My first exposure to Rapa Nui, by designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, of Carcassonne fame, was on the online board gaming site Yucata. I had never heard of it before, and I saw it among the listings, and decided to have a look. I found rules on Board Game Geek, and went to check it out. After a few plays, I knew I needed a copy of this game in my life, and was able to track down a copy in Germany that wasn’t too bracingly priced. It’s a simple game, but compelling enough to call you back each time for another play.
There are two types of play in the game. The bulk of the game is spent choosing cards from your hand to improve your resource and point generation. Players can choose to play Priests, who generate points each time one is uncovered in the draw piles, but mostly they will be playing different types of Hunters and Gatherers. Playing a fisherman, for example, doesn’t give you a fish instantly, but rather ensures you a fish each time a fish is uncovered in the lines of draw piles. The player with the most fishermen gets a bonus fish, so there is added incentive to build your work force in certain areas, based on which resource or resources you plan to use to make sacrifices. Each time a player plays a Maoi (the famously big Easter Island head statues), a sacrifice round begins, during which players must make sacrifices of resources into a pool.
At the end of the game, the resource of which there are the most cards in the pool will be worth the most, the secondmost common resource will be worth the next amount, and so on. So the heavy fisherman who was able to play enough fish, and maybe lucky enough to have others play some fish too, while still having the most fish leftover, will be the likely winner. It is entirely possible for the person with the most points accrued during the game from Priests and Maoi will lose at the end based on resource points. (This has happened to me a number of times.)
This is a light game that’s easy to pick up. The only officially-published rules are in German, but the fan-translated rules on Board Game Geek are excellently done and easy to use, even including graphics. I have introduced this game to two people so far, and both have used these written rules without problems, and haven’t really needed my sage advice to guide them in their journeys.
While it is light, there is some strategy to the game, because you have to hedge your bets in terms of whether or not one single strategy will work, and may have to prepare for more than one, just in case. There’s not a lot of room to catch up later in the game if you decide you need to change course, so you have to plan ahead and hope that one of the things you’re doing will work with what your opponent does. I should add here that I have only played this game two-player so far, and feel that there is plenty of friction for this to work well. I can’t address the question of whether more players would work better or less well.
It’s true that there are tons of games using random exotic spots around the world as their theme, to varying effect. I think Rapa Nui, in its design, does a pretty good job of incorporating the theme to the game, though. The sacrifice mechanic could be called something else, probably, but works well as a sacrifice.
The artwork, admittedly, is functional, at best. It’s pretty bad. I couldn’t tell from playing the online version that it looks like it was possibly done in a freshman seminar on digital drawing. If the game weren’t good on its own merits, the artwork could easily be a deal-breaker for me. This is very likely the much sought-after explanation for why Z-Man, and before them Rio Grande, who have been bringing Kosmos games to the US for years, have never seen fit to buy Rapa Nui for US distribution. Mystery solved. Someone get me my calabash pipe.
Artwork aside, this is a good game. It flows well, and it’s got an enjoyable theme and fresh mechanics. I enjoy playing it, and find myself getting involved in it, even sometimes getting a little stressed out when I see my opponent repeatedly using wheat as a sacrifice when I don’t own any wheat, and really need to get fish played. When I see this game on the shelf, it very often pops onto the mental pile of games we should maybe play tonight. I’m very surprised that a Klaus-Jürgen Wrede game would have been published with such a handicap, and I think that factor has limited the audience for the game, which is a pity. I’d like to tell you to hurry out and get it, but all I can do is advise you to pick it up if you can ever get it at auction for a decent price, and in the meantime, check it out on Yucata, so that you can at least have a taste of what could have been.