Designed by Tim & Ben Eisner
Art by Mr. Cuddington
Published by Skybound Games
1-4 Players | 60-90 Minutes
It has been a long time since The Fold was created to protect the people from the creatures of the outside world, but fresh monsters have emerged as a new threat. Contestants have gathered to prove their ability to the judges in arenas across the island realm. They are training and competing to prove their own worth to defend the city and to become Heroes of the Reef!
In Tidal Blades: Heroes of the Reef, players take on the role of asymmetrical characters, each with their own styles and abilities. Players will island hop in an effort to work to gather resources, earn and upgrade their attack dice, upgrade their own fighting styles, earn points by rolling the right dice and completing challenge cards and ultimately fending off the monsters that threaten the reef. With a variety of characters to choose from and a number of different game setups, Tidal Blades promises plenty to do. Everything is wrapped up in a beautiful production full of vibrant artwork, appealing handfuls of dice and tons of components… but does it all add up to a game that’s right for you?
HOW TO PLAY THE GAME
Each player begins the game by choosing 1 of the 5 base game characters. Each character comes equipped with a backstory and tendencies to help you determine your best strategy.
The board is a uniquely pieced together variety of individual islands that serve as action points for your character. The game takes place over 4 rounds (or 7 in the extended game) and during those rounds, players will take turns moving around the board seeking to satisfy goals and claim points in a number of different ways.
The game primarily revolves around players gaining different dice, completing challenges and upgrading your characters. Players will have to be intentional with their strategy and efficient with their choices since each player is limited to only 16 actions (in the 4 round variant) for the entire game.
The best way to break down the variety of mechanics and thematic touches is by providing a tour of all the islands, what you can do there and how it affects your game as a whole. So let’s begin:
CITADEL OF TIME
The Citadel of Time serves as the island’s headquarters. Here players have the opportunity to choose challenge cards, refresh their dice and possibly gather a few resources. Completing challenge cards is a big chunk of the game. Each challenge card features a certain object that requires a specific number of die faces to be rolled.
The game features 62 dice and they’ll all come in handy at some point to achieve a challenge. Each die features some combination of strength symbols that are necessary to accomplish some or all of a certain challenge. Dice can be rerolled as many times as you want… or at least as many times as you’re able and willing. Failure to achieve a challenge on the first roll isn’t the end of the world, but with each die roll an additional danger die roll is waiting to wreak havoc. Each danger die (which gets worse as the game progresses) features X’s that eliminate one of your dice used in the roll. Fortunately, you’ll have the opportunity to exchange resources to remove the danger die’s effect and allow you to keep on rolling.
As challenges are achieved, you’ll be able to level up your character in 1 of 4 different fighting style categories. These categories are represented by cool dials on each character’s board. As they level up they allow the player to roll more dice in battle, earn bonuses or refresh and level up your dice.
Using dice for a challenge will ultimately exhaust the dice, but you do have the ability to refresh the dice and eventually upgrade those dice. Upgrading your dice is one of the coolest features in the game. Players start out with novice dice that provide a limited opportunity for success. As you progress and earn dice upgrades, the dice improve and provide more force. Each novice die can be upgraded to a more specialized initiative die. The initiative die can then be upgraded to an elite die that greatly reduces your risk of failure and finally to the most powerful die… a guild die. Again, each die provides much improved odds, but will also require strategy. As the dice upgrade, they also become more specialized and in-turn can’t be used to achieve every challenge.
Successfully completing challenges provide players end game points in addition to points earned by gaining sets of 3 unique challenges.
On this island, players can snag an initiative die of their choice and draw a stunt card. Stunt cards provide in-game bonuses that are often contingent upon reaching certain levels on your player board. At the end of each island visit (aside from the Citadel and Fold) players can attempt to perform a challenge card in their possession. The only limitations are that you must attempt these challenges at their matching island.
The stadium features a rondel where a boat driving around the circular board earns players different bonuses. It’s here players can grab the starting token as well as a variety of resources. The starting marker isn’t quite as essential in a 2-player game as it is in 3 and 4. That being said, it’s always beneficial when trying to avoid your opponent blocking a space they know you’re targeting.
The Droka Ring serves at the island’s market. The 25-card market deck features 3 available deals and allows players to exchange resources for a variety of things such as additional dice, player upgrades, new challenge cards or a combination thereof.
The final action board is the Fold. This is the point of defense for the island. The Fold features monsters that must be defended against. While it’s not necessary to kill the monsters, it is critical that you participate in warding them off. When players stop here they choose dice to attack with knowing they won’t get these dice back after the attack. Again, players execute these attacks similar to attempting challenges, but the consequences of a failed attack can be painful.
ALL THE REST
The play area also has the Champion Board track. Players move up along the Champion board in a variety of ways throughout the game and can earn additional points by being in the lead on the board at different points in the game as well as passing checkpoints.
Each player’s personal board levels are critical for success in a number of ways. These 4 level dials represent areas of strength and those levels are focus, spirit, synergy and resilience. Your focus tells how many dice you can initially roll on a challenge or battle. Success on the focus strength will power up the benefits of your stunt cards (earning you better rewards for higher levels). Resilience provides the number of dice you can refresh and upgrade at the end of a round. Finally, the synergy strength will allow you to select cards from your personal character deck.
The personal character deck features a number of abilities exclusive to your characters. Many of these cards provide permanent upgrades to your character. I found these integral not only in giving you unique advantages over your opponents, but also important to the overall fun-factor of the game. Knowing you’re the only one that can do something really helped drive my strategy and gave me a unique voice during the game.
As I mentioned, the danger die is replaced as the rounds advance, increasing the challenge of completing any action. After the final round the game ends and players total their points in a variety of categories across the game area. The player with the most points is the winner and crowded hero of the reef.
Any discussion of components has to start with the unique game board. Each modular piece holds a custom shape. It all harmoniously comes together setting the foundation for a truly original looking playing field. While I didn’t play the deluxe version of the game with 3D resources and plastic mini’s, the components were all really well done. The cardboard is solid, the player cards feel great and the oodles of dice are great.
My only negative on the component side were the individual players “hit tokens.” These microscopic bits of cardboard serve as markers for the champion track and when you successfully engage a monster. I had a little trouble grabbing these. You don’t use them all the time and they aren’t that bad, but I thought I’d mention it.
The game also comes with an incredibly well designed plastic insert. Every time I finish the game, I nervously wonder how I’m going to fit all this back in the box and magically it comes together in a very intuitive way. Kudos to the designer of the insert.
The game also comes with a rulebook and almanac along with a card for the game’s solo variant. The rulebook was initially confusing just because all rulebooks are initially a little confusing to me, but once I got my bearings, it proved to be a very solid resource. At certain points, the rulebook breaks out into a mini comic book visually representing how a specific island or action plays out, which was a fun way to present the information.
The artwork from Mr. Cuddington is top notch! The fantasy island theme is beautifully portrayed in a colorful, exciting, yet strangely calming way. It equally embraces and brings the theme to life in a truly engaging way. The presentation overall made Tidal Blade a real joy to experience and play. The art direction combining the illustration work, wonderfully thematic iconography and clear in-game instructions all uniquely accented by the original die-cut board shapes makes this one a true visual masterpiece.
Looking at the big picture, Tidal Blades is really a mess of different mechanics and game styles frankensteined together that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. This is a worker placement game, but there is a dice-rolling push-your-luck element. The luck is mitigated through a resource management system that not only provides initial benefits to spending your resources, but an additional benefit after removing them from your board. There is a little set collection, a mini rondel board, asymmetrical characters, unique story and player upgrades, dice upgrades, fighting monsters and a euro game-like scoring system. And with all that packed in there, I didn’t find the game difficult to grasp or unnecessarily brain-burning.
For me, I think the theme has a lot to do with the game’s success. When I talk about the theme, I’m also talking about the illustration and presentation since they’re seamlessly intertwined. The artwork and unique boards keep the game light and fun. I never felt overwhelmed with my handful of challenge, stunt and player deck cards because they were visually bright and clearly presented.
I was a little anxious about the push-your-luck, dice-rolling portion because they have the potential to create extremely high or low gaming experiences. If I have a game where my die rolls aren’t making it happen – you might find me sulking in the corner for the next couple hours. This isn’t a problem in a game that lasts 15 minutes, but suffering through an hour and half of rolling disappointment can be painful. The game’s mitigation, allowing players to spend fruit to gain additional dice and spend shells to keep re-rolling always left a strong sense of hope for each challenge even when I wasn’t rolling the best. This was also something you could almost always prepare for to some extent.
As the game progresses, I really enjoyed leveling up my character and revealing new rewards and benefits. I was able to put together some pretty nifty combos that earned me mega player upgrades as well as pushed me further along the champion board sometimes earning me a combined 5-8 points on a single turn (and points can get hard to come by here).
It was evident early on that you really need to have a strong pursuit of one or two character strengths. I was all I. I was going to be the champion of synergy and resilience and punt everything else! … then I quickly realized this was a huge mistake. While on one hand there are so many ways to chase points, that if you don’t have a strategy, you could end up with little to nothing to show for it. I also don’t necessarily think I played this wrong, but going all in was a big mistake. I quickly realized if I wanted to both increase the number of dice I refresh and upgrade (resilience) AND increase the number of dice I wanted to roll with each challenge (focus), I was going to have to diversify my approach. These 2 strengths felt like they were on completely opposite ends and I really appreciate the challenging decisions that come into play in attempting to effectively balance your game. In the end, while I didn’t achieve everything I was targeting, I did feel like I accomplished quite a bit in the game with a lot coming together in the last round.
What were some of my gripes? I wouldn’t say the board was particularly tight. Early on the Chronosseum and it’s bonus die benefit might be tied up, but there was almost always something else to move you forward. If you add in the Angler’s Cover expansion, you’ll even have more spaces to conquer. While I say it wasn’t particularly tight, there were still multiple times even in a 2-player game where my path was blocked and I had to wait until the next round to make something happen. In a game with only 16 total actions – delaying a target can feel heavy.
Another issue that felt a little loose: By the end of the game I felt like I had an endless supply of resources. Maybe I didn’t manage them well, but I was almost guaranteed to achieve any challenge I approached. It ultimately came down to who had the better stash of challenge cards or who was best equipped to challenge a monster. This issue didn’t run throughout the entire game – as I often found myself with a limited supply of 1 resource or another through the first half of the game. So it may just be an issue of better managing the resources I have at my disposal.
Before I wrap this up, I do want to mention the asymmetrical player decks. These along with the player boards created an RPG element that really worked for me. I’m not a huge RPG guy and I will often neglect these areas in some games just because I don’t want to manage 15 cards and keep track of my player levels – it can be overwhelming. This felt really light and enjoyable. It wasn’t a burden on the game and really matched the overall feel – It was definitely something I embraced.
DIFFERENT PLAYER COUNTS
I’ve kinda stated that Tidal Blades is much tighter with more players, but I found the game enjoyable at any of the recommended player counts. I think you’ll be pleased if you’re looking for a 2-player experience or playing at 3 or 4.
There are tons of game play variants in this one. The market, challenge and monster decks each feature expert level options that can be added in. There are also additional goals and events that can be added in to create a new experience. The game provides the option to play 4 or 7 rounds and the 5 unique characters each offer a slightly different approach. All that to say that there are tons of different ways to experience the game and fans will be pleased.
My first play of the game was completely ruined by a couple of rule miscues that stifled the flow of the game and left me frustrated. Fortunately, I was able to remedy those rule errors and really enjoy the game from there on out. I had a really good time playing Tidal Blades. There was plenty to do and achieve and the game never felt unnecessarily heavy. The production provides a bright tone that gives the game a lot of life. I really enjoyed the characters, upgrading my dice (multiple times) and the ability to put yourself in a positive position when facing failed die rolls. It’s a decently long game for its weight, but it really flew by.
I went into this thinking it could end up being a case of style of substance, but it all comes together well. There is a lot here to set up and tear down and that may ultimately limit its plays in the future. Hopefully the great insert and familiarity over time should help in those areas.
This is a dice-chucker that really benefits those who bring a solid strategy. There is a lot to do, and with that, many opportunities to get lost down a rabbit hole. Even in my early games, by the end, I felt like I had achieved a lot despite my lack of experience.
Tidal Blades brings a sprawling top-notch production to a medium weight fantasy themed game. There is a little bit of everything thrown in giving you plenty of interesting choices throughout. The setup might scare more casual gamers away, but the easy learning curve and game play provides enough challenge to please gamers on any level. The result, for me, was a game that flew by and was surprisingly enjoyable. I would absolutely recommend Tidal Blades.