The world is ravaged by mega earthquakes. You are sent to the worst affected areas to begin the recovery…do you have what it takes?
3-5 players (6 with District Six expansion)
Note: Stronghold Games sent us a copy of Aftershock so that we could write this unbiased review
San Francisco Bay and Venice are the worst affected areas from a series of mega earthquakes. It is now time to rebuild and restore these cities and it is up to you to do it. Repopulate (not like that, silly!), build bridges and avoid the inevitable aftershocks in this area control game from Stronghold Games. Score points from having the biggest population at the end of each round and from building the most bridges- who will come out on top?
How the game works
The game takes place over three rounds (two rounds if playing with 5 players), each of which consists of various phases. The aim is for you to have the highest population on each of the islands that score that round. Points can also be scored for having the most bridge pieces on the map. But how do you get your people onto the map, and how do you build bridges?!
The first phase is all about buying cards. They either allow you to place your meeples on specific islands, allow you to build a bridge anywhere on the map, give you influence tokens or give you aftershock tokens (more on these later). You gain cards by buying them from your hand and afterwards from buying other players’ leftovers (usually at a discount). Be careful not to offer up anything too amazing as this will give your opponents a significant advantage.
Next, players place meeples from any cards they bought onto the map- giving everyone an idea of how the round is shaping up. In secret, everybody then decides where they will build their bridges and aftershock tokens ready for the next phase. This is super crucial because this is where the second-guessing of your opponents begins. Where will they place bridges? Where will they place their additional meeples? And most importantly, where will they put their aftershock tokens?!
Starting with the first player, everyone reveals their choices and places their pieces on the board accordingly. It’s almost time to score but first it’s time to resolve the aftershock tokens. These represent the local population running away from aftershocks and can shift the balance of certain areas in your favour. If you placed an aftershock token on an island, you roll the dice and pick that many meeples (of any colour) that are to be moved from the island (plus any bonuses from using a big or mega aftershock token). The players whose meeples you chose must relocate their population, by either crossing bridges and paying the owner (unless they are the owner), or if they can’t escape (or can’t afford to escape), remove them entirely.
This not only gives the player who placed the token the chance to influence the balance of power, but also the players moving meeples, as it gives them an opportunity to change ownership in neighbouring islands. You may end up shooting yourself in the foot by getting rid of someone else’s meeples!
Finally, it’s on to scoring. This is my favourite mechanism of the game, because it means if you hide away on your own islands you won’t get any points. Every player has 4 scoring tokens, which they must secretly assign to islands on their player boards, but you can’t put 2 of your scoring tokens on the same island. Once everyone has placed their scoring tokens, they are simultaneously revealed and any islands with more than one player token is scored for that round. Most points to the player with the most meeples and so on. But if only one person wants to score an island, it doesn’t score! So tactical negotiations are key (but not legally binding) as they require you to compromise with players, allowing them to score some points so that you can too. One of the voting spaces is “Most Bridges”, which dishes out points based on who has the most individual bridge pieces.
The influence tokens I mentioned before allow you to guarantee somewhere will score as they are a bonus token in this round and can be placed on the same island as one of your scoring tokens. They are so valuable!
After three rounds, whoever has the most points wins the game!
I don’t have anything bad to say about the mechanics of the game. I love games that involve secret selections, backstabbing and double crossing, and Aftershock has this in abundance. I made the mistake of telling Joel I would score Dorsoduro if he scored bridges, only to change my mind and score elsewhere. This gave me a one-off advantage over him, but he never trusted me again and ended up beating me by 4 points! You really have to get into your opponents’ mindset, work out which islands they are likely to score and base your decision on that. One round I realised nobody was going to score one of the islands I was winning on and I didn’t want Joel to get maximum points on San Marco so I opted to score an empty island instead!
The mechanism for aftershocks is also really good, as it can totally flip the control of lots of islands all at once, and it’s not just up to the person who played the token to decide what happens as you control where your own meeples go!
The game offers up so many decisions to each player, from which cards to buy, where to place bridges, extra meeples and aftershocks, where to send your meeples after an aftershock and then crucially where you’re going to score. There’s also a trade off between buying bridges and buying cards with meeples on them, as the more meeples you have on the map the more points you’re likely to get but without bridges you will find it difficult to move them from island to island. Bridges are expensive but you never remove them from the board so are likely to earn you some points, and may even earn money when other people use them.
I also like how the money in the game is finite. Everyone starts with $15m and the bank has $0m. Money from cards you buy go to the bank, money from cards you buy from other players goes to them. At the end of the round all the money from the bank is redistributed evenly so you only get more money than the others if lots of people bought your cards!
There’s also a nice catchup mechanism that helps the losing player gain some ground. At the end of each round the last-placed player gains an aftershock token to use next round. Jess was last at the end of each of the first two rounds and each time used these to great effect, and ended up winning on the final turn.
I guess the only downside mechanically is that there can be a bit of luck involved with the cards dealt, Influence cards are so useful (expensive, but worth it), as are bridges. Joel was a bit unlucky as he didn’t draw any bridge cards and Jess and I had both bought ours so he was a bit stuck.
It isn’t the best looking game ever made, but I actually quite like the design, it’s quite old school and as you can see once the map gets busy it does look pretty impressive. But in an age of spectacular board game design and implementation this one doesn’t really draw the eye, although I do really like the box art.
The game’s biggest failing however is how little the gameplay fits with the theme. Ok, the world has been hit by mega earthquakes and San Francisco and Venice is mostly underwater, that’s fine. But why are we competing to have the biggest population on certain islands, why are we each building our own bridges and charging money to other people for using them? Why do players play God by deciding where aftershocks happen and which members of the population are scared enough to evacuate? And speaking of aftershocks, why do we buy them? It doesn’t make sense at all within the theme of the game.
However, despite that flaw (I do love it when a game makes sense within its theme), the gameplay is great and we all had an absolute blast playing it. It was tactical, thinky and yet simple enough to understand very quickly. It’s engaging and fun and there’s a lot of decisions to make to turn the game in your favour. After 3 rounds and 90 minutes (I know it says 60 mins to play but the first time always takes longer), we all felt thoroughly entertained and there was only 5 points between all three of us. Highly recommend!
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