In the first half of this year, we’ve published article series on game balance, the “dimensions” of games, means of assessing the value of games, and approachability in games. This month, we’re doing something a little different and apply our design analysis to some of our favorite games from the past couple of years. Today we’ll look at Bora Bora, which was a Stefan Feld title released in his busy 2013 campaign. We’ll be taking a critical look at the structure of Bora Bora to evaluate its design decisions in further detail, according to the framework we’ve developed over the past few months.
Balance – Internal Balance
A strength of Bora Bora is that there are so many methods of scoring victory points and there is always a viable option. Internal balance seeks to identify and remove false decisions and understand and regulate dominant strategies. Bora Bora offers several scoring opportunities that could be considered superior to other areas of the game when isolated but it is important to note that each scoring area in Bora Bora is balanced by at least one of three aspects:
- The Point Ceiling: The maximum number of points that is attainable in any area is capped.
- The Opportunity Cost: Pursuing dominance in one area requires sacrificing viable scoring opportunities in other areas.
- The Relative Valuation: The value of scoring in different areas of Bora Bora fluctuates entirely based on how opponents interact with that area. Adapting to your opponents and pursuing scoring opportunities they ignore will produce strong performances in Bora Bora.
These three factors combine to explain why Bora Bora doesn’t have a dominant strategy problem. A winning score in Bora Bora requires points from multiple sources and generally that player will still have to leave other lucrative scoring opportunities on the board.
There are seven primary scoring areas in Bora Bora which we’ll examine throughout this article. Technically there are other areas which can contribute to final scoring but there are the most important elements in regards to Internal Balance. The seven areas are Exploration & Fish Tiles, Man/Woman Tiles, Building Tiles, Jewelry Tiles, the Temple Track, the Status Track and Task Tiles.
Expansion (Hut) & Fish Tiles: Players explore the islands of Bora Bora by placing huts of their player color on the board. In return players earn several immediate benefits but also gain the ability to score the immediately adjacent fish tile at the end of the game. Expansion is balanced by being player driven, that is only the last player to explore each region will be able to earn the fish tile bonus. As a result a player set-up to score heavily in fish tiles is susceptible to the ambitions of other players.
Building Tiles: Players are able to spend raw materials in order to construct buildings on their player board. Each building requires multiple currencies as ordinarily it requires an die or man/woman action in addition to the raw materials. Building tiles offer a diminished point value as the game goes on, requiring the opportunity cost of ignoring other scoring opportunities in order to get the best point returns early in the game.
Jewelry Tiles: Each round players have the ability to make a jewelry purchase using clams. Jewelry is balanced using a cost curve so that players earn a higher return by spending more clams. The value of a jewelry collection is generally capped as players can only purchase one jewelry tile per round and the distribution of tiles is randomized which can in several ways limit the maximum gains.
The Temple Track: By placing a die on the temple action tile, players can add a priest to the temple track at the equivalent space. Regardless of the value of the die, these spaces all provide the same point rewards over the course of the game and the player in control receives an additional god tile each turn. The temple track is player driven as players can “bump” priests to a lower position on the temple track and eventually off the track entirely. The level of attention given to it by opponents determines the relative value of the temple track.
The Status Track: Stefan Feld seems to place an very high strategic value on turn order in Bora Bora as it controls positioning and immediate scoring. The turn order progress in Bora Bora is effectively reset each round so that a player can advance on the status track and take control. This is a departure from other prominent Feld games such as In the Year of the Dragon and Castles of Burgundy in which turn order position is accumulated as part of a running tally over the course of the game.
The Status Track uses player driven balance long-term as the motivations of players determine the relative value of the turn order. The immediate scoring benefits of the Status Track use an increasing rate of return to accommodate the opportunity costs necessary to collect large amounts of tattoos.
Man/Woman Tiles: During the game players will add Men and Women tiles to their player board which will provide a special two-part benefit. After placing all the dice and performing the desired actions players are able to use a special action associated with one of their Man or Woman tiles each round.
Not all of the actions on the Man/Woman tiles are inherently balanced and as such there is a second benefit in the form of a one-time “activation bonus” provided to players. As an example there are tiles which provide one clam during the special Man/Woman tile phase. While this tile would ordinarily be inferior to the other Man/Woman tiles available, it does provide four clams or tattoos for its one time activation bonus. All the Man/Woman tiles are approximately balanced with an activation bonus of two to four clams/tattoos based on their inherent strength. This activation bonus is a form of compensatory balance.
Task (Goal) Tiles: The most diverse scoring requirements belong to the task tiles which reward players for performing various tasks during the game. These function as a point bonus to their owners but often require a deviation from conventional strategy such as expanding to all the beach locations or collecting a certain quantity and type of jewelry. These tiles generally are not balanced effectively against one another as some tasks require significantly more effort to achieve than others.
Game End Completion Bonuses: A final subject concerning internal balance are several bonuses awarded for achieving maximum efficiency in many of the aforementioned areas. These bonuses include things like completing all nine task tiles or buying jewelry in each of the six rounds.
Oddly these bonuses don’t seem balanced at all as they award a standard six points seemingly regardless of difficulty. The bonus for completing all six building tiles also achieves a second bonus of filling the resource chart on the player board. Meanwhile the bonus for placing all huts onto the islands and filling all the spaces with Man/Woman tiles almost requires every action a player would have in the game. These bonuses would potentially approach equal strategic value had Bora Bora lasted eight turns rather than six but as they stand now several are achievable while other bonuses would require a ridiculous level of dedication and opposition conducive to such a performance.
Balance – External Balance
Our examination of external balance covers the inherent differences between the starting positions of players. The design accounts for this disparity in some areas of Bora Bora but discards it for player convenience in other instances.
Initial Hut Placement: After the starting turn order is determined players place their initial hut on the board adjacent to one of the starting one-point fish tile spaces. As a control for the first player advantage, the players place their huts in reverse turn order so that the start player receives the (theoretically) weakest starting hut position. Of course this difference can be entirely negated if the start player ignores the exploration and hut placement during the game but it is a novel method to determine the asymmetrical starting hut locations.
Players also begin with different god cards and task tiles at the beginning of the game. While some god cards carry situational value and others are more versatile there doesn’t seem to be anything terribly concerning about passing out two random god cards to each player.
Task Tiles: On the other hand task tiles seem to vary significantly in difficulty to the point which one player could complete a task tile with a minor deviation from their overall strategy while an opponent must truly sacrifice in order to complete a goal in early rounds. Given the already noticable set-up time Bora Bora requires it seems to make sense that Stefan Feld settled on randomly distributing the task tiles for a marginally expedited set-up.
It is noteworthy that each of these starting imbalances are easily controllable in each successive round of the game should a player choose to do so. Players are able to move ahead on the status track and select better task tiles in future rounds.
Balance – Positional Balance
Our framework for positional balance involves the concepts of a “runaway leader problem” and the potential need for catch-up mechanics. The “point salad” approach in Bora Bora maintains feedback neutrality during the game which prevents these issues from being present. As we’ve discussed in recent articles, the point salad approach is a strong method of maintaining player engagement. The uncertainty surrounding the final scores helps to keep players in the moment through the final round. If a player did appear to have a significant lead part way into the game, opponents are always able to target their priests or expand to areas with high scoring huts in order to reduce scoring advantages.
One interesting element of the dice in Bora Bora is that there are several different methods used in the game to mitigate a poor die roll and control against a particularly strong roll of the dice. A player with an underwhelming roll like 1-1-3 can either cut off the choices of another player by taking that action tile or they can use god cards to improve their dice results. A player with a lucrative die roll like 6-6-5 generally needs be positioned early in the turn order and use god cards/offerings in order to capitalize on that turn.
A final benefit that helps mitigate the randomness and ensure weak die results can compete is some of the actions aren’t inherently superior if a 6 is placed rather than a 3. Other than the helper action, every other action provides only the benefit of a larger selection of tiles or items to choose from. Thus a player who consistently rolls higher than opponents is only gaining marginal advantages of strategic choice rather than multiple benefits which would contribute to positive feedback and a distinct advantage (such as the ability to collect multiple Man/Woman tiles or place multiple priests on a turn).
Dimensions of Games – Complexity
The level of complexity in Bora Bora requires a significant upfront investment from players to familiarize themselves with the rules. One can consider the most intriguing aspect of Bora Bora to be the plethora of options and variety rather than the continuous evolving game play strategies from other players.
This complexity is met with a proportionally smaller level of strategic depth. A potential downside of a point salad scoring system is it often comes at the cost of a strong engine development. For the sake of simplicity, Bora Bora wisely uses action tiles to break down player actions and simplify the driving forces behind the design. Beyond these action tiles there are limited opportunities to interfere with opponents.
Bora Bora’s complexity and the resulting choices can be considered straightforward but are probably not met with a level of depth necessary to observe emergent gameplay.
Dimensions of Games – Player Count
Bora Bora plays two to four players and addresses some neat elements of scalability when adapting to various player counts. The action tiles are separated or merged as players are added or removed to the player count. This fluctuates the value of dice in the game as more players battle over proportionally fewer spots for die placement.
Stefan Feld maintains or even increases tension in Bora Bora on the upper end of the player count. As players are added, the game scales to preserve scarcity rather than availability of territory. The available space, tiles and scoring opportunities remain constant regardless of players. Bora Bora is a rare situation in which a game can sustain increased competition over an unchanging amount of resources without significant changes to the length of the game. As a result player scores will generally be lower in a four player game than a two player game and the importance of turn order increases with each additional player.
Dimensions of Games – Game Length
Bora Bora presents itself as a heavier game and it has a suitable game length to match. A number of the game length aspects we talked about earlier this year can be seen including a noticeable set-up and instruction time. There is also a quick break between rounds needed to reset the tiles for the following round. Lastly, there is scoring period which can take several minutes followed by the necessity of a clean-up phase. All of these together seem to make a significant impact on the perceived game length of Bora Bora. Once familiar with the game I can speed through a two player game in an hour but it can still feel much longer due to these uses of time.
Perhaps the most impressive feature in regards to time spent in Bora Bora is that it progressively moves faster. A new player or even an experienced player might have some difficulty deciding their intended path in the first round but later rounds can move at a far more favorable pace. Additionally the first few dice played each round can potentially generate downtime but successive dice can frequently fall into place as players are able to plan their turns in advance due to fewer decision variables.
Value – Monetary & Replay Value
Among games of similar level of complexity and component composition, Bora Bora is one of the best values I have seen in recent years. The box is packed with components and the game maximizes the use of sturdy cardboard tiles.
As for replay value the game has a need for players who adapt to their competition. Nothing about the game necessarily changes from one game to another so two players who have favorite non-competing strategies can find themselves playing the same results time and time again. This isn’t an issue exclusive to Bora Bora but it is certainly present if players enjoy solitary playing styles. This issue is not present in 3 and 4 player games as the swirling player driven chaos forces players to adapt to the situation far more often.
Value – Collection Value
As far as collection value, Bora Bora plays an interesting role in the tier of “advanced games” currently on the market. It is certainly a heavier Feld title, but still comparable Castles of Burgundy. I’m not sure it is necessary to own both unless a gamer is a Stefan Feld enthusiast or really enjoys the variety specifically between the two games. Castles of Burgundy is easier to teach to new players and offers a greater utility as it supports more players in a similar time frame with less complexity. If you prefer a large number of decision variables in games, Bora Bora is a tremendous addition to your collection.
Value – Teachability
One of the most challenging aspects to playing Bora Bora is how troublesome it is to teach and how disconcerting it is to learn for new players. Bora Bora’s structure of using many interconnected mini-games means it lacks a natural flow or direction when teaching the rules; there just isn’t an ideal place to start. The best an instructor can do is probably to start with the action tiles and fill in the gaps of knowledge where possible.
The trouble in learning the game is that there is simply such a large burden coming at new players all at once. Players can’t really be taught exactly what an effective turn might look like as there are so many options available to cover in a comprehensive example. Despite this difficulty, individual actions are short enough that players can be given a quick example of each as a pretty effective method to learning the game.
Approachability – Familiarity & Purpose
Bora Bora certainly exhibits our definition of an “uncertainty gap” with new players. The board is packed with things; there are cards, tokens and tiles everywhere. Players are hit with so much information at one time it is difficult to alleviate any concerns of learning and playing Bora Bora during their first round of playing. Even a basic understanding of all the options in the game isn’t helped by the little nuances such as the important distinction between huts and buildings.
As is the case with several other Stefan Feld titles, Familiarity and Purpose are limited to past gaming experiences. Bora Bora in particular doesn’t have any visual indicators of Familiar ideas and players aren’t able to quickly gather a sense of Purpose as collecting victory points is dependent on learning the entire game first. The best way to introduce Bora Bora to an audience exhibiting the uncertainty gap is probably to introduce them to other Feld titles first.
Approachability – Clarity & Navigation
Our second pair of Approachability axioms is where the sun truly shines over Bora Bora. Our Clarity axiom necessitates a clear relationship between actions and outcomes and the game does this marvelously with the action tiles. Victory points come immediately from using some of the action tiles, particularly the temple action and build action. The expand action provides a long-term scoring benefit while the man/woman and helper actions provide direct or indirect scoring abilities depending on player preference. As a whole, the game handles Clarity well by not obscuring the scoring opportunities but by making scoring the immediate focus of game play.
I tend to imagine that the early development of Bora Bora had some difficulties when faced with new players. There sheer number of options facing a beginner can be daunting and paralyze the player from wanting to move in any particular direction. The solution used in Bora Bora is the task tiles, which are in-game goals which help to guide players and provide some short and medium-term objectives. These task tiles not only get players started in the right direction but also to encourage players to head in different directions rather than pile onto pre-determined strategies.
Approachability – Parsimony & Assurance
An encouraging trend in polished game designs is the overall improvement in information distribution to new players. Our axioms of Parsimony and Assurance involve how to alleviate the feelings of information overload and begin to reassure new players they’re part of the right game for them.
As we’ve addressed, the complexity in Bora Bora comes from the sheer volume of ideas, currencies and options available to players on their first few turns. Interestingly, the player aid and player board isn’t any sort of peaceful refuge for a new player to calm the overwhelming amount of information present in the game. While it is a very useful assistant once you’ve got an understanding of the game, the player board is a busy visual in an already complex encounter.
One of the strongest aspects of Bora Bora’s design is that it doesn’t restrain players with tedious resource management games in order to make progress. Each of the action tiles grants a player benefit or immediate rewards in the form of points, cards, tokens or tiles to further their plans. The point salad approach is one of the most fulfilling design structures for a player who is experiencing the “uncertainty gap” as it provides immediate physical and psychological rewards.
One last element of Assurance comes from the dice in Bora Bora. While all rolls carry strategic merit, there is enough wiggle room in the use of dice that a high roll is still an exciting moment. In a game that can cause concern and hesitation in players, sometimes its just nice to see you had a good roll and can look forward to the turn ahead.
Approachability – The Learning Curve
Bora Bora is an excellent study of how to design involving a learning curve in tabletop games. One aspect we looked at earlier this year was the trade-off of iconography. On one hand it increases the burden on players in learning a new game (as opposed to text) but once it is understood it is far more helpful to experienced players in future games.
Bora Bora uses iconography often and uses it very well. The icons follow a logical trend by connecting tiles and actions to the related elements in the game. Additionally, many of the icons are used in multiple areas to continuously reinforce their purpose. The orchid symbol always indicates a point value and the fire offering symbol summarizes a multiple step process using a single symbol.
Although discarding and refreshing the Man/Woman tiles can be slightly tedious each round it does assist by showing new players all of the available tiles in the game. In future games a player is able to adapt to the tiles coming out as they are at least familiar with each of the tiles in the game. This element is not always present in games and I think including all 36 tiles in every game was a wise (and essential) design choice in Bora Bora.
Bora Bora’s learning curve is a classic sigmoidal: the first few turns make no sense, and you learn very little relative to the progression of the game. The mid- to late-game is where you really pick up the strategy and understand how different dynamics of the game work. Once you’ve completed a game or two with this firm understanding, you’ve probably mastered all the skills you need to play Bora Bora.
Conclusion – Rating Bora Bora
With the design thoroughly analyzed according to the framework we’ve established, one more question might arise: how good of a game is Bora Bora? We’ve provided our personal review of the game in regard to our own preferences. We each use a grading scale catered to our own tastes which will result in a total rating from 0 to 5. Add Matt and Alex’s scores and we’ll have a grade on an overall rating on a ten point scale.
I use an unnecessarily complex complex of seven categories, three are heavily weighted worth a maximum of one point each (Originality, Pure Fun & Replay Value) and four categories worth half a point each that represent my weighted preference for a number of other aspects of games (Theme, Strategy/Luck Ratio, Scalability, Parity).
Originality: We’ve seen many of the ideas in Bora Bora in various other places and they all work well together here. While it seems like there would be natural comparisons to other games, I can’t say that without using a description such as “Kind of a deluxe version of ___” or “This mechanic reminds me a little of ___”. While I don’t feel like I’m playing an entirely original game (honestly, what really is?), I do feel I’m playing a game that keeps me in the moment without trying to think of a comparable experience.
Theme: The artwork of Bora Bora is eye-catching and there was a clear effort placed on adapting components to make thematic sense. At its core much of this game is still an abstract and thus while I love the theme I can’t give it full credit here.
Pure Fun: This is truly a game which as a whole is better than the sum of its parts. I honestly don’t find any of the areas of the game particularly fascinating or enjoyable but I love having all the options and this is a game for players who like seeking optimal decision-making. There is plenty of action and I find the planning of each turn to be a fun little puzzle.
Replay Value: I have two main reservations with Bora Bora and unfortunately they both fall here. The first is that I don’t feel I’ve learned anything new between playing my 2nd game and my 10th game of Bora Bora as the levels of strategy and intrigue are fairly compact and present in the earliest experiences of the game just as much as the later experiences.
My second is that while this game plays functionally very well with two players, it is far more impressive with more. Bora Bora doesn’t entice me to play a 2-player game frequently against the same opponent as almost nothing encourages me to play differently than I did last time. The tension and variety of a 3 or 4 player game encourages everyone to adapt and makes for a far better experience.
Strategy to Luck Ratio: The dice in Bora Bora are nearly as misleading as they can be in other Feld games. The game presents itself as a strategic game that use dice as an interesting mechanism for player interaction. Feld gives players the ability to mitigate the value of dice as we’ve noted above and “luck” shouldn’t be a complaint about Bora Bora.
Scalability: Although the difference in a 2-player game and a 4-player game is noticeable, both play very effectively as player counts. No complaints here.
Parity: From my experience, Stefan Feld’s designs are some of the best at retaining the excitement and tension of a close game and Bora Bora is yet another great example. Although I’ve seen some disparity between final scores, often this was due to some sub-optimal decisions rather than being locked out of position by other players. My favorite feeling at the end of any game is having done my very best and still being uncertain what my final standing is among strong competition. Bora Bora capitalizes on this feeling extremely well during the end-game scoring.
Alex’s Verdict: 4.0/5. Despite my criticisms, Bora Bora has become one of my favorite games of the past year. I wish that for a game that requires quite an effort to teach it would be more enticing to play over and over. It is just long enough to discourage an encore and just frustrating enough of an experience to learn that it can diminish the positive experiences of a new player so that they don’t ask to play it again.
I’ve described how I tend to evaluate games in more detail before, but here’s a quick summary. I’ll rate a game in each of five equally weighted categories that cover most of our design analysis framework: aesthetics (sensory appeal, suitability of theme, integration of theme with experience and mechanics), flexibility (scaling, situational rule changes, replay value), fun per time (pure fun, game length, downtime, analysis paralysis), strategy (depth and complexity, balance in all its forms, multiple paths to victory), and mechanics (creativity, teachability, parsimony, integration of expansions if applicable). Here’s how Bora Bora stacks up:
Aesthetics: Bora Bora is full of bright pretty colors that convince me I am playing a game about Polynesia. The mechanics are less convincing of the theme–from the mechanics alone, this game could just as easily be about robots on a futuristic spaceship or settling the Holy Land during the Crusades. This is yet another game that uses a wonderful hybrid player aid/player board, and the iconography on it is intelligible and informative.
Flexibility: The 2-4 player restriction is a little disappointing, though at least the game is nearly identical with 2, 3, or 4. Randomized starting goals represent one of the few ways the game is different from play to play, and it seems likely that Bora Bora could get a little repetitive after playing through it many times.
Fun per Time: After its complex setup, Bora Bora plays quickly and without much downtime. The sheer number of options could induce analysis paralysis in some players, though the die mechanic helps to mitigate it. It’s not a deeply thrilling game for each of its 90 minutes but is still quite enjoyable more often than it’s not.
Strategy: Bora Bora gets rated this highly not because it’s necessarily a game of great complexity or engine-building, but because it’s fun to pick at the point salad every turn and select the best value move. There are deliberate lines of play to pursue, but you won’t necessarily be able to pursue them even if you wanted to.
Mechanics: Stefan Feld’s brilliant and elegant dice-centric mechanics are on full display here. Rolling dice isn’t a means of simply introducing variance; it helps to restrict and refine player decisions and introduces a bit of competitive strategy in itself when using the dice to “bid” on actions.
Verdict: 3.75/5. Bora Bora can really mess with your expectations at first, as its avalanche of mechanics and components usually belong to a game much weightier and strategically deep than Bora Bora really is. It’s neither a game that’s simple enough to bring out in the company of casual gamers nor one that’s heavy enough to satisfy hardcore gamers. Instead, it sits happily in the niche that Stefan Feld has carved out with his dice games: enjoyable and fast enough but still containing some substance. Castles of Burgundy is a better game, but that’s hardly an indictment of Bora Bora–and if you enjoy Castles of Burgundy, you’ll probably like Bora Bora too.