Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Niagara" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 10/16/05)

I have long been fascinated with bad words. Short ones, long ones, combinations - they have all made a home in my consciousness. I don’t like using them, mind you, but they do in a pinch.

This interest started during elementary school, possibly as early as second grade. Like most little kids, I had the curiosity just to know the words, never to use them. It wasn’t until later that I noticed that using them was reserved for middle school.

For some reason, I couldn’t grow tired of language’s forbidden fruit. In high school I started picking up foreign ones as well. I learned some bad words in French, Spanish, and German, and even a couple in Farci (never say "coo-nee" in Persia).

Over time, I came to realize that my fascination with bad words both native and foreign was at heart a love of languages. I still remember learning in 11th grade that "defenestration" meant "to throw someone out of a window." I loved finding out that "safari" was originally a word in Swahili meaning "to go on a trip." Even chess employs German words like "zugzwang" denoting a situation in which every move is harmful, as well as the French term "en passant" for a pawn move meaning "in passing." There are always new words to learn.

Recently, I was introduced to a powerful German phrase in the gaming world: "Spiel des Jahres" or "Game of the Year." Since the late 1970s, a group of German game critics have endorsed one outstanding game per year. I wasn’t sure I had ever played a game that had won this prestigious award and was rightly curious about the current crowned king.

It wasn’t hard to find. Sitting on the counter at World Games of Montana was a huge stack of the 2005 Spiel des Jahres, "Niagara." Created by first-time game inventor Thomas Liesching and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Niagara" takes players on an exciting river trip to the edge of a waterfall.

The goal of "Niagara" is deceptively simple: to obtain various jewels (white, yellow, purple, blue, and pink) found along the river. A player wins by collecting four of any one jewel, one of each of the jewels, or seven of any kind and depositing them at the starting point upriver. Jewels can be stolen, and getting back home around both your opponents and the river is a trick.

Two to five players hit the river with two canoes and a set of seven cards apiece. Six cards are numbered; the seventh card is a cloud. The number cards affect canoe movement and a player’s ability to pick up and drop off jewels, and the cloud card affects the weather.

At the end of every round, the river must be reckoned with.

The "Niagara" river is the game’s crowning achievement. The river consists of several clear circles, representing water. Every turn, a certain number of circles must move downstream and over the waterfall, based on the weather and the lowest numbered card played between all players. Canoes, which are placed on the circles, travel downstream with the current. The movement of the river is filled with suspense, and it’s not uncommon for at least one unhappy paddler to go over the waterfall.

"Niagara" is the gaming world’s version of a thriller. The strategy, jewel-collecting, and river’s movement make for a truly unique and exciting gaming experience.

I suppose my own trek through words has been a kind of upriver battle. Nowadays though, I don’t go looking for words which push me over the waterfall. I am content to learn a phrase like "Spiel des Jahres" and go wherever it may take me, usually somewhere upriver where the waters are calm, with just enough time to play a game.

Cost: $44.95
Players: 2 to 5
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: This game is great for kids and adults alike. I can't say it enough: the waterfall aspect of this game is simply fantastic.