El Niño!

Designed by George Witless
Published by Large Dripping Critter Press
Reviewed by Mick Suggins

3-4 players
45 mins

I came across this jewel at a car boot sale recently. Apparently, it was produced back in 1983 during the last so called El Niño! event, that unhappy warming of the waters in the South Pacific that dumps rain on California while Asia languishes in drought. I was immediately drawn to the game by the immense size of the box (always a plus in my book).

A quick shake to check out the bits was even more intriguing as the usual clunking noise sounded oddly muffled. A quick fiver and an awkward tube trip home before I could rip open the shrinkwrap and solve the mystery. And a very satisfactory conclusion it was, I might add - some of the strangest bits yet seen: four very large fluffy cotton towels, four glass tumblers, a large plastic board representing a stretch of California coastline, a deck of plastic coated cards, plastic money (and, no, I don't mean credit cards), a pile of plastic houses (that fit snugly into slots on the board), modular bits of coastside cliff, markers for road slumps and mud slides, and a small, plastic Coast Guard rescue boat used as the turn marker.

We should have known we were on to a strange one when the first step in game preparation was passing out the towels, one per player. Each player was also issued a tumbler filled with water. The game board was assembled by slotting each of the pieces of cliff together to form a long stretch of coastline criss-crossed by roads and, ominously, streams. The rescue boat is slotted in at the first turn. The boat also indicates house prices, which rise at an incredible though, I am assured, accurate rate as the game progresses.

Yes, this is a game of real estate and weather. The players pay to build houses along this doomed stretch of coastline; the closer to the coast the more costly to build but the faster the price increases. On any turn, players can either sell to the bank for a calculated price or to any other player for whatever price can be commanded. House prices are based on distance to the coast (closer is better), number of roads offering egress to the house, and the number of turns that have passed. The decision point is just when to sell before the market, quite literally, comes crashing down.

On their turn, each player must play a rain card but they can choose where to drop that rain. When played on one of the five streams that cut across the board, the rain can accumulate and either cause mud slides that destroy houses or slumps that cut off roads. When played on the Pacific, they represent waves that pound into the coast. As the wave value rises, cliff regions give way, one by one, tossing houses into the sea!

Which is, of course, where the tumblers and towels come in. The other players pitch their tumblers of water on any sod unlucky enough to still own a house as it slides into the sea! Towelling, refilling, and much laughter ensues. The game is none the worse for wear since it is entirely water-proof. Not so my collection of books on the history of cricket as played in the Colonies, but that's a sad tale for another day. Suffice it to say that all perishables should be moved to higher ground before play commences.

We have seen many of these mechanisms before, to be sure. The towels and tumblers were clearly inspired by the handkerchiefs and gubbins in Schmedt Spiele's Gazoondheit!. The board is reminiscent of Adlong's Krakatoa East of Java, though in that game the destruction radiated from the center of the board and at a much more rapid rate. The collapsing real estate theme was done very well in The Really Helpful Board Game Company's Dockyards: The Game. But the really clever bit here is bringing all three mechanisms together and pulling it off.

And that's it really. Some very hard, well tuned decisions about when to get into and out of the market. Tense moments with the waves crashing just outside your front door. Excellent flavor and some fresh game mechanisms. And, as an added bonus, wet friends.

Why is it that games like this only seem to turn up on April Fools Day?

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell