Carrying on our French week here, and following on from yesterday’s review of Hiroba. Pearladora is actually Pearladöra, but typing umlauts on this keyboard is awkward. Pearladora is also a reimagining of a game called Armadöra, apparently. It’s a game set around a series of lagoons, and in these lagoons are piles of pearls, just waiting to be claimed. The inhabitants of the islands, dotted around the lagoons, want to be the best and to collect the most pearls.
That’s where you come in, player.
I was one of those people who grew up knowing Blackjack by another name – Pontoon. The pontoons in Pearladora have nothing to do with the famous game of 21. Instead, players place them on the board in an effort to box in groups of pearls and divers.
On your turn you’ll either place a diver into the waters face-down, or put a pontoon on an edge between two of the squares that make up the game board. Now, face-down makes sense for a diver from a thematic point of view, for sure. You’re not going to find many pearls if you’re looking up to the surface. In the game’s case, however, it’s because each of your divers has a number on its underside, denoting its strength. Most are ones, with a smattering of twos, and if you’re lucky, the all-powerful four-strength diver.
At the end of the game, each sectioned area of the board is scored, and the player with the highest combined diver value in an area wins the pearls from any farms inside that area. You’re probably already seeing where this is going.
There aren’t many rules in Pearladora. The whole game is about your strategy, and how you try to employ it. When it’s your turn, you either place a diver or place two pontoons, and those are your only options. You can place that diver in between those farms chock-full of pearls, sure. but what if someone sections one off with pontoons on their turn?
And there, friends, is where the simple genius of Pearladora slaps you in the face and calls you stupid. It should be easy. It should be as simple as drawing boxes with wooden pontoons to claim areas of the board, like an analogue version of Qix. But I’ll be damned if nearly every single turn isn’t an agonising choice.
There’s one very important rule in the game which says that any enclosed space must be a minimum of four squares in total. You can use this to manipulate the board and make things trickier for people. For instance, if you make an area of eight squares, someone can come along and split that into two four-square areas. So if you’re smart and manage to box-in seven squares, you know that no one can subdivide that space again, because it would create a three-square area, which is illegal. Then it comes down to a secret fight for dominance with your divers.
Upping the ante
Pearladora is a great family-weight game just played as described so far. If you like just a little more oomph from your games though, there are some advanced rules you can use.
When you start the game, you choose one of the four teams on offer, e.g. children or elders. Each has its own unique ability, which is really interesting and very asymmetric, not to mention a lot of fun. The children can place an extra diver once per game, while the elders get to sneak a peek at the value of a diver. Fishermen can place an extra pontoon, and foragers can pop a flower necklace on an opponent’s diver to reduce their strength by one at the end of the game.
The advanced rules are my favourite way to play, and I suspect it’ll be your favourite way to play, too. It just makes the game that little bit more interesting, and while one point or one extra pontoon might not sound like much, the game is so tight that it can easily be the difference between winning and losing.
I must be losing my edge as I get older. It used to be the big, heavy Euros that got me excited, but now I can’t wait to tear the shrink off these smaller games. Pearladora is another great example of how to design a simple game, but make it dense with strategy. I can pop this on a table, explain the rules with some examples, and have people playing in the length of time it takes to make a cup of tea.
The components are gorgeous. You’d have to be dead inside to not want to play with the pearls. There’s also a really fun four-player mode where players sat opposite one another team up to get the best combined score they can. They can talk, but not discuss diver values or strategies. It reminds me of Bridge.
One of my favourite things about Pearladora is its brevity. I can play three games of this inside an hour, including setup and packing away. Nearly every time I’ve played it, someone has wanted to immediately play again, so the speed of the game is definitely in its favour. I think it’d get pretty stale without the advanced rules in the box. If you’re playing the base game with the same people lots, you can see patterns of play start to emerge, but the advanced rules – coupled with random faction assignment – really keep it bubbling along.
I’m a big fan of Pearladora, even though I’d never heard of it before Hachette sent me a copy. My wife and son really like it too (and consistently beat me…), so it’s staying in my collection. Another game around £20 that’s easy to recommend.
Review copy kindly provided by Hachette Boardgames UK. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more like this, consider supporting the site by joining my monthly membership at Kofi. It starts from £1 per month, offers member benefits, and lets me know you’re enjoying what I’m doing.
Designer: Christwart Conrad
Publisher: La Boîte de Jeu
Art: Mehdi Merrouche
Playing time: 20 mins