Aquarius – The Rainbow Connection

Andrew Looney – the founder of Looney Labs and creator of Aquarius – makes no qualms about being a card-carrying hippie; I know because it says so right on the company website. Even if the website didn’t state as such, one look at the far-out kaleidoscope of colors and images on the Aquarius box would convince anyone that the sensibilities of the 60s were alive and well. What then makes Aquarius such a quirky conundrum is that the actual gameplay – as light and friendly as it may seem, at first – is actually filled with various levels of trickery, tomfoolery and decidedly unhippie-like deception. In other words, this game is not for wimps, despite the rainbows and fields of flowers.

At the start of the game, each player is randomly dealt one of five elemental goals – earth, fire, water, sky, or space – along with three cards from the deck. The person with the longest hair goes first – naturally – and the goal of the game is to use the cards in your hand to form a connected chain of seven of the elements on your goal card. Play continues in the customary clockwise fashion while other players attempt to ascertain your hidden goal and block you, or secretly try and connect their own elements. If they connect more than one element with a single card play they draw extra cards, depending on the number of matched elements. Sounds easy, right? Oh, it gets more complicated – and far more devious.

The simple “connect 7″ play mechanic combined with the secret goals makes for an intriguing game of cat and mouse (and one that can easily be played with young children), but the real fun lies in the mix of action cards in the deck. These cards can be played on a turn instead of an element card, and they afford the user a special ability such as moving a card already in place, trading hands with another player, and the always-popular Trade Goals card, which does exactly what you think. There’s rarely a more satisfying instance in Aquarius than when an opponent has connected six of their elements, gotten a smug look on their face, braced for a clear win, and then had that look wiped clean by you trading goal cards with them. Peace and Love, indeed, man.

On the first couple of plays, the action cards seem to add a silly bit of randomness to the game, and it could frustrate players who don’t enjoy being toyed with. However, the more games you play, the clearer it becomes that saving those action cards for just the right moment can turn a losing game into an instant winner, and the actions can often be strung together into withering combos. A couple of my favorite Aquarius gambits:

  1. The Wounded Possum – This fun bit of trickery usually works best in a two or three-player game after players have almost figured out the secret goals, and depends on you getting two Trade Goals cards in your hand at one time (this happens more often than you think with two players). When you can no longer lay down cards that can help you reach your elemental goal, Trade Goals with your opponent who most likely has stockpiled cards in their hands that could help you reach your goal. You’ll see their pupils dilate with happiness, and they will eager lay down cards that marches them closer to victory. When the time is right, play your second Trade Goals card and reclaim your victory element. A snarky “thanks for the help” is usually acceptable, at this point.
  2. The Shell Game – In this tricky little maneuver, you save a Rotate Goals card until just the right moment, totally screwing up the elemental connection on the table for the goal you hold, and then rotating your goal toward the winning player. You’ll suddenly have a new goal that they are clueless about and you’ll know not only what goal they have, but also that the elements placed on the board so far are beyond hopeless. The counter to this is the Indian Giver maneuver where the opponent you screwed over has a Rotate Goals card in hand and are only too eager to play it on you in return.

Most card games that rely on special action mechanics or a theme tend to lose some integrity when they are scaled up for multiple players, or down for two. Aquarius is not one of those games, and offers just as fun and challenging game play if you’re playing with the minimum or the maximum number of players. In fact, Aquarius requires different strategies depending on the number of players in the game, which makes replay value for this little gem off the charts.

I originally bought Aquarius on a whim for the special little hippie in my life and we have both found it to be fun and challenging (despite the fact that she regularly kicks my non-hippie butt). My coworkers love it; it’s a regular staple of our lunchtime game sessions. In short, Aquarius is one of those rare games that is easy to pick up, appeals to a wide range of players and is worth far more than what you’ll pay for it. Far out, man.

Gameplay/ReplayComponents & ThemeFun
Easy to learn; offers great replay value, especially since strategies can differ depending on the amount of players. The card stock is nice and durable; the whimsical, colorful art is fantastic and will bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded cynic. Whimsy, surprises, fantastic art, affordable price and gameplay that will appeal to just about everyone - this game is fun you can fit in your pocket.
Overall score: 16 out of 18 - A real ray of starshine. Can you dig it?

Aquarius is a game for 2 to 5 hippies, ages 6 to adult (although a pre-schooler variant is included in the rules), and currently retails for $15 at your favorite local game store, or from the Looney Labs online store.

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