Written Review: Gaia

Gaia TitleGaia Header

The first time I played Gaia, I played with two 10 year olds and an 8 year old. The second time, I played it with my wife, whose age I will sagely withhold. The third time I played, I played with a gaming group of 40 something men. Since then, it has seen regular rotation among each of those groups and, as of today, it remains a game that still gets a disproportionate amount of play among each (or some mixed configuration of each). This summarize the charm and appeal of Gaia.
In Gaia players take on the role of omnipotent world makers building a realm made up of six different biomes (look who paid attention in sixth grade biology): swamp lands; deserts; plains; woodlands and oceans.  The objective of the game is to be the first player to get rid of, or place, all of your meeples. Simple enough, right? And in truth, the game is fairly simple. However, while the “how” of Gaia is relatively simple, simple does not equal boring.  To the contrary, Gaia’s apparent simplicity may be its greatest asset.

Each player starts the game with two nature cards, one life card and five meeples of their chosen color. The remaining cards make up a draw pile. The nature cards, which feature each of the six biome types, are laid in a face down stack. Three of the cards are then turned face up. This makes up the nature cards draw pile.  The life cards, which feature either city cards or food cards, are also laid out in a face down stack; however here only two cards are laid face up. The game also comes with various objective cards, a set number of these cards are laid out on the table, with the number of objective cards laid out increasing with larger player counts. Finally, there are several tiles that correspond with the biome types featured on the nature cards, with some tile types being rarer than others, that are laid out in stacks within easy reach of each of the players.

Exemplar Objective and Life Cards
Exemplar Objective and Life Cards
The Nature Cards
The Nature Cards

On their turn each player may take two actions which include: drawing a card from the draw deck array, playing a card to place a corresponding tile, playing a card to place animals on a tile of the appropriate type or playing a card to place a city on the tile on an appropriate type. The first action is self-explanatory, the player may draw a card for later use in the game; however no one player may ever have more than six card in their hand at a time.
The second and third actions are also fairly straight forward. Players may play a nature card that represents a land type of any kind, provided the stack of available tiles for that land type remain in the tile stack set up at the start of the game. Once the card is played it is laid in front of the player and a tile is drawn from the tile reserves and placed on a shared play area adjacent to a previously placed tile. Player may also play a life card that shows an animal types and lay four animal tokens (deer for land, fish for water) on the appropriate tile type. Some life cards allow players to lay the animal tokens on any type of land while other require them to be placed on specific land types.
If a player plays a nature or life card that creates a completed set that corresponds with an exposed and available objective card, i.e. the player plays a fourth desert card and one of the visible and available objective cards requires four deserts cards, then that player must take one of their meeples and place it on the relevant objective card. That objective has now been satisfied and other player may not place a meeple upon the objective.
The fourth action makes up the heart and soul of the game. After several tiles have been laid, players can place a city card, drawn from the life deck, on top of an appropriate tile provided at least two of the tile’s bordering conditions have been met and thereafter place one of their meeples upon that city. At the bottom of each tile are four icons, these icons show the types of tiles that must surround the city in order for its bordering conditions to be met. For example, a tile may have a grasslands icon on its upper left corner, meaning it must be placed on a grassland tile. That tile may also have a food icon, a desert icon, a sea icon and a tree icon along its bottom border, meaning the tile upon which the city is placed must be adjacent to a tile either of one of these types or which has food tokens upon it.

Example of City Placement/Scoring
Example of City Placement/Scoring (Red)

However, other players may supplement a previously placed city’s requirements by placing a tile that meets one of the city’s unmet conditions next to it, earning the right to place a meeple upon the space. Players may also, deplete the requirements of a previously places city by placing a city card on one of the tiles that previously met the city’s conditions, triggering the removal of meeples or the removal of city cards, depending upon the number of border conditions that remain after the city’s placement. Additionally, at the start of the turn of each player that has meeple within a city which relies upon food conditions the citizens of that city must be fed by removing a food token (each tile starts with four food tokens) from adjacent tiles.

Example of Secondary Scoring (Blue)
Example of Secondary Scoring (Blue)

Play continues like this until one player has placed their last meeple on a tile or objective card. That player is declared the winner at the game ends at that time.
The game also has various other rules options including an ability to wrest control of a city from another player, the ability to satisfy all of a city’s need a place a second meeple on a tile, or the ability to play special power cards, such as tornados, volcanos, earthquakes and other natural disasters in order to add more player interaction and alter the board conditions or configuration.

The Power Cards
The Power Cards


Any assessment of the quality and appeal of this game must begin with the components, and specifically the game art. While the meeples, tiles and cards, though of good quality, are fairly standard, the stylized art is a pleasure to behold. The images, colors and lines are evocative and infinitely appealing. While all of the tiles of each land type is largely the same, details infused upon each tile create slight and charming variations. Moreover, each of the city tiles are truly unique invoking the architectural styles of various cultures in a light and whimsical storybook style. Moreover the graphic design is clear and appealing, with each icon being easy to discern and distinguish.
However, just because a game is fun to look at does not mean it is fun to play, fortunately this game performs admirably in this crucial category. The game play has enough complexity to allow for meaningful and diverse game choices, but is easy enough to understand after a brief tutorial. As I noted at the outset, I have played this with hardened gaming pros (literally in some cases) and children who think (or thought) the peak of gaming perfection was Sorry.  All of them took to the game quickly and stayed engaged throughout multiple plays. Even truly neophyte gamers can grasp the game’s core mechanics easily after a few rounds of assistance and quickly begin making savvy moves on their own.
This game should not be confused with more complex civ builders, as the rules summary makes clear, this is, for the most part, an abstract though wonderfully themed game. The choices though varied are not complex, and optimal plays often present themselves. However, this game can favor the bold and a careful balance of capacity building and point earning actions is necessary for success. That said, there are risk associated with waiting too long to make a perfect play and reading other players intended actions is a vital tactic that cannot be ignored. Likewise, players can succeed by lying in wait for others to build cities and then swooping in and increasing the city’s requirements for a quick and relatively cheap meeple placement. However, the hand limit constraints this tactic and it may only be employed in conjunction with other meeple depleting actions.
This game also features a healthy dose of player interaction, since all players are playing upon a single emerging world. This facet of the game can also be substantially increased by adding power cards into the mix. However, this game can also be played in a less confrontational manner, which adds to its versatility, since, at least in my experience young children often bristle at being targeted by others during game play.
I am very impressed with Gaia’s elegance and balance. It plays quickly and turns rarely take more than a minute, making it a great fit as a light family game or a gaming group filler game. Also, the game can support repeated plays in rapid succession. After about a dozen plays, I have yet to bore of the game and have found new paths to victory throughout (though very rarely my own victory; I am looking at you 9 year old gaming protégé). Moreover, it seems to appeal to a diverse range of players and while the game shines brightest with four or five players, it is enjoyable and competitive with two. In sum this is a game that is likely to make its way to table more frequently than you might first expect.

I commend Tiki Editions on this, its first entry into board game publishing. Tiki Editions is clearly run by experienced and intelligent gamers (it will come as no surprise that they have owned a highly successful and remarkable game store in Montreal, Quebec for decades). They have an obvious sense of what makes for a game that will not languish within most gamers’ collections. I do not want to oversell the game’s heavy gamer appeal however. It should be known, this is a light game that may not have as much staying power within hard core gaming groups as it does within families.  But that does not mean that this game cannot do double duty, at least for a time. And I am confident that most families will find that this title will stay within easy access upon the gaming shelves, for some time to come.
The Five

  • The artwork instantly appealed to me. Just like Machi Koro, the mere act of looking at this game made be oddly sentimental. The fact that my children are just a few years removed from storybooks and no longer let me read to them at night may have something to do with this. What? It’s dusty in here. I’m not crying; you’re crying!
  • During a recent beach trip I took this and a few other family games to play with some of the many, many kids that would be there. (What can I say, my friends and I are, shall we say, prolific.) Their ages were diverse; however, they were all bright children, so I was hopeful that my efforts would meet with success. While several of the games were enjoyed, Gaia was the clear winner of the weekend. The fact that we played this game three times and two of the kids separately asked me if they could have it to play with one another, without my oversight, made its broad appeal and accessibility apparent to me from the outset.
  • This game has a wonderful balance. Things like hand limits, feeding needs and the distribution of cards and tiles make the decisions that players are required to make more difficult than you might expect. At least, I hope that is true, because I know the decisions were hard for me to make. I did mention that I lost this game to a nine year old, didn’t I? I may have lost twice. Don’t worry, I already have plans to challenge him to a game of Here I Stand. I’m sorry, did my corsairs just raid your peninsula capital? Eat it kid!
  • This game sets ups and plays in no time. Thirty minute games are the norm. In other words this is a game that you can easily play with your in-laws. Because thirty minutes is enough time to spend with those losers. Am I right? High five! High five? (Editor’s note: that is just a joke my in-laws are wonderful and fine people) (Second editor’s note: my wife is my editor.)
  • The inclusion of special power cards, really sealed the deal for me on the enjoyment of this game. While the base game described above is enjoyable enough, this game is really meant to be played with the special powers. And be not mistaken, those cards can wreak havoc on a game plan. The eruption tile alone can drive a couple to counseling. And who doesn’t like a game that can do that.

The aforementioned review derives from a copy of the reviewed game which was provided by the publisher, free of charge.