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Big Kini is a large island group in the Pacific, which is to a large extent unknown to the civilized world. Here local troublemakers and dropouts try to gain as much prestige and influence as possible. Therefore they occupy the appropriate posts on the different islands. The desired positions are assigned only too quickly and it's no surprise that your circle of "friends" grows ever larger. With skillful tactics, the players try to discover atolls and to occupy certain posts in order to gain influence on the respective island. Whoever has most points at the end of the game wins. So dip into this imaginary world of power.
Each Spiel in Essen, I organize in advance a list of the games in which I am interested. While at the convention, I make it a point to inspect, and possibly play these games, after which I make my decision as to whether I should purchase them. However, it is quite common to find a half-dozen or more games which initially did not catch my interest, or, indeed, of which I had heard absolutely nothing. Big Kini from first-time designer Guido Eckhof was one such game.
Released by Play Me Games, which is a retail game store in Germany, the game received little advance publicity. Indeed, it was initially only being sold at the small Play Me booth in the Messe (convention center). With so many small publishers permeating the halls, there simply isn’t enough time to view every game available. As such, choices are made, and many booths are simply by-passed. Unquestionably, I would have by- passed Big Kini had it not been one of the top-rated games at the Fair Play booth. That piqued my interest, so I scheduled a time to play the game.
While the rules explanation we received was sketchy, we succeeded in playing and the experience was quite good. Subsequent plays have confirmed this initial reaction: Big Kini is a fine game. The game is one of discovery and power, as players set sail across the seas, discovering islands and maneuvering their pawns into positions of power. The cartoon-like artwork belies the strategy game which lies within.
Eighteen atoll tiles are set out face-down in a pattern, with the four corner atolls revealed. These serve as the starting islands from which the players will begin the exploration and expansion. Each tile depicts three islands, each with several positions known as “official posts”. These posts include:
Island Steward. This position allows the controlling player to control the feature to which he is adjacent. This could be:
Reef Minister. This position is adjacent to two of the above features, and gives the player flexibility as to which action he can control.
Bay Baron. This is the top position on an atoll, and the player occupying this position can control any of the atoll’s three features.
Many atolls have multiple Island Steward and Reef Minister positions, but there will only be one Bay Baron position and that can only be obtained via an election. More on this a bit later.
One of the extremely clever mechanisms in the game is how actions are determined. Each player has two actions per turn, but players alternate taking one action per turn. There are six possible options on a player’s turn … maybe. You see, each action may only be performed three times on a turn, and only twice for the discovery action. When a player executes an action, he places one of his markers on the first open spot for that auction. Once an action is performed three times, no one else can execute it that turn.
Furthermore, the first player to execute a specific action on a turn gets to perform it twice. The player who opts to execute an action the third time on a turn must PAY 2 gold for the privilege. This mechanism causes players to race to perform certain actions, and often causes angst when deciding which action to perform. Many times a player will have plans to perform two particular actions on a turn, only to discover that one of those actions isn’t available on his second phase. Ouch!
So just what are these actions? They are worth exploring in a bit of detail.
Proliferation. The player controlling the settlement position on an island may place a new settler (marker) onto the island, provided that space is vacant. Getting new markers onto the map is very important as it allows you to spread your presence across the sea and gain control of valuable positions.
Move. Moving a settler to a new position on an island is free, with the only restriction being that you cannot move a settler directly to the Bay Boss position. Again, this requires an election.
If you wish to move to a new tile, you must control the harbor position. The number of ships depicted in the harbor dictates how far you may travel. For each tile traversed, be it previously discovered or unknown, the player must pay one gold. Once arriving at a new atoll, the player may place his settler onto any available location … again, with the exception of the Bay Baron.
Income. A player controlling the tobacco factory position may collect income. The amount of income earned is listed beside the factory. Each factory may only produce once per turn, so there is usually a rush for income each turn.
Taking goods. Most tiles depict one of three possible types of goods. The player controlling the goods position on the atoll takes a corresponding good marker. Goods, collected in sets of three, are worth victory points at the end of the game. Further, they can be used to influence elections on the atolls.
Election. This is the only method by which a settler can advance to the Bay Baron position. There must be at least two settlers on the island, and a settler not holding a position cannot move directly to the Bay Baron position.
Each settler can cast one vote, while the current occupant of the Bay Baron position has two votes. Players can commit good markers matching the type available at the island, adding one vote per good contributed. Negotiations are allowed, with money and/or goods serving as incentives. The player receiving the most votes may move one of his settlers to the Bay Baron position, while the current occupant is forced to another location on the atoll.
Not only does the Bay Baron have the ability to exercise the power of any island feature, but the occupant of the position also earns five victory points at game’s end. Thus, elections for these positions can be spirited.
Discovery. This is similar to moving one’s settler across the seas, but it costs an additional 5 gold to discover, thereby flipping, a tile. As a reward, the discoverer receives 2 victory points.
Each round is played in an identical fashion, with the game ending after twelve rounds or once the final atoll is discovered. Players earn points for occupying positions on the islands (5, 2 or 1 point), discovery chips, goods sets and gold. Of course, most points wins.
In spite of its cartoonish appearance, the game offers quite a bit of depth and strategic options. Players must attempt to maneuver their settlers into positions of power, but cannot overlook the value of making discoveries or collecting goods. Care must be taken to maintain strength on islands wherein you control the Bay Baron position, lest the office be ripped from underneath you. Conversely, performing such hostile takeovers on atolls controlled by your opponents moves you steadily closer to victory.
As mentioned, choosing which actions to perform each turn is critical, as is prioritizing these actions. You must also be ready to shift your planned actions when your original choice is no longer available. Adaptation is a vital skill.
Big Kini is one of those pleasant, surprise gems that helps make Essen well-worth attending. I honestly didn’t expect to be impressed … but I am. In fact, it falls squarely in the top tier of games from the 2005 convention. In a game that involves exploration and discovery, the best discovery was the game itself!