It is often hard to write about a euro type design while focusing on the experience that you get from playing it. Unlike games that evoke a strong theme by closely linking the mechanics with what they represent, euro games usually opt for a heavy abstraction of the subject matter. So much that often you’d think that theme was never intended to exist in the first place, or at least was added just for flavoring. As for Bora Bora, despite it being a beautiful to behold point-salad game (a staple of Stefan Feld’s designs), you sort of get a glimpse of thematic logic within the workings of the rules.
Bora Bora can easily distract your attention with its vibrant colors and friendly illustrations. For example, a player’s board looks like a foreign all-you-can-eat restaurant menu. Not to worry though, half of a sheet’s surface is actually a rules and component reference, which will transform from unintelligible to helpful once you go over the rules.
It is a bit hard to describe what you’re after while playing Bora Bora, except that you’re after victory points. In that respect there are quite a lot of victory points to be had and they show up in many places. While the score track goes up to 100, experienced players will usually circle it twice.
In Bora Bora each player represents a Polynesian tribe. During the game these tribes will begin expanding in the small archipelago and attracting new tribe members, which in turn offer special services. These include collecting resources, helping to build up the village, recruiting, settling and even giving straight up points. However, these benefits are not the main focus of the game, which brings me to the central game mechanism.
Each player gets to throw their three dice once at the beginning of the round. Then in sequence, each player will place one of their dice on an action space and perform the respective action. The value on the die determines how powerful or versatile your action is. It also sets a condition for the current action to be taken in the future. A die can be placed on an action space only if it is of a lower value then the smallest valued die already present there. This mechanism tends towards the classic worker placement, but it feels much more open and relaxed. Of course, blocking is still a valid tactic in Bora Bora, but placing a “worker” is not as straight cut as is the case with standard games of the genre (Lords of Waterdeep, Dungeon Petz etc.).
Bora Bora and Dice Placement
Two action spaces allow you to bring more people into your tribe. Tribe people are men and women who can perform the same gamut of bonus actions, but they are differentiated in two ways. You can only use the bonus action of one man and one woman each round. So getting both kinds will greatly increase your adaptability throughout the game; focusing on just one, won’t. The second important thing is that each man can make a certain number of tattoos which help at going first in play order. Initiative is very important in Bora Bora. As you might have imagined already, there are many benefits for being the first to take an action. On the other hand each woman can collect a certain number of shells, which can be converted into valuable jewelry (points) at the end of the round.
A second pair of action spaces deals with tribe expansion. Initially your player board only has space for two villagers. The rest are covered by huts. When you expand to a new territory, you place a hut on the map. This automatically creates a space for an extra villager. See how thematic this is? Island spaces are connected by routes with different dice thresholds, so expansion can be done strategically, in order to use less demanding routes as much as you can.
The fifth action space allows you to construct buildings into your village. These are nondescript, and do nothing more than give you points. They start out giving a lot but decrease in value in later turns. The buildings are placed inside a square matrix on your player board and only on top of gathered resources. Remember the benefit of expanding your village? Well, there’s another one. Island spaces contain one of wood, stone, sand or fruit. The fruit is used as payment for cards (more on that later) but the other three come as wooden tokens which are automatically placed in the construction matrix. When constructing a building, you will need to place the building tile on top of any two adjacent resource tokens. Sounds complicated? Well, that depends on how well you planned your moves.
The sixth action space deals with priests. Each player has four priest figures that can’t wait to be placed on the temple track. The temple track only has six steps, so when there’s no more space, a newcomer will definitely kick someone else out. The higher up you place your priests the longer they will remain, as placing a priest on an occupied step 5 for example, will send the old priest down one space, creating a chain reaction that can kick out the priest at level one. At the end of the round, each priest will generate a certain amount of points. Contrary to buildings, the value of priests increases later in the game. The one with the most priests also gets a purple god token. This acts like a joker card (more on cards later, have patience).
The final action space is the Helper Action. With this action you will spend each pip on your placed die to get resources, points, cards, fruits (card offerings – more on that later, I promise) and finally to obtain the one time bonuses of tattoos and shells from your tribe members.
Of course, having some random dice determining how powerful your actions are or whether you can perform them at all means that a lot of this game seems to be
feld left to chance. That’s not actually the case though. The simple mechanism of power and blocking means that if you get small dice, you will at least be able to play them. Furthermore you can block actions for players who have more powerful dice, so it evens out in the long run.
But wait, there’s more!
The villagers of Bora Bora cannot excel in their endeavors easily without some help from above. The Bora Bora pantheon consists of the white, the blue, green, red and yellow gods which appear in the form of cards (Yay!) and can only be played in specific circumstances, each requiring an offering (fruit) to be spent. The white and blue gods help you ‘cheat’ when placing dice, one turning a die to a six for the purpose of the action and another ignoring present dice for the purpose of placement. The green god allows you activate a third villager (man or woman) during the villager actions phase or double the effect of one of the two chosen villagers. For example, if a villager can expand over water with a value of 2 or lower, playing the green god allows him to cross water of value 4 or lower.
The red and yellow gods refer to aspects of the game which I haven’t touched upon, such as objectives and fishing but I believe I have shared enough insight to help you construct an idea of how Bora Bora plays. Hence I will refrain from talking more rules and go directly to my conclusion.
Bora Bora is a fairly complex game. Having a point salad nature, means that you can’t do everything, but can specialize in one or more aspects. The game is open for pure tactical play, but also rewards careful strategy and focusing from start to end. The swingy nature of the dice can hamper your plans and sometimes require a total change of focus, but there is never too late to switch to another track so to speak. The possibility for killer combos can be around any corner, but requires paying attention and sometimes careful manipulation of the turn order.
Honestly I hated Bora Bora after playing it once with 4. I felt I had no control over what happened and I was left totally dazed at the end. The second time around I played it in 2 and to my surprise, I discovered the aforementioned qualities. Today, I consider it as one of the best Euro type designs that I had the pleasure to play. Well done, Herr Feld!