Teaching Time: 5 mins
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
As part of my ongoing quest to both own and review all SDJ winners it was inevitable that at some point I’d be looking at the 2005 winner Niagara, this would be that point. While I approached it with an open mind, I wasn’t expecting a great deal and I was generally pleasantly surprised. Niagara is cleverer than it appears, good looking and solid fun for all ages, a solid SDJ winner and fine game.
Gameplay is simple and largely non-random. Players are aiming to collect gems in five colours, either four of one colour, one of each colour or seven in any combination to win. These gems are piled in stashes along a stretch of river and are collected by players moving canoes up and down the river using a hand of movement distance cards which each player has an identical and freely accessed set of. The main twist of the game is that each turn all canoes in the river are pushed downstream a certain distance, too far and they topple over the Niagara waterfall, destroying the canoe.
Visually Niagara stands out with an excellent table presence despite not including anything particularly flashy. This is done by the simple act of placing the box lid and bottom side by side and laying the board on top of them, elevating it from the tabletop. This means that when boats are pushed off one end of the board over the waterfall they literally physically fall to the table, which is both satisfyingly dramatic and fulfils the presence of the game. This is partly achieved by the physical process of pushing canoes downstream. The river in Niagara is a track down the middle of a two-layer board which is filled with clear plastic discs representing the water during set-up, the flow of the river is created by pushing extra discs into one end of the river.
Where Niagara’s gameplay is really smart is in the places where it creates player interaction, as with most games really, and that occurs at two points. Firstly, the rate of flow of the river is based on the lowest movement card used by any given player. Players that play movement cards must move all of their canoes that are on the river, what this means is that playing a high rated movement card without risking going over the edge relies on at least one other player playing a low rated card. As always, the fact that the level of risk attached to your plays is based on that of others makes for the potential of bluff and guess being part of the game, which is always fun. Secondly, canoes can only carry a single gem, but empty canoes can steal gems from loaded ones, additionally stealing is more efficient than picking them up directly. This makes the timing of actions and interaction important since its pretty pointless picking up a gem when the first activation of the next turn will simply result in an opponent taking it right back off you. Waiting for the right moment when your enemies are laden with gemstones or you will have the chance to scarper to the safety of the bank with your own stones becomes a vital part of the game, but of course hanging about on the fast-flowing river above a deadly waterfall waiting for the right chance to snatch a sapphire without being robbed is a pretty risky way to live.
Niagara makes absolute sense as a SDJ winner. It has a significant and charming table presence, which is one of the more consistent identifies of successful entrants to the awards. The gameplay is easy enough to explain to non-gamers but has enough depth due to solid interaction to keep more experienced gamers playing. The central mechanic of the river is both smart and unusual enough to justify its presence in the awards, its too situational to have become the sort of mainstay mechanic that Dominion’s deckbuilding has, but it fits right into the awards as something a little different and quite clever.
Niagara is fun, smart enough for repeat plays and satisfying in its results. Its centred on player interaction to provide its unpredictability with the only chance being down to exactly how many discs it takes to shove a canoe off the river, which is more than acceptable. Its accessible to all ages and levels of skill, while it’s not an introduction to a wider world of gaming that many SDJs are, its more than strong enough as a stand-alone experience to recommend.