WDYPTW: Review of Aquaducts
I fell down the print and play rabbit hole in 2018, crafting a self-made and rather rudimentary copy of Orchard before splashing out (relatively) on a more effective version, a game which I have since played over one hundred times, and which I was happy enough to endorse in a review as well. Since then I have not gone print and play crazy, for various reasons, so perhaps it might be more accurate to say that I have dipped my toe in the water of this genre of gaming, but I have certainly been exploring some more designs and thoroughly enjoying the ingenuity of those who design micro and nanogames.
While Aquaducts, with its twenty four cards, might not therefore qualify as a nanogame, positively splashing those components around compared with something as economic (in every sense) as Count Of Nine, it nevertheless qualifies as a microgame in my book, alongside the likes of something like Seasons Of Rice. In the spirit of absolute honesty, you will need to provide a single six-sided die as well as printing out the cards in order to play the game, but I am assuming that anybody who is reading this will have plenty of howevermanysided-dice knocking around, so I suspect that this is unlikely to cause a problem for most gamers.
Aquaducts is designed by Dave Mansell, and his name triggered the ringing of a faint bell at the back of my mind until it chimed that I have played and reviewed another game of his before, *the impressive and enjoyable *For Crown And Kingdom. I found this to be a tight, intriguing and fun game, although my long run of successive victories in our house did for it in my collection. However, it is one of the games that I would happily have kept were there a suitable opponent or opponents to hand, and it is certainly a game I would recommend that other gamers consider investigating, especially if you can find it at a discount.
Aquaducts is entirely language independent in the playing, each of the twenty four cards sharing the same basic layout, a top-down square view of the city you are about to build, an two smaller coloured squares along one of the edges. From a point on each edge of the city section to a meeting point in the centre travels the aquaduct, and your task as a player is to join these together across the city. It is not quite as simple as that, and running a city never is I should suspect, for you also need to curry favour among your citizens and pay for the whole thing. This makes for three occasionally interlocking but often contradictory sets of considerations to bear in mind if you are to have any chance of winning the game.
Before the game begins the player needs to decide upon a level of difficulty for the game, and this choice will determine the size of the layout that a prospective acquaductist may attempt to build. On Easy level this is a 3x3 grid, while the steps up to the aptly named Insane level take you to 3x4 and 5x3 grids, while insanity itself is a 4x4 challenge. Building a city of these dimensions with twenty four cards would seem like something simple to achieve were it not for a couple of restrictions, but I will get to those in a moment. The basic mechanisms of playing the game are easy to explain – setup involves shuffling the small deck of cards and placing the top card of the deck on the table with the die on it, showing the number one. Then you simply draw the next card off the deck and add it to the city if you like (and if its aquaducts line up with those already in play), use it to curry favour by upgrading the die, or instead place it on a separate pile as payment for resources. Once this choice is done the die may be moved to an adjacent tile.
That sounds easy enough, but I did mention restrictions, so I think I should warn you that it is not all cuddles and hugs in this game, not by a long shot. Cards may only ever be laid othogonally adjacent to the card on which the die is currently situated, city sides must line up, and the player may never overlap any part of the city with a new card, meaning that only the coloured squares may ever be built over. Also the city (but not necessarily the coloured squares) must fit into the dimensions of the grid chosen at the beginning of the game.
Another restriction adds in a layer that only becomes apparent on the upper levels of difficulty, because the die can only move to an adjacent tile if the number it is showing is equal to or greater than the symbol indicated in that direction on the card it is leaving. To raise the number on the die and make it more mobile, what the game describes as gaining favour, entails discarding a card, rendering it useless either as part of the city or as payment for that city, and the die face must be showing a six for the game to be winnable, something that takes five cards out of the city/payment equation if you intend to stand any chance of winning.
Ah, payment, another little wrinkle in the rules that makes this so much more than just a simple card layer. Those coloured squares – red, yellow, green and blue – look lovely on the table, but each one of them represents an area of funding that must be covered by discarded cards. Only if the numbers and colours of these funding squares equal or exceed those in the completed city and the die face is turned to six can the game be won, so Aquaducts is a challenge that needs to be fought on three fronts at once, and each one of them needs to be carefully balanced in pursuit of eventual victory.
On the easiest level Aquaducts is almost but not quite a breeze, enough of a challenge to keep you sharp but with significant amounts of give at the edges to allow for some mistakes. Step up to a 3x4 grid and things become more involved, as one might expect, up from nine squares to twelve in the city, and here is where the subtleties of the game become apparent. Where, for example, should your die start its journey to make sure that there are as many options as possible open for placement? Or should you remain where you are but with fewer options for placement? Should you go for favour first so that you can move pretty much anywhere in the city or just upgrade the die as and when you need to, instead focus on building the city? Or should this useless card be used for payment even though you do not yet know what colours you might need?
Step up one more level and each decision becomes agonisingly intense. That single card you draw has multiple uses, but you need to choose the correct one because the margin for error at Difficult level is minimal with fifteen squares to fill and another five of your cards going to upgrade your die. Here, then, is where another subtlety of the game becomes apparent, that areas in the city grid can, if necessary, be filled with those smaller coloured squares. With a bit of canny placement this frees up an extra card for payment, as long as the colours match, of course...but at the same time it makes the city more expensive to run.
It is this delicious balance of risk and payoff that makes Aquaducts so enjoyable, and although the game comes with simple win or loss conditions there are ways of keeping score if that is what you would like to do. Personally, as somebody who prefers the misery of Agricola to the touchy-feely do-what-you-like of Caverna I am absolutely fine with losing several times in a row and being metaphorically about the head by a set of cards. After all, I took on the base box of Lord Of The Rings: The Card Game with a single core set, so colour me numb to defeat.
If the game does have any faults one could mention that the rules for placement can initially be a tad confusing although, in all honesty, it should not take more than a single play to work out what goes where, but other than this I would have to say that pretty much everything works as it should, feels resolutely balanced, and that for a game that essentially comes down to drawing a single card and choosing where to place it Aquaducts packs a significant punch.
My own personal experience of the game saw me very nearly give up on it after a single and highly erratic first play, pretty much entirely my fault for not having given the rules a proper read before diving in – my fault for assuming that print and plays were, as a species, pretty simple - but having given it a kill-or-cure second chance I swiftly racked up more than fifty plays in only two months. It helps, of course, that the game is so eminently portable, because it is just a small set of cards and a single die, meaning that it can be played almost anywhere and the chances of losing anything important are absolutely minimal. Count Of Nine is the only game I own that comes close, and Aquaducts runs it very close also on the extremely limited amount of table space it needs.
For a game that is designed on such a tight leash the reward that Aquaducts gives is significant, although I suspect that if it were ever beaten by a player on its very highest level then the game might be considered 'done' in much the way that video games might be considered 'finished'. Players will need many, many plays before they get to that stage, though, and there is always then the option of running to your printer and crafting another game of an afternoon. Even so, Aquaducts offers absurd value for money as well as significant longevity, especially as Difficult level alone is hard as nails to beat. As for Insane level, well, that way madness lies and I expect to see unicorns and world peace before I manage to beat the game at its uppermost layer of punishment.
Even though they are substantially different games, Aquaducts has a slightly similar feel to For Crown And Kingdom of making every decision count in an interconnected way, and while some quick games feel very light indeed, this one really does give the neurons a workout in the ten or so minutes it takes to play. It feels like the kind of game that could easily be picked up by a publisher, slapped with some garish art, printed onto thick cardstock and sold for a significant margin, because it just feels solid to its core, rewarding too. I would be very surprised not to top the hundred play mark for Aquaducts by the middle of the year, and that is not because it is my favourite game (which I only get to pay once a year or so) but because it is so very, very easy to play and so manifestly rewarding to explore, a finely tuned balance of investment and reward.
By now it should be obvious that I am a fan and that at least part of the purpose of this review is to attempt to spark some interest in Aquaducts from those who might otherwise not have heard of it. In all fairness I think that this game deserves an 8 out of 10, which is a high mark in my collection. When I wrote about Orchard I expressed my opinion that it was pretty much the perfect microgame. Well, add Aquaducts to that exalted company.
My name is Nick O'Neill and I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including complete seasons of Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it. I review for GamesQuest UK, write for Yaah! Magazine and tweet gaming thoughts @meepleonboard. In real life I am @ukcomposer.