04/12/2022

Aqua Garden: Build our own commercial marine life park [Review]

Aqua Garden was a successful Kickstarter campaign in Q4 2020. There is another running campaign from the same publisher, which seeks funding for the expansion: Beach Combing. If you like the core game after reading my article below, check their Kickstarter page!

Growing up as a 90s kid in Indonesia, a visit to Sea World Ancol was an expensive privilege. This Aqua Garden for marine life was the only place back then to enjoy such entertainment. It was an annual event for our family, especially during our school holiday. The ocean is mysterious, and the creatures within are no less peculiar.

Maintaining a marine aquarium is not something new. Even the Romans and the Aztecs were engrossed with this hobby, although their pets were often short-lived. In 1846, Anna Thynne managed to keep her saltwater tank lively for three years. Despite containing only corals and seaweeds, it was a breakthrough, making her the first creator of a sea aquarium to sustain a longer period.

Aqua Garden is a game released in 2021 by uchibacoya, a Japanese publishing house acknowledged for their simple-yet-deep games with beautiful (and sometimes cute) components. It carries the spirit to become a successful ‘Sea World’ proprietor. Each player becomes an owner of a marine life park, with six saltwater tanks to contain and exhibit a myriad of aquatic creatures.

Adequate videos are already circulating on YouTube, which explain how to play the game thoroughly. It would be beneficial to watch them before you read even further.

Disclaimer: I am an avid euro gamer and a hardcore Legend of the Five Rings LCG player. I am not a fan of solo game/variant. This statement will give you an overview of what kind of bias I might have while writing.

Aqua Garden remarks

Coming with an almost-circular market track, Aqua Garden utilizes a similar mechanic found in Nova Luna and Patchwork. This circular market provides marine creatures we can obtain. Unlike those two games mentioned above, there is no limit to how many spaces on the track we can skip, purchasing the organism we need in that space. However, just like the aforementioned games, there is no fixed turn in Aqua Garden. The player with the furthest piece back on the track gets to move on that turn. It’s not a brand-new mechanic, of course, but still, a smart one to implement, especially coupled with how this marine creature should be placed on one of the six tanks later on.

As the proprietors of sea aquariums, it was funny to find that we were all pretty stingy in-game. I mean, owning a marine life park is not for everybody and requires plenty of dips in our pockets. Howbeit, each of us only hires one employee to manage the six tanks and all creatures within. We must make do with this limited resource, which impacts the way we place the purchased sea animals into the available six tanks. This aquarium worker must move 1-3 spaces ahead in one direction whenever we purchase a creature from the market. Hence, that creature can only be exhibited in one of the two available tanks beside where the worker currently stands. This mechanic prevents players to pick and drop the animals willy-nilly.

The combination of both mechanics above provides great depth in Aqua Garden. Besides the restricted placement mentioned above, these marine creatures carry austere accommodation requirements, something that respects the thematic reality of owning and managing an aquarium. It is pure stupidity to put the carnivorous shark and sea turtle together, for example. Except if you want to watch a carnage and bring the literal meaning of ‘The Read Sea’ in your aquarium (which, I assure you, is not family-friendly), it is best to separate them. We have to make sure that there is enough oxygen for the whole ecosystem in a tank, too.

When this requirement is not fulfilled, we have to release something into the open ocean — any player can purchase sea creatures released here. From this point-of-view, Aqua Garden is pretty forgiving. No other form of penalty, except for giving more alternatives to the rivalling aquarium owner, and perhaps the loss of momentum.

With the Milestone cards, we can get extra victory points — and special animals accordingly, provided we are the one who reaches that particular Milestone. The latter ones bring no extra effect, they are just the ‘albino,’ a rarer version of the species in Aqua Garden. Nevertheless, they can be added to our tank to provide more exhibition, which may bring additional points (and money) later on. I do wish that there is some extra benefit coming from the special animal besides the additional points for the end-game scoring, though. Surely, some living white-red-ish sea turtle in your tank can attract more people to come and see, no?

A commercial aquarium needs money to run, and as mentioned a few times, we do need to purchase sea creatures from the market. Thus, having enough money to purchase sea creatures from the market is rather preferred. Back to the commercial aspect, we can get more money from the Advertising action. Raising funds is necessary, and the amount of money depends on the set of creatures you have exhibited so far. I feel a great deal of set-collection in this matter. The Feeding Event is also another way to earn money more often, which utilizes almost similar mechanic.

Aqua Garden has many aspects that require players to devise the strategy accordingly. Managing the two tanks on the right-side to have a good feeding event, while making sure to achieve Milestone and raise enough funds to run the aquarium — boy, that requires great planning. Meanwhile, the randomly drawn creatures from the pouch affix the tactical matter to the gameplay.

Gorgeous artwork and pretty components

Uchibacoya is well-known for its top-notch and beautifully crafted wooden components. They are fantastic, shaped with perfection and details to represent each sea creature most realistically without leaving the artistic side behind. My favourite so far is the sea turtles. If I must nitpick, I would love to see my second-dearest animal in Aqua Garden: the jellyfishes.

Verdict

Aqua Garden is, by any means, one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. The collaboration between Totsuca Chuo’s design and components from uchibacoya makes a great symphony in one clean and compact package. The game is not complicated, which means we can enjoy it with our family — thanks to the cute sea creature meeples, it’s also easier to bait the younger audiences to try the game. Nevertheless, Aqua Garden can entertain a broader spectrum of gamers, who seek an enjoyable game packed with strategic call and tactical aspect.

I usually let the aquarium stays for a while after the game — my group likes to compare and discuss how aesthetic the aquarium we’ve built along the way. Aqua Garden is not only a game that pushes you to win. At the end of the day, we are looking for the new fun. And this game has successfully provided another level of entertainment.

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