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In Mermaid Rain, you explore the ocean and gather as many treasures as possible to gain more victory points than other players by using cards and ocean-current tiles. Roughly speaking, the procedure of the play can be divided into two phases: the "surf-predicting" phase and the "surf-riding" phase. In the "surf-predicting" phase of each round, you make melds by using the cards in your hand and gain an ocean-current tile. In the "surf-riding" phase of each round, you place the ocean-current tile on the board, move your pawn by using card(s) from your hand, and gather treasures. To win the game, you have to check cautiously the balance of the cards in your hand: which card(s) to use in "surf-predicting" phases and which in "surf-riding" phase.
Don't get me wrong--it's a fine game. However, just because the game is a novelty item (in that there just aren't that many contemporary Japanese boardgames for this market) it's hard to overlook the relatively insubstantial components that the game provides. The board is small, although pleasant enough, but the cards and treasure chits are extremely low quality paper products, and without being very careful, if you decide to make this a "player's" game, you're going to trash it in no time. All that having been said, there is much fun in both the card management and tile placing, though my guess is that this game can be "beaten."
A while back, Ben Baldanza wrote a very positive review of this Japanese game for Counter magazine. I was certainly interested in obtaining the game, but due to the high import costs, the price was prohibitive. I figured I would content myself with playing the game at Gulf Games or the Gathering. However, I really didn’t place a high priority on organizing a game.
Ken Rice is the only gamer I “know” who lives in Japan. He was scheduled to attend his first Gathering of Friends in April, and he passed along word that he would be able to bring copies of the game for those who desired a copy. The price? Ridiculously low. So, I immediately contacted Ken and reserved a copy.
I didn’t have chance to play the game at the Gathering, but did play it at Gulf Games in July. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and have subsequently played it several more times. I find the game quite good, and it reminds me somewhat of Elfenland.
First, the theme / premise must be mentioned. Players are mermaids exploring the oceans and collecting treasures. Movement is determined by playing cards, which depict dolphins, turtles or seagulls. A penalty must be paid to the sea witch before final scores are tallied. I personally don’t have a problem with the theme, but a few of my Westbank Gamers crew found it, well, silly and unmanly. Hmmm …
The nicely laminated board depicts numerous islands scattered about the ocean. Each island depicts a symbol – turtle, dolphin, or seagull – which is the type of card a player must play in order to move onto it. The islands will also house several treasures, which come in five different varieties – sea shells, coral, crystals, pearls and dragon scales. Some of these treasures are placed face-up, while others are face-down. Players will scurry about the ocean collecting these treasures.
Players each begin the game with seven cards and one “stop” card. This stop card is also a player aid card, but since the text is in Japanese, it is virtually useless for most non- Japanese gamers. The cards will be used not only for movement purposes, but also to form “poker” hands in order to determine the order of movement and the awarding of various perks. It is this card play that gives the game a unique feel and earns it points for originality.
Each round, players will play two cards face- down, then simultaneously reveal them. Then, each player plays one more face-down card. This can be a movement card, or the stop card. If a player chooses to play his “stop” card, he will play no further cards during this phase. All other players continue to play one more card until all players have played their stop cards. This could take several rounds.
Once all players have completed their card play, the various “hands” are examined to determine who played the best set of cards. The rankings are similar to those used in poker, although not exactly. Hands can consist of a pair, three of a kind, 3 different colors, 2 pair, full house, etc. The highest ranked hand is five of a kind. Each player will receive a bonus based on his hand, which can consist of victory points or the ability to draw a treasure tile or ocean tile. The “five of a kind” hand allows the player to transport his pawn to any location on the board.
Players will subsequently move their pawn based on the strength of their hand. In addition, the player who played the highest ranked hand gets the prince card. This is important, as any ties in the ranking of hands is broken in favor of players seated closest to the player holding the prince in a clockwise fashion. However, a major consideration when playing cards to form your hand is that the cards played during this phase are discarded, and a player must move his pawn with the cards remaining in his hand. So, the more cards used to form your “poker” hand, the fewer cards you will have to move your mermaid. This forces each player to make tough decisions each and every turn.
After all hands are played and the order of play determined, each player chooses one of the six ocean tiles that have been revealed. The ocean tiles come in a variety of shapes, and each one depicts a symbol indicating the type of card which must be played in order to move onto that tile. Some of the tiles will remain on the board throughout the game, while others will be removed at the end of the turn.
Each player then takes his turn by placing the tile he selected, then moving his mermaid across tiles to the islands. As mentioned earlier, in order to move onto a tile or island, the player must play a card that has the same symbol as that depicted on the tile or island. A player may always play any two cards as a “wild” card and move his piece onto an adjacent tile or island.
When a player moves his mermaid onto an island, he may take one of the treasures found there. He may first peek at any face- down treasures before deciding which one to take. When the player takes a treasure, it maintains its face-up or face-down status. This is important as players will never know exactly how many treasures of each type their opponents possess.
An important note is that a player may only take one treasure from an island on a turn. This prevent a player from simply hopping back and forth from a tile to an island, scooping all of the available treasures from that island.
After all players have moved and collected any treasures they can gather, any temporary ocean tiles are removed. Each player must then discard down to two cards, after which they are dealt seven new cards. So, the most cards a player can ever have in his hand at the beginning of a turn is nine cards. Often, it is wise to conserve a card or two, especially if the tiles and islands don’t closely match the cards you possess during a turn.
Five rounds are played in the manner described above. At this point, each player must surrender one of each type of treasure to the sea witch … and who wants to defy her? For each type of treasure a player does not possess, he loses five points. After the sea witch is satisfied, players then score points for their remaining treasures.
Each type of treasure is examined, with players scoring points as followed:
If a player possesses a monopoly in a particular type of treasure, he earns a bonus of three additional points.
These points are added to the points players earned during the course of the game. The player who has accumulated the most points is victorious and wins the favor of the handsome prince.
The movement mechanism, along with the playing of the ocean tiles to help facilitate this movement, is reminiscent of Alan Moon’s Elfenland. Added to this is the clever “meld making” phase, wherein players assemble “poker” hands in order to not only determine the important turn order, but also earn bonus perks, such as victory points or additional treasure or ocean tiles. Players must balance these “melds” with the need to conserve enough cards to move about the ocean and gather treasures. This presents the players with tough choices each and every turn.
All of these mechanisms blend together extremely well, yielding a game that is enjoyable, challenging and original. Sure, the theme may be off-putting to some, but do yourself a favor and get past it. The game underneath the “cutesy” theme is quite good.
Train Raider is a well-made and enjoyable game that seemed to be a novelty as a European-style game designed and produced in Japan. Well, over the last year a few more games have been released from the Land of the Rising Sun that confirms a growing and very creative energy for game design. The best of these is Mermaid Rain, a game by the makers of Train Raider that includes original ideas, clever scoring, and a well-designed card mechanism that requires a careful evaluation of how to use each hand.Players gain victory points by collecting treasures from the ocean and by playing card melds. The board shows the ocean divided into hexes with spots for holding treasure chits, six different starting spaces for player pawns, and a few impassable mountains. Five different treasure types populate the board initially, the number and distribution of each depends on the number of players. The game is divided into two broad stages. In the first of these, the "surf predicting phase", players make a card meld in front of them to earn victory points or other benefits, establish turn order for the second phase, and to gain an ocean tile. In the second phase, "surf riding", the players place the ocean tile gained in the first phase and move their pawn through the ocean to collect treasures. It is easier to explain the game by taking the two phases in reverse order. Each round, ocean tiles are revealed equal to the number of players, and each player will choose one to place in their turn. The ocean tiles are in four shapes covering two to five hexes. These ocean tiles, placed on the board to move over, show one of four symbols - a turtle, a gull, a dolphin, or a mermaid. The treasure spaces on the board show one of the three animal symbols. Movement is an [page scan/se=1274/sf=category/fi=stockin.asc/ml=10]Elfenland-like process of playing a card that matches the movement space. Moving onto a tile with a turtle requires playing a turtle card. Stepping off this into a treasure space with a dolphin symbol requires playing a dolphin card. Mermaid symbols on ocean tiles are jokers - you can move onto them by using any of the three animal cards. Treasures are not replaced once taken, so through the game the board gets depleted and thus the ability to move and the ability to earn the proper shaped ocean tile becomes more critical. This is one of many nice features built into the game design. The order of this "surf riding phase" is determined first by the "surf predicting phase". This is a card melding process, and it now makes sense to explain that the only cards in the deck are turtles, dolphins, and gulls. Each player gets seven cards per turn, and must use these to make a meld and then use whatever is left for ocean movement. The meld process is reminiscent of Taj Mahal. Each player begins by taking two cards from their hand and revealing them simultaneously. Then, beginning with the start player, players can add one more card to the meld or drop out. The strength of the melds determines the turn order for the movement phase and also earns the player additional value. The highest meld is five of a kind, followed by four of a kind, full house, two pair, three of a kind, three different cards (one each of turtle, dolphin, and gull), single pair, and then just two different cards. The melds all have names, with the five-of-a-kind being the "Mermaid Rain". Four of the melds earn immediate victory points, from seven for the four of a kind to just one for a simple pair. The three-card meld allows the player to take an additional ocean tile during their movement turn, which can be helpful to reach a new spot or get a symbol that better fits your hand. The full house lets the player take a treasure chip from the off-the-board stock, and given that the end scoring is critical this is quite valuable. The five of a kind allows the player to begin their movement phase by "teleporting" to any space on the board. This flexibility is very useful but comes at a high cost. Playing two different cards, the lowest possible meld, earns nothing. The treasure chips account for the scoring in addition to points earned from certain melds. Each chip collected is worth two victory points, plus at game end there is a bonus for holding the most of each type of good. This bonus is 12 points for holding the most, down to two points for being in fourth place. But these bonuses are not earned right away. In one of the most defining rules of the game, everyone must "pay tribute to the witch" before the end scoring. The witch demands one of each type of good from each player in order to deliver the potion to turn the mermaid back into a human. Anyone who cannot pay the witch completely loses five points per type of good lacking. It is only after making this sacrifice that the quantity bonuses are awarded. These mechanics blend together to create an enjoyable yet tight contest, and in addition there are several details that will further show the creativity in the game. The best of these is in the design of the ocean tiles. In addition to being four different shapes as described, they also are in two different shades of blue. One type of tile stays on the board permanently after it is placed, allowing a development of paths through the ocean as the game progresses. The other type is removed at the end of each turn, and this feature allows a player to intentionally end their movement on this type of tile in order to be taken off the board at the end of the turn. This allows them to begin their next turn at any of the six starting spaces. This movement can be highly efficient as treasures on parts of the board tend to get picked away quickly while other areas are still untouched. Using this feature can be the difference between collecting multiple treasures per turn and spending lots of cards just to hop over a bunch of ocean tiles. The distribution of each of the five treasures is not equal. Dragon Scales, for example, are rarer than Sea Shells. Knowing this can be important when determining which treasures to go after and which to take when several are available on a single space. In practice, having at least one of each is usually best due to the witch tribute, but beyond that getting first place in one or more treasures can determine the winner. As mentioned earlier, each round ocean tiles are made available for the players to choose. The shape of tiles chosen is based on a set of cards that show the distribution each round for different numbers of players. This makes each game a bit different and also makes it easy to track the number of rounds played. The game lasts only five rounds, and it is difficult to collect more than two treasure chips each round. Two cards can be carried over from one hand to the next, but seven are always distributed, so it is possible to play at least one round with nine cards. Assuming that you use at least three in a meld, at most six cards are left for movement. Each treasure essentially takes two cards, since you must step into and out of the space and each movement requires a card. Now assume you carry no cards over, or are playing the first round, and have only seven cards to deal with. The bigger the meld, the more movement is restricted. Yet bigger melds have their own value in greater victory points or extra chip collection. At final scoring, as a result, often just two and sometimes one of a good earns the first place bonus. This makes picking the right type of goods critical. Mermaid Rain's production is very good, with nice quality ocean tiles, a colorful board, and nice quality cards. It would be nicer if the board and the treasure chips were about 25% larger, but this is minor and doesn't detract from the game play. Interestingly, the "cheat sheet" cards in Japanese are actually useful for English speakers, since the numerical values of the bonuses are shown along with the basic meld types. Unlike Train Raider, the game can be played immediately by non-Japanese speakers with no need for card paste-ups or board labeling. The first six pages of the rulebook are a comic, all in Japanese of course, but clearly having to do with Mermaids. Mermaid Rain is a well-designed game that stands up well against the greater volume of European competition. The subtle strategies required suggest that the game was made for a gamers' market, rather than families, though certainly the theme, look, and style could be accessible to the family table. Let's hope that we'll see more games from Hitoshi-san and the other Japanese game minds soon.