worker placement game with resource collection, tracks that need to be advanced to secure your standing at the end of the game, and a dice chucker where players take down boss monsters, all in a two-hour playtime.
Tidal Blades: Banner Festival (2022, Lucky Duck Games) goes in a different direction: it’s a very tight and focused 30-minute trick-taking game, with an area control mechanic alongside mid-round and end-of-round scoring. There are no extras, in that the game only requires you to focus on running laps around a track with your faction’s Watercraft to advance a deck that will score massive end-game points after three rounds.
Tidal Blades: Banner Festival’s focus is what makes it shine over the first game for me. It knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.
The Teach is Quick
Banner Festival’s circular board is cut into four quadrants; stacking up Banners in each quadrant, and eventually into the Towers that are located in each half of the board, is the best way to score points between rounds.
Each player has a Watercraft, and a personal scoring deck that has seven cards. During a round, each player is also dealt 7-8 Merchandise cards, in one of the game’s four suit colors, numbered 0-9.
Each turn is a “bout”, and each bout is simple: based on the location of the Trade Gate, each suit is ranked. That could mean that on a specific turn, Yellow is the high suit, followed by blue, then purple, then orange. Players choose a Merchandise card to play, then the big reveal results in the following actions:
- The player who played the highest card moves their Watercraft in a clockwise direction around the loop all the way to the Trade Gate. This is the best way to advance your personal scoring deck; each time you lap the starting space, a new card in a scoring deck is revealed, and the card showing at the end of the game adds to your score. This ranges from 1 to 28 points!
- The low player gets to activate a power at the bottom of the card, usually to add banners to other parts of each quadrant.
- Everyone else gets to drop a banner in the quadrant where their Watercraft is currently located, which will help grab fruit (another way to score points) and solidify their chance at an area control bonus at the end of each of the three rounds.
After three rounds, add ‘em up!
Separate the Market
Banner Festival is fascinating because it is so different from the first Tidal Blades game.
Banner Festival is a family-weight trick-taking game with a handsome table presence. The chunky banner tokens and the cute little Watercraft meeple elevate the game beyond standard fare; the lush instruction manual is five pages too long for a game that can be taught in less than 10 minutes. Production is clearly at the heart of both Tidal Blades games I have played.
It strikes me that there are two ways to win this game, and you’ll usually lean into this based on the cards you are dealt. If you are dealt a hand of 4s, 5s, and 6s, playing the area control/fruit collection element (fruit gets you points if you have the most of it when the supply on the board exhausts) won’t move your Watercraft, but it’s a steady way to score points.
And if you are dealt 8s, 9s, or maybe even 0s and 1s (because of the ability to control the high suit for your next turn), you will lean into trying to lap the board. Certainly, a mix of these may work out, but this also means Banner Festival is not trying to be a very deep experience. Banner Festival knows what it is, and does almost nothing more than that.
That will also mean a shorter shelf life. I can already imagine players trying the game, giving this a few spins at the highest player count (4-5 players is recommended, because 2-3 players adds a dummy card element and adds neutral banner markers to the board), then moving this out of their collection after 5-7 plays.
That’s OK! For those looking for the whole enchilada, with deeper choices and a longer sit, Heroes of the Reef is a safer bet anyway. Banner Festival is enjoyable and doesn’t overstay its welcome.