Review – Niagara

3-5 Players, Aged 8 with a 45 minute playing time
Niagara - The box artwork
A game themed around the wild waters of the Niagara river and its famous falls offers an interesting set of challenges that will probably be preferred by those who like risk taking with a good dose of screwage.

Loosely set in the late 18th Century, when the Shawnee and Iroquois Indians pointed white adventurers in the direction of hidden caches of valuable jewels, along the banks of the river in the hopes of turning them against one another and away from their territorial expansion ambitions.

The players take on the role of these fearless adventurers (canoeists) seeking to collects gems from along the banks of the river close to the falls. It will come as no surprise that the most valuable gems are to be found closest to the waterfall!

The first player to collect either five different coloured, four of the same coloured or seven of any coloured gems, and bring them safely to land will the game and bring it to its close.

What follows is an overview of the game broken down into 5 sections: Game Components, Setting Up, How To Play, What Did We Think? and finally Who Do We Think Will Like It?. So if you don't want to read the whole review scan down to the heading that interests you.

Game Components
1 game board with a sunken river bed, water fall and 5 pits to hold the gems found along the banks of the Niagra. Each of the pits is colour coded to correspond to the 5 different types of gems.
Niagara - Part of the board showing the gems in place
5 sets of player tokens (in red, green, yellow, blue and brown) consisting of 2 canoes and 7 paddle cards. There are six numbered paddle cards, 1 to 6, plus one cloud card. The paddle cards are used to move your canoe/s on the river whilst the cloud card adjusts the flow of the river from a gentle trickle to a raging torrent! 
Niagara - 2 canoes and 7 paddle cards
8 Gems in 5 different colours, red (ruby), blue (sapphire), clear (diamond), yellow (amber) and violet (amethyst). 7 of the gems are used in the game whilst the 8th is a spare.

1 wooden cloud, the rain-maker marker

1 wooden life preserver, the starting player marker

12 clear Perspex discs used to represent the flow of the river

1 set of rules and the box. Unlike most games this is important not just for storage purposes but also as the game board is placed on top of this in order that the illusion of the waterfall can be created.

Setting Up
Place the box top and bottom, with their open sides down (hmmm, more on this later), side by side, so they form a platform.

Place the game board on this platform so that it forms a waterfall at one end.

Place 7 gems of the colours that match each of the discovery places set aside for the gems.
Niagara - 9 of the transparent river discs in the riverbed
Place 9 of the transparent river discs in the riverbed so the upper-most river disc is placed below the rope spanning the river. Leave the upper-most riverbed spaces empty. The 3 remaining transparent river disks are placed to one side for use later in the game.

Place the rainmaker marker (cloud) on space 0 (zero) of the weather track on the game board.

Each player takes two canoes and all 7 paddle cards of the same colour. The canoes are placed on one or both of the beaches. It makes no difference to the game which side of the river players use to move into and out of the water.

Each player selects one of the round and rectangular spaces around the game board edge that is nearest to them. This is where they will place their paddle tokens and the starting player token or life preserver.
Niagara - A close up of the board showing one of the round and rectangular spaces
Having chosen a starting player they are given the wooden life preserver token that is then placed on their round space on the game board.

How To Play
On the first round a player must launch their canoe into the river. So each player selects one of their paddle tokens and places it face down in their rectangular space on the game board.

In player order starting with the first player each player launches their canoe into the water from the beach by what the rules describe as “docks” but look more like wooden jetties. This means placing the canoe onto the transparent disk immediately below the rope.

The movement rules that need to be complied with are:

1. It costs no movement points to move a canoe into the water.

2. Moving from one transparent disk to another costs 1 movement point and the movement points on the paddle token must be used in full.

3. Canoes can only move in one direction per turn i.e. either up or down the river.
Niagara - The board and some of the components during a game
4. You can only move the canoe out of the water by the docks and it costs one point, as if moving from one transparent disk to another.

5. You choose if and when to launch the second canoe into the water.

6. If you have both canoes in the water then both must move the full distance of the paddle card, albeit they can move in opposite directions.

7. Each canoe can carry 1 gem, to collect a gem costs 2 movement points.

8. You can place a gem from your canoe into one of the Discovery Places for 2 points, although it must be of a different colour from that Discovery Place.

9. If your canoe is empty and it is moving upstream and finishes its go on the same disk as an opponent’s canoe containing a gem then you may steal your opponent’s gem.

10. Gems collected need to be landed in order to count toward the victory conditions. Canoes can land by the docks, on either side of the river, and this is the only occasion when they do not have to use their full movement points. They are not allowed to then move straight back into the water even if they do have spare points.

The remaining paddle tile allows players to influences the flow of the river and this may not be played on the first go. When played the players canoes do not move instead they are able to move the flow of the river up or down by 1.
Niagara - A close up of the waterfall and some of the gems
The final part of the turn is Moving the River. The River is moved by the weather index plus the lowest paddle card. So if the Weather Index is at +1 and the lowest paddle card is 3 then the River will move 4. This is achieved by introducing the relevant number of disks, one at a time, at the head of the river.

Inevitably this may cause some players canoes to go over the waterfall. If this occurs then any gems they may have in the canoe are returned to their Discover Place. The canoe remains at the foot of the waterfall until the player pays one gem at which point they may move the canoe back to the river bank by the docks.

The winning conditions are either:

A. 5 different coloured gems

B. 4 gems of the same colour

C. 7 gems of any colour

When players land their gems they must be placed in front of them in such a way as all the other players can see them.

What Did We Think?
A colourful board, great components, a very different mechanism and an interesting if little abstract theme all of which got big thumbs up from my wife not to mention most of the people we played it with. It did bomb with one couple but as one of them was virtually comatose and the other didn’t take kindly to having one of her canoes pushed over the waterfall maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this!
Niagara - Thomas Liesching (centre) the designer of the 2005 Spiel des Jahres winner with Albrecht Werstein CEO of Zoch GmbH (on left)
Niagara is a Spiel des Jarhres winner from 2005 and coming from Zoch Verlag it is no surprise that this is very much a family game rather than a gamers’ game. That said we found we could play it in half an hour and with the opportunities for screwage it would make a good filler particularly if you can pick up a second hand copy at a good price (there seemed to be quiet a few on offer at the second hand stands at Essen last year).

The screwage opportunities come in the form stealing their gems and or speeding up the pace of the river. So whilst not a complex game there is enough in it to make it interesting and we believe give it plenty or re-playability.

In order to provide the board with a secure platform/base you need both the top and bottom halves of the box to have their flat side uppermost so what did seem strange to us was that (especially given the high quality of all the other components) the artwork on the inner box had not been printed upside down so that when in play the pictures on the base appeared the right way up. We also thought it might have been helpful to have printed the victory conditions on the box sides. This wouldn't ordinarily be relevant but given they are visible to all the players throughout the game why not make use of them.
Niagara - The box and game components
As to game play:
  • Keep a close eye on what the other players are collecting. If possible collect 4 gems of the same colour as this is the quickest way to win, but beware other players trying the same tactic!
  • Try to avoid giving your opponents the opportunity to push you over the waterfall, but don't hesitate to take the opportunity to help them on the way!
  • Look for opportunities to wreck other players efforts by stealing their gems, whilst being vigilant to not giving other players that same opportunity.
Who Do We Think Will Like It?
Families with children in the pre-teenage and teenage years should find a game here that will create much fun and laughter if played in the right spirit and amongst players that don’t take things too seriously or personally.

Social gamers we would expect to enjoy this relatively simple game however it is very much a filler whatever your gaming style.

If you liked this review then other games I have reviewed can be seen here

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