Board game review: Reef, a simple to learn but difficult to master abstract game with great table presence

Some of my all-time favourite board games are abstract strategy games. I love board games that are simple to learn but difficult to master. Reef is one of these games. 

In addition to being easy to learn but having surprising depth Reef also has great table presence due to having some of the chunkiest components in board gaming.  

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What is the abstract strategy board game Reef all about?

Reef was designed by Emerson Matsuuchi and features Art by Chris Quilliams. It was originally published in 2018 by a number of publishers. My copy happens to be from Next Move Games which is a department of Plan B Games.

A second edition of Reef, which features more contrast on the player boards and pieces that are more colour blind friendly, was published in 2020. The rules and component quality are identical to the original printing that I’m reviewing here. It’s just the colours that have changed.

Reef is an abstract strategy game for two to four players where players are collecting pieces of coral which they then use to build a three-dimensional reef on their own personal player board. While building, players will score points for having different patterns of coral on their growing reef. Once any one colour of coral runs out the player with the most points wins. 

A game of Reef takes thirty minutes to an hour depending on the number of players and the amount of thinking time that they use. The MSRP for the current printing of the game is $39.99 USD.

To get a look at what you get in the box for Reef check out our Reef Unboxing Video on YouTube

I was very impressed upon opening the box for Reef. Everything is top-notch quality. The chunky coral pieces are some of the most solid and thick components I’ve ever seen in a board game. They actually remind me of toddler toys more than board game components.

The Reef Box InsertThe cards in Reef are well designed so that they are easy to read and clear, even from across the table. An added bonus in Reef is the plastic box insert that not only holds everything when on the shelf but also works to keep everything sorted during play.

While I still prefer to take the coral bits out and place them in bowls, I love using this insert to keep track of the coins as it keeps them separated by value and makes them easy to find during play. 

How is Reef the board game played?

How you determine start player in the board game ReefTo start a game of Reef you first find the player board with a starfish in the corner. You grab that and a number of other (identical) boards until you have a board for each player (up to four). You then shuffle these boards and give one to each player. 

Each player then takes three coins from the bank and also draws two face-down cards from the deck of cards. The deck is then flipped face-up and a central market is created by drawing three cards from the deck. 

Coral pieces from the board game ReefAfter looking at their cards and what is face-up in the market, each player takes one of each coral type (there are four different types of coral each of which has its own colour) and places them on their board, which is a four by four grid. For the first few games, players are encouraged to use the centre four spots of their boards. Once players are more familiar with the game they should start using the outside edge instead. 

Once everyone has placed their initial four coral, the player with the starfish on their personal board is the one that starts the game properly. 

Each turn in Reef you do one thing: you either take a card from the market or play a card from your hand. 

When taking a card from the market you select one card from the four face-up cards (three on the table and one on top of the face-up deck).  If you choose to take the top card off the deck you must pay one coin. This payment goes onto the lowest cost card on the table. If you cannot afford to pay that cost then you cannot select the card from the top of the deck. Note you can have any number of cards in your hand while playing Reef. There is no hand limit. 

Reef is a great game for family game night.When playing a card from your hand you will place it face up in front of you. Each card in Reef shows two pieces of coral at the top of the card. This pair of coral may be the same type and colour or they may be different. The bottom of each card shows a scoring pattern. When you choose to play a card you must use both parts of the card, top then bottom. 

You first must take coral. You take two coral pieces, matching what is showing on the card you played, from the central market and place both of them onto your growing reef.  Newly placed coral can go either in a blank spot on your board or on top of existing coral. When stacking coral there is a height limit of four high. 

After placing coral you will score your reef based on the bottom part of the card you played. Each card has a scoring pattern on it. To calculate your score you look down on your personal reef from above (only the top coral pieces on each stack count) and count how many times that the pattern on your card shows up in your reef. Each piece of coral can only be used once. You then multiply how many times the pattern showed up by the number on the card and collect that many coins. 

Example cards from the abstract game ReefPatterns include: two pieces of coal side by side, two diagonal pieces of coral of a specific colour, three identical coral in a straight line, square patterns of coral, L shaped patterns, stacks of coral at a certain height, stacks of coral at a certain height of certain colours, and more. The most difficult scoring patterns are based on the number of coral you have in one colour that are adjacent to your highest stack of another colour.

This sounds like a lot of patterns, and it is. This is the most difficult part of Reef to learn when first playing but thankfully there are plenty of examples in the rulebook book for each of these patterns if you find your group having difficulty recognizing them all. I actually suggest you play your first few games open-handed and that way the person teaching the game can show how each card type scores as it comes up. 

A finished coral reef in the game ReefA game of Reef continues until the last coral of any one colour is taken from the supply. When that happens you finish off the current round and the game ends.

Once the game ends, you get one last chance to score any cards that you still have in your hand. This works like scoring during the game except that you can only count each pattern once no matter how many times it may show up in your reef. 

Then everyone counts up their coins and the player with the most coins wins.

Reef is that perfect mix of easy to teach and difficult to master…

My wife's growing coral reef from the board game ReefReef is a really simple to learn game that is both easy to teach and play. There are only two actions you have to learn, draw a card or play a card. I am a big fan of the Azul games (my favourite of which you can read about in my Azul Summer Pavilion review) which are also from Plan B games. Compared to that series, Reef feels significantly lighter.

The thing is that you shouldn’t let that lightness fool you. Reef is one of those deceptively easy to learn but difficult to master games. One of the first places you will notice this is with the timing rules for when you play a card.

Every time you play a card you always start by taking and placing the coral shown on the top part of the card. This isn’t optional. You always have to take and place both pieces of coral and this has to be done before you score the card. When learning Reef it is very easy to forget the timing on this and play a card only to realize that what you planned to score is going to be ruined by the coral you are about to place. More commonly, even once you know the game well, is messing up any long term plans you have due to forgetting that you will be adding to your reef with every card before scoring. 

The board game reef is great with only two players.A big part of playing Reef well is this long-term planning. Reef is all about strategy and planning multiple turns ahead. In this way, Reef reminds me of Chess. This is due to the fact you are going to want to plan out a way to be able to play a number of cards in a row so that they combine together to make multiple complete scoring patterns in a row. There’s also another chess-like aspect and that is watching your opponent, remembering what cards they have and predicting what they will do with them. 

This leads to another deeper aspect of Reef and that is the ability to hate draft. If you remember what cards your opponent has taken you may be able to see what they are planning to do and take a key card from the market just to deny them that card and break a potential combo.

One of the great things about Reef, which I think can be considered an improvement over Chess and many other abstract strategy games, is that having your plans disrupted doesn’t ruin the game for you. While you may not be able to do exactly what you wanted there are always more cards and other potential combos. In this way Reef can be rather tactical. 

Reef is casual enough for a beer and pretzels game night.This leads me to mention player count. This chess-like feel is much more present when playing Reef with only two players.

Once you throw in the full player count of four, the market can change a lot between turns and having any form of multiple turn strategy becomes much harder. I would go so far as to say that the game weight actually changes, becoming lower with more players. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your group.

For me, I would generally prefer to sit down and play Reef two-player, but if it were a casual game night with some adult beverages around I might prefer to have four people at the table.

Reef is a great board game for kids. Reef is a game that’s simple enough that my youngest daughter picked it up immediately but deep enough that Deanna, the heavy gamer in our family, is happy to play it as well.

Overall I am extremely impressed by Reef. I really dig this game. While Reef is super light and can be played casually there’s surprising depth to be found if you chose to plan ahead and watch what your opponents are doing.

If you like abstract strategy games at all you have to pick Reef up at some point. Don’t wait three years like I did. This is a very solid thinky-filler abstract that’s great for new gamers and experienced players. If you are looking for a game with great table presence, one that’s good for drawing in a crowd, Reef is a good choice for that as well.

Counting up our points at the end of a game of Reef.If you found Azul to be a bit heavier than you wanted but were interested in something lighter but still similar, Reef is a good choice.

If you are looking for a heavy game, in any way, Reef isn’t that, and if you hate abstract games with pasted-on themes, Reef probably isn’t for you. Though I do still want to suggest you give it a shot, it may just win you over.

My wife and I are big fans of abstract strategy games in general but especially those, like Reef, that have that perfect mix of easy to learn but difficult to master gameplay. What are some of your favourite abstract strategy games?

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