River brings life. Wherever it flows, people marvel at the beauty of nature and things its able to create. Blue arms are winding back and forth, sometimes in the least expected bends, always moving downwards. Let us now go on a journey down the river, search for panoramas, that have never been seen before. It is our task to bring photographs as evidence about our unforgettable experience.
Boardgame called Aya will take us on a quest for a dream landscape. It was prepared for us by authors Grégoire Olivier and Thibaut Quintens. Their creation full of water and life sprouted in the greenhouse of Blackrock Editions and its colors and illustrations were conceived by duo Julien Hanoteaux and Cédric Michiels. The game was released in 2015 and was presented at the 2015 Spiel in Essen.
Box itself is pretty heavy, as if it was full of water or trees. The second guess is almost correct, because we find wood inside as the main components. We are talking about 156 panels of dominoes. Each one of them is decorated on one side with a picture of flowing river, all done in different environments – mountains, meadows, snow, rocks and desert. Now these environments play an important role in other components – there are big round landscape tokens. Each of them has also his own five animal species (tiles) and three tiles representing photograph. To play, you find the box filled in addition also with one hourglass (ten minutes), retrigger tokens and one starting landscape.
At the beginning of the game, players split pieces of dominoes according to directions in rulebook and depending on the number of participants. They will get from 31 to 78 stones each. They should place them in front of themselves, ideally into recommended piles by five pieces each. Somewhere on the playing area, there should be a starting tile with a water inlet and retrigger tokens are places aside. All other tiles are divided and two piles of them are created – one small with animals and one, where every big landscape token is interspersed with one smaller photograph tile (if done right, the last one for each environment is lying at the top now).
But you can begin playing only, when everyone is ready. Players will cooperate in building one riverbed. Water will flow through it only at the end of the whole match, when players issue an order. Until then, players will alternate in their turns, but at the same time, their total time is measured by impatient colored sand. Entire game length is narrowed by one rotation of sandglass, which corresponds to approximately twenty minutes of playing time. In the meantime, when first pile of sand has run out and hourglass have not been rotated, players can lay off and talk about strategy for second part of the game.
Each participant will take one building block from any of his piles. Until his turn starts, he can plan, what does he want to do with it. At that point, he may attach that stone anywhere on the table, ideally prolong one of the unfinished river flows. At the beginning, water flows only from the start tile, where two streams start. It is up to players himself to correctly estimate distance between dominoes, so that they did not waste it by placing them too close, but also for each stone be able to knock off his neighbor, after the chain reaction is initiated. All stones must be rotated, so water side with landscape remained visible, after the stone is knocked down.
In addition, player can also decide to set that drawn piece aside for future rounds. This is, why everyone has a place called reserve. One pile, which grows in height with each delayed stone. But only the top stone is available for playing (done instead of the classic drawing from hidden reserve).
In addition to classic extension of watercourse according to player’s choice, action may also occur in other contexts. This happens at a time, when instead of plain stone, player draws from his stock stone with a camera. At that moment, he may take one of available landscapes tiles (of the same type as the drawn stone) and place it together with its photo tile anywhere on the table (no limits!). Also proper rotation starts to become important, because river must follow riverbeds drawn on the landscape. Camera stone is then placed near entrance to this space.
But even, when camera tile is drawn, player has a choice according to riverbank state. Instead of new landscape, player can alternately take one of the animal tokens. But these are laid directly on the already placed stones and players have to follow, that animal is in its natural environment. It must therefore be connected to a landscape only through domino pieces of the same type. Also, landscape should contain only stones with the correct terrain, at least for better scoring.
Before that, somewhere between stones in drawing pile, there is also concealed on extraordinary garden domino, which is the only tile (beside landscapes), that can be used as river branch. The game then continues by cooperation of all players until the sand finishes falling for the second time. At that moment, or if one of players runs out of stones in stock (reserve does not count!), it is time to evaluate cooperation of players.
Now comes the reason, why players were doing all this building. It’s time to flip first stone on the starting tile out of its equilibrium, releasing water stream. If there is space somewhere too wide and tiles stop falling, nothing bad happens. Players can help stones and put them in motion. For each such assistance, they have to discard one retrigger token.
Once all the pieces of dominoes are lying on the table and water is flowing through them peacefully, it is time to count points. Players receive them for retrigger tokens, they did not use. Then, their attention turns to the riverbed itself. Here, nature awards them with a point for each landscapes tile, which has all inflows and outflows occupied and is covered with pieces of the same type. Points are gathered also for animals. But only those, that are still lying inside the riverbed. Additionally, any complete set of panorama photos brings bonus points. Total sum can then be assigned to one available range in rules to determine, how well the players did in their task.
Aya is without any debate a totally unique game. Cooperative fun of building a domino rivers captures interest of about everyone. But it’s not perhaps as much entertainment as the authors themselves intended, because the focus is mainly on building. Well, it’s pretty much fun, but you have to be a little handy too. Game selects from the first moments its happy audience and you also have to pick your teammates carefully to be able to handle tasks of this game and not spoil the fun.
Players are pressured not only by their skill, but above all, by running time. Classic placement must be done with care and caution, but knowing, that you do not have unlimited time to do this whole building. Important is also location of each stone, because every mistake is paid for. Building everything by yourself without any true boundaries is really experience and needs good cooperation between all participants.
Because stones are rotated in the direction of the river, all players won’t have clear view of the terrain on them. Therefore, communication is important among all participants, to place tiles correctly and not to lose points. Game is quite accessible to smaller players from age of eight up. It flawlessly brings together players of all ages and it is a very versatile game. It connects not only the players, but also generations.
Value of the game increases with time needed to complete one match. There is clearly given twenty minutes interval, plus some break in the middle and at the end for doing evaluation. This is a big advantage of the game as a whole, because it’s shifting more into the filler category. And then, game excels despite our minor already mentioned complaints. Only preparation takes a bit longer, because of stacking all those chimneys.
If there were medals awarded for innovation, then even Aya will not have to stand in line at all. It would receive the gold one without any hesitation. Unfortunately, hunt for uniqueness made some playful spirit get lost along the way. Fortunately even then, game remains fun and interesting, but we can not help feeling, that it could be even a bit better. Still, Aya will be recommended by us and especially to players, who enjoy testing their clever fingers and looking for genuine cooperative experience.
Aya is a game, that definitely puts its footprint in history. It's fun, but the main feature, which qualifies it to the Hall of Fame, is originality. Players use their domino stones to link landscapes. They take role of the river, which must flow following certain defined rules and only around it may live animals. Players must cooperate and manage construction within a fixed period of time. This makes the game very quick and experience does not depend on how many players is building. Aya is game focusing on excellence, although in all this building, game gets little bit lost. But the gameplay still remained there, together with the novelty feel.