Every year, the clans come together to celebrate. They ride the waves, share great feasts, and show off their towering banners. I don’t know the first thing about the Tidal Blades universe, but there’s something lovely about being invited to partake in a fictional culture’s holiday.
Except I’m not entirely sure where this one fits. Rather than being designed by Tim and Ben Eisner, co-creators of the original game (along with recent favorite Wonderland’s War), Banner Festival is helmed by J.B. Howell and Michael Mihealsick. When last we saw them, they were offering another waterlogged effort in the form of Flotilla. Good to know they already have their sea legs, because there’s a storm on the horizon.
It isn’t often that a game is best described by its sources of victory points. In Banner Festival, there’s almost nowhere else to begin. Apologies in advance for being so bland.
There are three. Source One: The water race in the middle of the board. By completing circuits of the arena, you flip cards face-up. Each successive card is worth more points than the card before it. Source Two: Banners. These are placed around the arena. When a full hand is completed, both hemispheres are evaluated for tiered rewards. Source Three: Feasts. Starfruit is collected from a handful of sources — the race, the banners, even a few card abilities — but their commonality is that the supply running out means it’s time for a quick scoring round. Unsurprisingly, the greatest contributor of fruit takes home the lion’s share of the points.
All three of these sources are earned in roughly the same way. Everybody plays a card simultaneously. Those cards are checked according to their suit and number. It’s trick-taking, according to the game’s description, while feeling nothing at all like taking tricks. Here, the winner of the trick advances their jet ski, the loser uses their card’s special ability, and everybody in between places a banner.
A few minor wrinkles prevent these bouts from becoming too samey. The previous play’s loser, for example, gets to select how far the merchant gate moves, which dictates which suit is dominant for the next play. Banner placement is about using the right card at the right time, usually to avoid taking home a wimpy prize for its placement, without accidentally tipping yourself to the winning or losing slot.
If it isn’t already abundantly clear, Banner Festival isn’t the sort of game where things happen. Not big things, anyway. No matter which card you play, you’ll win something. There’s room to win bigger than others, but the margins aren’t impressive, and entire avenues take more work than they’re worth. That goes double when you have more than a couple of players. As soon as there are enough cards in play that winning becomes a crapshoot, it becomes far more effective to stick yourself in the middle with strategic banner placements and a handful of starfruit. The regatta is rarely more than a tiebreaker.
Are your eyes glazing over? Mine are. The same problem crops up during play. We have yet to wrap a session without somebody asking when the game ends. There are no big plays to focus on, no stakes to gain or lose. There’s nothing inherently wrong with designing a game that rewards everybody at the table, but you run the risk of making those rewards too equivalent, too indistinct. The overall tone is one of condescension. What, we couldn’t be trusted to care? To lose big once in a while? To cackle at our fortunes? Doesn’t this entire festival resemble a series of gambles? And if so, where are the jackpots, the lost buckets of coins, the desperate celebrants? This thing is like a nickel slot that pays out a nickel eight times out of ten, then buzzes loudly in mock failure, then blips and boops when our tenth pull spills out the two nickels we just wagered. There’s no excitement. No energy. Just a pretty machine that spins in circles and ensures nobody gets creamed.
Except I want to be creamed. At least I want the possibility. Cream me, daddy. Leave me a mess. Dash my hopes. Let somebody win.
Until then, the annual Banner Festival, for all its roaring jet skis and flapping banners and runs-inducing starfruit feasts, is closer to a visit to grandma’s nursing home than the type of holiday that gets the kids counting down the days.
A complimentary copy was provided.