Reef Stakes is a Malaysian coral reef-themed card placement game for 3-6 players with some strong conservation content. So I played it with a conservationist!
The game introduces people to the complex issues of coastal development and protecting Malaysia’s coral reefs. Reef Stakes was designed, tested, produced and brought to market entirely by a group of four young Malaysian professionals with backgrounds in marine science. For their work, the game was recognised was recognised in 2018 with a YSEALI (Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) grant.
Reef Stakes is marketed as an “educational role-playing card game.” The players take on the roles of various stakeholders who must determine the future of a pristine island region, the “Nusantara Archipelago.” Players take turns playing cards in a grid-shaped area on the table according to strict placement rules. For the most part, the cards represent rocks, coral reef elements and coastal development projects such as buildings and hotels. There are also some “Scenario cards” mixed in with the rest, which allow players to take actions that could help or hinder one another (or themselves).
I showed my demo copy of Reef Stakes to my sister, a marine conservation expert. We played it together with her daughter (who was a bit young for the target age group). After trying the cards and gameplay, my sister pronounced the science and factual basis of Reef Stakes to be quite solid.
Real Science, Real Stakes
At the heart of the game, players must lay down Nature and Development Track cards (drawn randomly) in a very specific order. The cards marked with 2 coloured track boxes must follow the cards marked with 1, and so on. Cards can be laid down in different directions from the starting Rock cards that represent the foundations of both Tracks. Track cards are the most important cards in the game because they represent the myriad elements that go into the growth of coral reefs and the construction of development projects that endanger those reefs.
To win, players must put into play 3 specific Mission cards, which they start with. The Conservationist needs to achieve 3 Nature Missions; the Developer must achieve 3 Development Missions. Each of the other roles (Fisherman, Natural Resource Manager, Tourism Operator, Politician) has to achieve 1 of one type of Mission and 2 of another type. These varied missions represent the complicated and overlapping interests of each stakeholder type in coastal issues.
To successfully play each Mission card that you have, you must place it on the end of a chain of Track cards that form a continuous line leading from the foundation Rock card all the way to the 4th stage of Nature or Development.
Reef Stakes has a full-colour rule book providing rules and diagrams to teach the game. There are limitations on how you can place the Track cards adjacent to previous Track cards or on top of other Track cards, but the rule book doesn’t make it very clear. The example diagrams show how cards can be placed legally, and we were able to figure things out in our first game. However, the text describing exactly how the players build the track from turn to turn could have been more specific.
To its credit, the game is very interactive, because players will be able to keep other players from scoring by using Scenario cards, representing political connections, community events, appearances of rare species and harmful human activities. You can play a card to drastically affect the growth of a track or remove certain track cards from the table. A single oil tanker collision could get rid of almost every card on the table!
Some cards are dual-use, meaning they can used to help Nature or Development. This can be useful if you playing the Developer who has no interest in improving Nature tracks or the Conservationist, who doesn’t want to help Development at all. And if you play one of the other roles, such as the Fisherman or Politician, you will need to achieve some Nature missions and some Development missions. The dual-use cards give you the flexibility to support either type of the Missions you are trying to play.
There is even a “Royal Order” card that can cancel other Scenario cards, which is reminiscent of similar cards in the Malaysian political card game Politiko.
The box says, Reef Stakes takes 45+ minutes to play but in practice, my sister and I found that Scenario cards slow the game down a lot. These kinds of “Take That!” cards are common in games like Politiko and Munchkin. They allow players to keep a front-runner from achieving their goal, but because most players need to build on nature and conservation track cards, the scenario cards could set players back many turns. It might be a good idea to reduce the number of scenario cards in a game to keep these cards from stalling a game to two or more hours.
Also, because each player can play on the previous track cards used by their opponents, there isn’t much incentive to play a Track 4 card knowing that the player to your left can play their Track 5 card on the next turn, completing one of their missions. Reef Stakes could use more cards that speed up the game and allow players to put down multiple track cards at one go. These kinds of surprise moves could keep the game from stalling or becoming too predictable. Fortunately, the game comes with a few blank cards for you to add these sorts of house rules.
Production and Educational Values
Reef Stakes comes with 149 colourful cards, printed on matte card stock, not too flimsy or lightweight. The graphic design is perfectly fine, and although there is some written rules text on scenario cards, it is usually brief and easy to read. Non-gamers may find the rules a bit tricky to grasp, but the overall complexity is not too high.
There is also educational text on the Track and Scenario cards. The text explains the significance of different parts of the ecosystem and the impact of activities that can damage the environment. As an educational tool, Reef Stakes does the job of clearly demonstrating what’s at stake!
You can buy Reef Stakes online.