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More than 1000 years ago the Polynesians started to colonize the Pacific Ocean. Kaivai -- watereater, that's how they called the man on board who could safely navigate the ship through the infinite wideness of the ocean. His secret wisdom was based on accurate observation of nature -- from starry sky to the shape of a crest of a wave -- and was over centuries accumulated and verbally handed down. The skill of reading the ocean like a book was reserved for esteemed kin only.
In the widespread world of the Polynesian Islands the players take part in the exploration and foundation of new spaces for living as fishermen and sailors. You must catch fish to exchange for shell-money or glory.
With shell-money you pay for the building of cottages on the island-villages to gain more esteem in the end. Because of the construction of new buildings, the island-villages are steadily growing, which constantly changes their size and value. While the island-villages constantly increase in value, the value of the shell-money constantly decreases each round. So financial richness doesn't last very long and should be invested into the expansion of the living space as quickly as possible. Only the player who skillfully navigates through the dynamically growing world of islands, who is clever managing his fluctuating resources and knows how to use the favor of the fisherman's god will gain enough esteem and glory to be initiated into the secret wisdom of the Kaivai.
Kaivai was released by Pfifficus Spiele at the Spiel back in 2005, and I still recall my reaction when I first saw the box. “It’s HUGE!” was my exclamation. Since I was, as always, worried about precious luggage space, I gave serious consideration to by- passing the game. However, the fact that it was a limited edition and wasn’t likely to see wide distribution, I decided to acquire a copy and somehow cram it into my suitcase.
Nine months went by before I actually played the game. One of the reasons was the mounds of new games I had acquired at the Spiel and thereafter, but the main reason was an extremely confusing set of rules that I simply could not properly digest. I later came to the realization that the rules are best understood if the first two and one-half pages were not read until after reading the remainder of the rules. I was finally taught the game by Dale Yu, who is (was?) a big fan of the game. I played most of that first game in a complete fog, which only lifted during the final turns. I glimpsed a portion of the game’s possibilities, and was intrigued enough to keep it around.
Sadly, another year passed before I played it again, and that experience was not very good. We stumbled through a few confusing turns before aborting due to the disinterest of a few players. I still wasn’t ready to abandon the game, however, so committed myself to studying the rules so I could teach it to others. My third playing certainly went smoother, and it appeared that everyone understood the game from my explanation. Sadly, the overall experience was fairly lackluster, and most of the players were not overly impressed.
Kaivai is a rather confusing game that requires players to construct a variety of huts, expand islands, catch and sell fish, grab majorities on islands, and hold celebrations, all with the ultimate goal of earning glory points. Played over ten turns, players must choose between numerous possible actions each turn, but usually cannot afford to take all of the actions they desire. Shrewd bidding, careful money and influence management, and proper timing are required to rise to the top of the glory track.
Players may execute any or all of six possible actions each turn. These include moving ships, building cottages, fishing, selling fish, increasing one’s movement capabilities, and holding a celebration. The first player to perform a particular action performs it for free. Each time that action is performed again, players must pay influence at an ever-increasing amount. A turn ends once all players opt to perform no further actions.
Managing one’s influence is a major challenge throughout the game. Players begin with three influence tokens, and acquiring new ones is fairly difficult. New influence is earned if the main “god” figure is moved to an island containing a player’s meeting huts or if a player completely forgoes any actions on a turn. Even these occurrences only yield a few new influence tokens, so there is usually an ongoing dearth of influence.
Turn order is another element of vital importance. Each turn, players bid for turn order, placing their marker along a chart that ranges from 1 - 10. The ultimate bid not only determines turn order, but also determines how far a player may move his ships on a turn, the base building cost for erecting new cottages, and which player gets to move the main god. The player with the fewest glory points bids first. Once making a bid, no other player can make the same bid. So, the player with the fewest glory points has an advantage, which serves as a nice equalizer. Ultimately, players execute their actions in order from highest-to- lowest bids.
The player making the lowest bid gets to move the main god to a new island. This causes the island to expand by one space (one of the ten “cult” tiles is placed on the island), and all players earn one influence point for each meeting cottage they have on the island. Thus, bidding low can be a wise tactic if a player is seeking influence and also wishes to expand an island that he feels he may ultimately control.
The actions a player chooses are all working towards earning glory points. One step towards glory points – and income -- is fishing. When calling a celebration, a player earns one glory point for each fish present on his cottages, and the player calling for the celebration gets one glory point for every three fish on the island. Getting the fish onto those cottages first requires a player to construct boats, set sail and be successful at fishing. In order to fish, a player must position his ships next to islands and have the main god and/or one or more of his own “god” statues present on that island. God statues are added when a player opts to construct a god shrine, which is done with a building action. New ships are added by constructing fishing cottages.
Catching fish is based on the rolling of dice. The number of dice rolled is equal to the number of god statues the player has on the adjacent island, plus one for the main god, if present. This dice rolling mechanism introduces a fairly random element to the game. Some object to this random element, but I personally think it fits nicely with the uncertainties of actual fishing.
Once fish are caught, they must be sold to fishing or meeting cottages before they spoil, which occurs after five turns. Fish sold to a player’s own huts do not generate income, but they will be available to earn glory points when a celebration is held. Fish sold to opponents’ cottages earn income, but at the trade-off of eventually earning glory points for those opponents. This presents players with a tough choice, as income is necessary when constructing new cottages, yet in order to generate this income you will ultimately be giving your opponents glory points.
Building new cottages is yet another important element to the game. Fishing cottages give the player a new ship, meeting cottages generate influence when the main god is moved to that island, and god shrines increase the number of dice rolled when fishing. Each cottage will contribute to the control of an island at game’s end, so generally, the more cottages a player owns, the better off he will be.
The game concludes after ten turns, and a final scoring is conducted. Each island is examined to determine which player has the greatest influence. A player’s influence on an island is equal to the number of ships he has adjacent to the island plus the two times the number of cottages he owns on the island. In addition, each player can add influence tokens to this total, which is done by all players simultaneously revealing the number of influence tokens they desire to contribute. The player with the most influence earns a number of glory points equal to the size of the island, which is the number of cult squares on the island. Only the winner loses the influence tokens he contributed. After all ten islands are examined in this manner, the player with the most glory points is victorious.
This final scoring does provide players with an incentive to horde influence tokens as the game approaches its end. A player can grab control of one or more islands by the wise expenditure of tokens. Further, the proper positioning of one’s ships on the final turn can also help sway control of an island.
There are numerous intriguing elements to the game, and I cannot deny that there appears to be considerable depth and a variety of strategic paths to explore. It seems put together well, but for me and others with whom I’ve played, the game is confusing. It is often difficult to grasp which actions you should be performing from turn-to-turn. Even though I’ve now played three times, I’m still not sure of the strategy I should pursue. I don’t feel I understand the game much better than the first time I played.
I will say that I personally find the game to be rather slow in developing. It takes too long for things to get interesting and tense. The game takes 2 hours or more to play to completion. A game of that length usually doesn’t bother me, but I generally want it to be exciting throughout its duration. Kaivai just doesn’t have that tension and excitement.
In all of the games I’ve played, influence has been extremely scarce. To increase one’s supply of influence generally means opting to perform no actions on a turn, which seems a severe cost just to gain two influence tokens. I’m sure this has been play-tested thoroughly to insure that the system works as is, but to me it feels too tight. Most turns, players get to exercise one or perhaps two actions, which doesn’t seem to be enough in a game that uses a “building” mechanism wherein a series of actions must be performed to achieve a particular objective. The system is just too tight and confining for my tastes.
I recognize that many folks really enjoy Kaivai, and seem to grasp its nuances better than me. There is no denying that the game is aimed squarely at gamers, and will likely appeal to those who enjoy the challenges of performing all of the necessary steps in the proper sequence in order to achieve success. I’m normally one of those gamers. However, for the reasons I have mentioned, Kaivai just fails to hit the mark for me.