Game: AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans

Release Year: 2024

Publisher: The Op Games

Designers: Dan Halstad and Tristan Halstad

Player Count: 1 to 4 players

Play Time: About 10 to 15 minutes per player

Rules Complexity: Simple

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This isn't the first time we've seen a game like AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans. (I'll be dropping the subtitle from here on out.) Cascadia popularized the hex-tile puzzle genre in 2021, with Akropolis and Dorfromantik trying to do the same in 2022.

There's something deeply compelling about hex-shaped puzzle games. Not only do the tiles fit together so nicely, but the six-sided design allows for a greater decision space compared to four-sided, square-shaped puzzle games.

But does AQUA do enough to distinguish itself from Cascadia? Is there anything special here or is it more of the same? Most importantly, is it fun?

Here's everything you need to know about AQUA, my experiences with it, and whether this puzzle game deserves to enter your collection.

This review is based on a review copy of AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans provided by The Op Games. My thoughts and opinions are solely my own.


In AQUA, players grow their own Coral environments using hexagonal tiles. The Corals come in six different colors and can combine to create Habitats that attract Small Animals, which in turn attract Large Animals. All of these aspects score points, and whoever scores the most points wins.

This is a multiplayer solitaire game where each player has their own personal environment. Players will take turns drafting Coral tiles from a central market, and those Coral tiles are added to their environment to grow it.

Each hexagonal Coral tile in AQUA is divided into three sides. When placing a Coral tile in your environment, at least one side must match the color of the connecting tile that it ends up touching. As long as one color matches, the placement is valid.

When three Coral tiles are oriented in such a way that it creates a "perfect hexagon" in a single color, that hexagon becomes a Habitat that attracts a Small Animal of that color. The attracted Small Animal gets placed on top of the Habitat, and the Small Animal will score points at the end of the game.

Whenever you attract Small Animals, you can also attract a Large Animal if the Small Animals are oriented in certain shapes. The attracted Large Animal gets placed on top of the Small Animals, and the Large Animal will also score at the end of the game. (One caveat: all of the Small Animals must be a different type!)

Segments of Coral that don't create perfect hexagons can become Reefs, which double the score value of all Small Animals touching them. A segment of Coral only becomes a Reef when there are at least 4+ Corals in it.

Lastly, there are also Ecosystem tiles that offer additional ways to score for each of the different Small Animals. Six of these are randomly chosen from a pool of many, and then randomly assigned one to each Small Animal. For each Ecosystem, the attached Small Animal is known as its Native Animal.

The Ecosystems in AQUA are actually slightly complicated, so I'm not going to explain them in depth. However, as an example, one Ecosystem offers extra points for each of the attached Native Animal in your environment PER every Large Animal of a specific type that exists in your environment.

Setup and Table Footprint

While AQUA is far from the fastest game to set up, it's not too bad. It helps that the box comes with a useful insert that keeps all the tiles sorted. Overall, expect it to take about 5 to 8 minutes to set up.

The non-trivial parts of setting up AQUA include:

  • Shuffling the Coral tiles and then removing a set number of them from play (depending on how many players are in the game).
  • Sorting the Small Animal tiles into piles per type.
  • Sorting the Large Animal tiles into piles per type.
  • Selecting Ecosystem tiles and randomly assigning them to Small Animals.

As far as table footprint is concerned, AQUA is reasonable.

While each player does need their own personal space, the player's actual environment never gets too large. The game always ends after 17 turns, so the environment will always be 17 tiles large (plus the starting tile).

You'll also need table space for: stacks of Small Animals and Large Animals, stacks of undrawn Coral tiles, and the central market for drafting Coral tiles.

All in all, I find that AQUA is modestly playable on a standard card table or even a coffee table. If you play solo, you could fit on a pretty small surface.

Learning Curve

AQUA is a bit of a strange one because the gameplay is pretty simple and appears to be targeting the family board gaming market, but there's one big element that's surprisingly complex and can be hard to wrap one's head around.

The core gameplay is really easy to pick up. Drafting tiles is a fundamental mechanism that even non-gamers can grasp, and the placement rules for Coral tiles are so simple that even children won't struggle. Even the Habitats, Small Animals, and Large Animals are straightforward (and, if you ask me, the most fun parts of the game).

And then you have to explain Reefs, which aren't complex on their own but they do muddy the waters when it comes to understanding how to value Coral tiles and what the best placements are with a given tile. Overall, Reefs are manageable.

But then you have the Ecosystems, which simply aren't intuitive to explain. Even after so many games, I still have a hard time parsing the Ecosystems and determining their values in a game. I like what the designers were going for, but the implementation is so clunky and unappealing. (I recommend leaving out Ecosystems.)

Game Experience

Decision Space

AQUA always plays in 17 rounds and you make one decision every round, so each game is basically a series of 17 decisions. The decisions are pretty simple, but depending on how badly you want to win, there are several factors that go into each decision that will influence how you'll proceed.

The decision is this: which Coral tile will you draft and where will you place it within your environment. In the central market, you have a few Coral tiles to choose from—and the one you choose will be the one that best progresses your environment.

The biggest factor in which Coral tile you pick will be this: are you trying to complete a Habitat for attracting Small Animals and Large Animals, or are you trying to extend a Reef so that your existing Small Animals will score more?

In most cases, Habitats are always better when possible. They're needed for Small Animals and Large Animals and most Ecosystems, so they're the primary way to earn points. Reefs are basically a tacked-on mechanism that serve as a route for consolation points when you're left with bad tiles to draft.

You can definitely play AQUA in a mindless way, just gunning for Small Animals and Large Animals. This is the main spatial puzzle, after all, and it's the most satisfying action as you attract these Animals to your environment.

But if you really want to be competitive and min-max points, you'll need to consider the following when placing Coral tiles:

  • Some Small Animals are worth more points than others.
  • You need a diversity of Small Animals in order to attract Large Animals, so you have to draft Coral tiles that contribute to this diversity.
  • You need to position your Small Animals in a certain shape in order to attract Large Animals, so your placements need to support that.
  • Ecosystems may make certain Small Animals and Large Animals more valuable such that you need to calculate which ones fit best into your environment.

I don't know how to explain AQUA's frustrating scoring, other than to say that there are many different scoring paths (i.e., point salad) that are so interconnected that it's very difficult to ascertain the value of a given move.

To put it another way, AQUA feels very chaotic in its scoring. Maybe I'm just stupid, but I never know if I'm making a good move or not. There's too much to process and I inevitably end up shrugging my shoulders and ignoring most of it whenever I play.

I'd rather just focus on attracting Small Animals and Large Animals and neglect Reefs and Ecosystems because I don't find Reefs and Ecosystems to be fun at all. To me, they just muddy the waters and detract from an otherwise streamlined experience.

Luck Factor

There is some luck in AQUA that can throw a wrench in even the best plans—and that luck mainly rests in the central market.

For starters, a random number of Coral tiles are removed from play before the game even begins. While it's unreasonable to think that anyone would memorize every possible tile and plan accordingly, the truth is that sometimes you'll be in a situation and hoping for a certain tile to appear, but that tile may not even be in play.

More importantly, the market doesn't refill with new Coral tiles until everyone has drafted one tile. So, if you're later in the turn sequence, you can be stuck with a tile that offers absolutely no benefit to your environment. And since AQUA always plays in 17 rounds, even one turn like this can be devastating.

Contrast this with Cascadia, which also has a central market draft but replaces every drafted tile right away. In Cascadia, players always have a choice between four options; in AQUA, your choices dwindle based on your turn position.

The only way to mitigate this is to snatch the Sea Snail token, which forces you to skip your turn and go last in the current round, but makes you the first player in turn order starting with the next round.

But in the grand scheme, I don't think the Sea Snail mechanism is very interesting, and the whole idea of a dwindling market detracts from AQUA's fun.

Fun Factor

Like other games in this genre, AQUA isn't a "fun" game in the tense, exciting, boisterous sense. It's more of a calm, relaxing, contemplative game where you're just fitting tiles and comparing scores at the end.

That said, there are moments of satisfaction when it gets to your turn and you're able to draft a Coral tile that helps you finish that Habitat, which attracts a Small Animal, which allows you to attract a high-scoring Large Animal.

If you're looking for a gentle and mellow game, AQUA fits the bill.


AQUA is predictably paced thanks to the fact that it always plays in 17 rounds. With each turn taking about 30 to 60 seconds and each player taking 17 turns, you should expect the game to take about 10 to 15 minutes per player.

The game arc over those 17 rounds is pretty flat. Turns are indistinguishable from each other, and there are no significant highs or lows. Your environment will expand across rounds, but that doesn't mean your placement options will expand with it—in fact, you're always at the mercy of the tiles in the central market.

The muddy scoring is also a slight drag once the game ends. Small Animals and Large Animals are easy to tally, but Reefs and Ecosystems aren't so simple. The silver lining here is that you don't really know who's in the lead during the game, at least.

Player Interaction

There's zero player interaction in AQUA. The central market drafting mechanism means you could hate-draft to screw over an opponent, but your options are so limited that you're more likely to harm yourself.

You're working on your own environment and that's it. Nothing you do will influence your opponents, and the same goes vice versa. Like many others in this genre, AQUA is the ultimate multiplayer solitaire puzzle game.


Do you like hex-shaped spatial puzzles? Your answer to that will determine how replayable you find AQUA. All the bells and whistles (see the "Challenges and Modifications" section below) might help keep the game fresh, but fundamentally it comes down to whether you like the core gameplay.

AQUA is essentially a tactical game, one where you're assessing the best choice from a limited number of options (i.e., the central market of Coral tiles) and how to use that to best progress your environment (i.e., earn the most points per turn).

If you like the idea of a turn-by-turn puzzle that isn't conducive to the planning ahead of long-term strategies, then AQUA is replayable. The game state is never the same and you have plenty of factors to consider, so I don't see it growing stale for someone who enjoys how it plays—especially with Challenges and Modifications.

Solo Mode

The solo mode for AQUA is nearly identical to the regular game. There are only a few changes, which are really simple to remember:

  • Remove 19 random Coral tiles from play.
  • The Coral market is only three tiles.
  • When you draft a Coral tile, the remaining two are discarded.

And that's it! I love how simple it is. AQUA takes advantage of its multiplayer solitaire design to present a solo mode that shines, and it really does shine with the extra bells and whistles that are included in the rulebook.

What are those extra bells and whistles? Well, AQUA's solo mode comes with dozens of optional Scenarios, which are pre-built game setups that involve specific Ecosystems, Target Scores, and sometimes even Objectives, which are additional requirements needed to qualify for victory.

As an example, one Scenario involves playing with Ecosystems 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12; with a Target Score of 70 points; with an Objective to earn at least 20 points from Reefs.

If you're looking for a solo puzzle game that blends the gameplay of Cascadia and Akropolis together, then AQUA will be a top-tier pick for you. The Scenarios inject lots of replayability as you try to win them all.

Challenges and Modifications

On top of Scenarios, AQUA also has optional Challenges and Modifications that twist the gameplay and inject replayability. You can pursue Challenges and Modifications whether you're playing solo or with other players.

Challenges are akin to video game achievements. After you complete a game, you look through the list of Challenges and mark off one that you've done. (If you complete multiple in a single game, you still mark only one.) For example: Have 4+ different Large Animals.

Modifications are changes to the core rules that apply to all players. You choose one before starting a game, and you can combine Modifications with Scenarios and/or Challenges however you wish. For example: You may only create Habitats in four colors (instead of all six colors per usual).

As someone who's usually open to house rules, I appreciate that AQUA leans into this by codifying many different ways to alter the game.

Production Quality

I really love the production of AQUA. Putting aside all the gameplay quibbles, the artwork and components are absolutely top-notch. You get the sense that Sidekick Games and The Op Games both put a lot of care into the end product.

The tiles are made of thick, hefty, chunky cardboard. The entirety of AQUA is played using tiles, so it's important that these tiles feel good in hand and satisfyingly tactile—and that's certainly the case.

Cascadia might be the gold standard for this type of gameplay, but AQUA's components are a noticeable improvement. Not only do you get the sense that these tiles will endure all kinds of physical abuse, but the extra thickness makes them more stable when stacked and easier to connect on the table.

The artwork is beautiful and eye-catching. Sure, artwork is subjective—and, to be fair, I don't really like the cover art for AQUA's box. But once you open the box, everything within is seriously impressive. Vincent Dutrait is one of the most iconic board game artists, and AQUA is just another example of what he can do to elevate a game.

Unfortunately, the iconography on Ecosystems is confusing. I already explained up above why I have disdain for the Ecosystem mechanism and its obtuse clunkiness, and part of that stems from the terrible iconography. Even after playing a handful of times, I still need to reference what each Ecosystem does.

The silver lining here is that AQUA comes with a full reference of all the Ecosystems on the back of its rulebook. However, it's still quite annoying having to reference the rulebook every time you play. (This alone should've been reason enough for the designers to rethink the Ecosystems mechanism during playtesting!)

The built-in box insert is helpful and effective. Instead of a plastic insert, AQUA comes with cardboard separators that are assembled into cubbies for the different tiles and components. Not only does it play into the environmental theme—the use of greener cardboard over plastic—but it's practical and aids with setup speed.

The Bottom Line

AQUA: Biodiversity in the Oceans

Approved Score Guide
  1. Engaging spatial puzzle with several layers
  2. Beautiful artwork, chunky tiles, top-notch production
  3. Effective solo mode, plus optional Scenarios
  4. Challenges and Modifications offer replayability through gameplay variations
  1. Ecosystem mechanism is overly complicated for this simple game
  2. Luck factor can swing games through no fault of the players
  3. Doesn't stand out enough from other similar games in the genre
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