Niagara is an award winning family board game that features a beautifully crafted three-dimensional representation of a river and waterfall, and an extremely clever mechanism for simulating the flow of the river over the falls.
Players must choose carefully from a limited number of movement tiles in order to gather gems from the river bank, keeping in mind the danger of the falls and the speed of the currents. What better way is there to gather jewels than in a canoe? I know that would be my first choice.
The game could be a real brain burner if you try and anticipate not only your optimal moves but also the moves of your opponents as you try and navigate your canoe up and down the river, or you could just play randomly and watch what happens. I’ve seen both.
Niagara was designed by Thomas Liesching and features art by Victor Boden. I think it’s important to mention the artist because I feel that it is the physical 3D presentation of this game that makes it memorable. Niagara was awarded the Spiel des Jahres in 2005. It’s been published internationally by a variety of publishers, but I own the Rio Grande version. It will accommodate from three to five players, or six if you have The Spirits of Niagara expansion, which I do not. There is another expansion called Niagara: Diamond Joe, which is basically a chunk of wood in a cloth bag and piece of paper with some writing on it.
Niagara takes about 45 minutes, but if you are like me then the first ten minutes seem like regular minutes, the next 20 minutes seem like twice that, the next10 minutes seem like an hour, and the last five minutes seem more like 3 minutes because I’m excited it’s almost over, so that’s almost two hours of play time relatively speaking. The suggested minimum age for Niagara is eight, but you can play with kids younger than that. For most kids, there will be very little time dilation, under normal gravity of course.
There’s no denying that Niagara is a beautifully designed game. Inside the box, you will find ten wooden canoes in the five player colors along with thirty-five oar tiles, some acrylic chunks to represent the gems, a start player marker, and a wooden cloud for the weather track. The game board is formed with cutouts for the gems and for the path of the river. The river itself is represented by a number of clear plastic discs that fit into the river groove on the game board, which is placed on top of the two box halves.
The goal in Niagara is navigate your canoes up and down the river, collecting gems and then returning them to shore. How far you can move is determined by the value of the oar tile that you play. These movement points are also used to gather gems. If you are traveling upstream, and you finish your movement on a river disc with another player, you can steal a gem from that player if your canoe is empty. The value of the lowest oar tile will determine many discs will move downstream, in combination with a modifier for the weather. If your canoe goes over the falls, you have to pay a gem to return it, which to be frank, is extremely irritating.
Niagara is one of those games that I keep because my kids enjoy it and it has a great deal of novelty value. I do believe that this is a good game, and I do play it every once and a while, but it’s not something I want to bring to the table on a regular basis. The best game of Niagara I ever played was a five player game using the wooden beaver that’s included in The Spirits of Niagara expansion, but that was with other adult gamers who were aware of the issues related to the speed of the river. Yes, it really is a wooden beaver.
“I like it when the boats go over the falls.” Ben Myers, opinionated 8 year old.
I go back and forth on Niagara. It looks so cool that I want to love it, but I just don’t. I don’t like the stealing. I don’t like the crazy river that can go from moving one on one turn to six on the next. It just isn’t all that fun for me; however, kids think this thing is the bee’s knees. It’s like a game/toy to them like Mousetrap was to me when I was little. I suppose I recommend Niagara for gaming families, but I can’t recommend it for regular gamers, not gamers like me anyway.
This is part of my Spiel des Jahres winner series. If you would like to comment on the 2005 winner, Niagara, then please do so on this post. If you would like to discuss or comment on the Spiel des Jahres award in general, please do so on the Spiel des Jahres series post.