Wet Ocean, Dry Erase
What happens when Small Box Games ditches the small boxes entirely? Probably something like Akua, John Clowdus’s first foray into the silicone polymer-reeking world of dry erase games. It comes on only two sheets, one for the board and another to explain the game, and even trusts that you’ll have a few different colors of dry erase markers sitting in a drawer somewhere.
And yet, for all its sparsity of components, Akua is anything but straightforward.
Akua is all about making your mark on the world. Literally. As in, grabbing a dry erase marker and drawing right over the surface of the board. There are a whole bunch of different marks to make, things like ley lines and communions and other fantastical-sounding terms that all have something to do with exploring this chain of islands while currying the favor of its local deities — the titular akua — but the main thing each of these marks has in common is that they’re going to earn you points.
And that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Right away, Akua is a surprisingly tricky game to get a handle on. A single round, for instance, is a maze of phases, permitted and restricted options, and opportunities for scoring. At first you’re just choosing where to make a mark. Should you explore the archipelago, or maybe connect a few of the dots you’ve already placed? Stake a claim on a mana stone, or spend some time a’prayin’? These early decisions are simple enough. But jump forward a couple minutes and now you’re selecting an akua — though only for one of its two topmost options. When you select another akua, this time one that another player chose earlier (but not the one you chose), you take that akua’s bottom action. Later on, maybe mana stones will bestow yet another option on your already-addled head. Maybe.
The scoring itself isn’t much more comprehensible, like trying to make dollars by vacuuming nickles and pennies out of your couch cushions. Ley lines are worth points, but so are mana stones, explored islands, and every dot surrounding those explored islands. And that isn’t even taking into account the end-game bonuses.
Contrast this with another pair of recent dry-erase games, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space and Captain Sonar. Both of these titles generate tremendous amounts of tension while running on a fairly trim set of rules. Both understand that their medium relies on simplicity in order to operate. There aren’t four disparate phases in Escape, nor five ways to earn points in Captain Sonar. Rather than presenting their win conditions as overstuffed Polynesian buffets, their offerings are as easily legible as they are delicious.
Akua, on the other hand, is so invested in making every single action bear some import that it never slides into focus. In some ways this is a strength, providing plenty to consider each time you touch your marker to the map. As in the classic pen-and-paper game Dots & Boxes, many of the juiciest points arrive when an island is finally explored, giving everyone an incentive to spread out, to avoid clustering too many explored sites in proximity — or to swoop in on opposing territory in order to snatch away some last-minute reward.
There’s a strategy to the game’s madness, is what I’m saying; it’s just also frustratingly opaque.
Look, I know I’m not saying a whole lot here. Akua has some things going for it. It looks good, it’s inventive and portable, and some people enjoy games centered around the parsing of myriad denominations. But it isn’t an exemplar of the genre, and I suspect that even those folks will only play it a couple times before moving on to something else. In short, this was Small Box Games’ smallest production yet — and I’m looking forward to them thinking bigger next time.