Tabletop Review – Aqua Sphere

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My last Tabletop Review focused on a game with a relatively light style of play. This time around, we’re going to take a look at a something with a bit more complexity. Meet Aqua Sphere! A game for 2-4 players about an undersea laboratory, automated research bots, and problematic octopod creatures wreaking havoc around the lab.

The name of the game is to gain as many Knowledge Points (KP) as you can, but there’s not a lot of time to get all of the research done. Better get to it!

First off, the box. I love the imagery on the box. The look out of the window into the deep. The scientist with his bot getting programmed next to him. The octopods trying to get into trouble. It’s fun, vibrant, and fits the theme well. Great box art! Other than that, the box is pretty standard. Probably decently-durable, but nothing heavy-duty.

Now let’s have a look at what’s inside…

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As you can see, there are quite a few pieces and tiles inside. There are four sets of player pieces, some purple octopods, black crystals, tokens, base labs, lab station expansions, research cards, programming cards, time tokens, center tiles, player boards, headquarters board, and research station tiles. See..? Lots of stuff! And it all seems to be made of good-quality materials. The plastic crystals are all nicely uniform. The tiles punched out well, without any tearing or peeling. And the player pieces and octopods are made of painted wood. We noticed one or two of the bots were a narrower thickness than the others, but that doesn’t affect gameplay at all. I’m very happy with the components.

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Each player receives bots, submarines, an engineer, a scientist (same meeple as the engineer) and scoring counters.

The instruction booklet is laid out well. Lots of labeled pictures to explain things. Setup of the game is probably one of the more-complex that I’ve seen. It has quite a few steps. But, as long as you follow the instructions, it’s fairly straightforward. It just take some time. The setup tasks are all sequenced and labeled, so just follow the items in order and you’re good.

Once you’ve finally gotten everything set up, it’s time to start round 1. The game has only 4 rounds. Each round consists of players taking turns in clockwise order, one action at a time, until players either cannot take anymore actions, or they deliberately pass and decide to take no more actions that round. After each round, there’s an intermediate scoring phase, and then one final scoring phase after the last round. Because the game only has 4 rounds, you need to make your decisions count. If you’ve played games like Agricola or Terra Mystica, you’ll know what that’s like. You can only do so much every round. Which sequence of actions will help you gain the most KP?

When it’s your turn, you have three possible actions:

  • Program a bot
  • Perform an action using a programmed bot (that’s key… it must be programmed!)
  • Pass and end your activity for the round.

Programming a bot can be done one of two ways: You can move your engineer in the Headquarters to one of the next possible spaces indicated by arrows on the board. Or, once per round, you can pay 3 time markers to program a bot. Programming a bot is indicated by moving the next available bot on your player board into an available programming space on that player board (the spaces along the top). You can only have a maximum of 2 bots programmed at any time. If you choose to program a third bot, you have to move one of the already-programmed bots back to your bot supply. Doing so does award you 2 time markers, though… I’ll explain what those do later.

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The Headquarters. The red and white meeples are the engineers. The small cubes track Knowledge Points. And the bots display turn order. Pass before other players to move earlier in the turn order for the next round.

If you have bots programmed, you can use one of them to perform an action during your turn. Prior to using a bot, you may move your scientist in the research station to a sector where you want to perform the action. But, you can leave him in the same sector, if you want, or if you don’t have any time markers. If you want to move the scientist, you must pay an amount of time markers equal to the numbers indicated on the airlocks between sectors. If you move multiple sectors, add each number on the airlocks you pass through for the total number of time markers required. If you don’t have enough, you can’t go that far.

Once you’ve moved your scientist, you can use one of your programmed bots to perform the action. To do so, your programmed bot goes in the Control Space of the sector (the center spot). Any bot already there gets bumped out into the loading area of the sector. Too many bots in the loading area mean some get pushed back to player boards, meaning players will get fewer points at the end of the round. After placing your bot in the Control Space, you get to perform the action. Actions include:

  • Snatch up the lab expansion in that sector
  • Take time markers in that sector
  • Take crystals available in that sector
  • Catch octopods on the loose in that sector
  • Place a submarine in that sector
  • Take a research card from that sector
  • Program another bot based on the symbol shown in this sector

As you can see, the sector that you end up in will ultimately determine which actions you can even do. And to do these actions, you must have a bot programmed for that action ready to go. For instance: if you want to catch octopods, there must be octopods in the sector where you move your scientist. Resources and octopods are added to each sector throughout the game before a new round begins based on the symbols shown on the center tile in the research station. The top tile is then discarded, revealing what will happen before the next round so you can plan out your strategy in advance. (If you can even think that far ahead!)

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The Research Station in all its glory! Six sectors connected via airlocks. Each sector with colored stations indicating the actions available to players. Centers in each sector are the Control Spaces.

So, what do these resources do..?

  • Time markers allow you to move from sector to sector when you perform actions. They can also be used once per round (not turn) to program one more bot for the action of your choosing.
  • Lab expansions create additional capacity for resources and catching octopods. For example: your base lab can only hold 4 time markers, 2 crystals, 2 octopods, and 2 research cards. If you want to hold more of these resources, you need to acquire lab expansion tiles. Also, at the end of the game, lab expansions score you points, so you’ll want to get some of these during the game.
  • Crystals are used during scoring. When scoring points, you’ll encounter red lines around the scoring track around the Headquarters. You CANNOT pass a red line when scoring without paying a crystal. No crystal..? You’re stuck behind the line until you get one, even if you gain more points.
  • Catching octopods is done more out of necessity than anything. They pop up all over the place! If you clear them you get points. If you don’t clear them and you control the sector, you lose points. If you ignore the octopods, you WILL regret it!
  • Submarines. These score you points for each one that you place. You can only place one per sector. Points scored are based upon the round you place the submarine. Look at the number in the center tile for point value each round. There’s a bonus for each submarine you place and an extra bonus if you placed all six at the end of the game.
  • Research cards are additional abilities for your lab. They can be one-time bonuses or ongoing resource generators. They also score points when you buy them based on the number on the current center tile in the research station.
  • Programming another bot based on the symbol in a sector can be used to program a bot for a function you couldn’t usually get to that round. If your engineer couldn’t get over to that space in the Headquarters, you can use this action as an opportunity to get the other bot programmed how you really wanted it.
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The Red Player board. Note the bot along the top that has been programmed to clear octopods. Other bots and submarines await deployment. The small lab to the right could use more expansions. And research cards to the left generate resources when activated.

So… seven actions available per round. How do you prioritize these? Do you clear octopods before they overrun your sector and kill your score? Do you need crystals to advance on the scoring track? Are you stuck in one sector because you blew all of your time markers? You need to figure out the best route each turn and each round to maximize scoring. You can’t do everything! So, you need to come up with a plan and pick what’s most-important.

At the end of each round, the intermediate scoring is performed. Whoever holds the most control spaces gets a bonus. Crystals in your storage get a bonus. Octopods in your controlled sectors get you a penalty!

After intermediate scoring, draw new expansion tiles and cover up the old ones on the board. Same with the research cards. This means new options come up every round. Then place resources as shown on the center tile and discard it to the box. Now you’re ready for the next round!

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Stacks and dishes of resources await along the edge of the table. Who will snatch them up?

Final scoring happens after intermediate scoring following the final round. (Yep, you do intermediate scoring even after round 4, before final scoring.) The final scoring does not require crystals when passing red lines. You get a bonus for the number of different letters shown in your personal lab expansion tiles, any leftover time markers, if you placed all of your submarines, and if you completed your lab with all available expansion spaces filled. Whoever is in front after this is the winner!

Wow…. this is one of my longest write-ups, yet. And still, with so much going on in Aqua Sphere, we just really enjoy playing it. The hard decisions really make you think and struggle. Small slip-ups can cost you big points. And it’s hard to really see what’s coming ahead. There’s plenty of strategy and a little bit of luck. No dice. Nothing weird. It’s primarily just strategy and using your turns efficiently. We also love the theme. We’re nerds! I’d love to see an underwater laboratory! And while the game doesn’t hinge on the theme, it really does add to the enjoyment of playing Aqua Sphere.

Great job on this game! We’ll have to look for others created by the same company and/or designer.

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