Kulkmann's G@mebox - www.boardgame.de



Stefan Feld

Pegasus Spiele

No. of Players:
2 - 4



Gamebox author Marco Klasmeyer writes about the game:

In Aqua Sphere the player have to manage a research laboratory at the bottom of the ocean. You have control about simple robots (bots), an engineer and a scientists and you have to complete different kind of missions in order to obtain expansion to your lab, gain special abilities or just victory points (knowledge points, KP). At the end the players may get additional points for completed missions or number of buildings and finally the player with the most knowledge points wins.

This sounds simple, but in fact it is not, because Aqua Sphere offers a quite complex but well balanced mechanisms to gain knowledge points in so many different ways. The rules and setup are especially adapted to the exact number of players participating (2-4) and this works so surprisingly well for all three constellations. Many other games lack of good rules for fewer players than the game was designed for, but this is not the case for Aqua Sphere.


Let’s start with the setup. The main game board is composed of 6 laboratory tiles which are placed in a circle thus forming one huge ocean research building complex further referenced as the base station. Each section is connected with two adjacent sections by locks which have to be used by the scientists for moving from one section to another. There are separate piles of resources which are shared between all players: black crystals (quite authentic plastic pieces), time markers (paper clock tokens), so called octopods (the tokens look like a violet jelly fish). Crystals and time markers are needed to perform actions and to make progress on the knowledge counter. Octopods threaten the station and have a negative influence on the players’ activities. Furthermore there are research cards and lab expansion cards which extend the player’s capabilities. All these resources have a corresponding symbol in each of the section of the base station where they have to be placed whenever resources are distributed. In the center of the base station a pile of center tiles is placed which determines the distribution of new resources at the beginning of each round as displayed for the sections on the center tiles. Due to the fact that different center tiles are used for each possible number of players participating and due to the random orientation of the center tiles at setup time this smart mechanism varies the setup very individually.


Furthermore each player has a small own base laboratory (lab) with already one lab expansion. Each lab displays a letter corresponding to one section of the base station. This section is the start section where each player has to put the initial set of tokens. The initial setup of resources is done according to special start cards which also varies with the number of players. The player’s lab can be enlarged with more lab expansion tiles in the course of the game. Each lab expansion adds new capabilities to the player’s lab and a completely extended lab may yield additional knowledge points at the end of the game. The lab expansions can be retrieved from the base station. Each section has a small own supply pile for lab expansions and research cards which can be only obtained by properly programmed bots.

Besides the station and the players’ labs there is the central headquarter where the players’ engineers program their bots for the desired tasks. The player’s engineer program the bots, but the player’s scientist determine where the bots carry out the programmed action at the station. The headquarter tile has also the knowledge counter at the border where each player indicates the obtained knowledge points in the course of the game. However, there are certain rules how to advance on this counter. The order of the players for each turn is also determined on the headquarter tile. Finally each player has an own tableau/board on which his bots and submarines have to be placed as his personal supply. Furthermore on this tableau each player places the bots which have already been programmed at the headquarters for a specific task, e.g. collecting resources (time or crystals), building lab expansions, place other tokens (bots, submarines) or catch octopods.

The four different tiles resp. tableaus need some more explanations as they have to be used in a required sequence more or less:


The headquarters:

Each player places an engineer in the central start position of the programming field. The only task of the engineers is to program your bots. The programming field consists of 7 fields which have to be entered by the engineers in order to select a program. The type of each program field is determined at the start of each round by a program initialization card. The engineers can only move forward, never backward and thus can select between 2 or 3 programming actions at each move. After 3 moves an engineer reaches the end of the programming field which also stops the possibility of programming bots. However, this means that not all possible programming action can be made. The player can only perform 3 of 7 possible actions and not all combinations are possible due to the movement restrictions. The possible programming actions are:

  • Take a research card
  • Take a lab expansion card for your lab
  • Program an additional bot with a special action
  • Take clock tokens
  • Collect black crystals
  • Place a submarine in the station
  • Catch octopods

Furthermore the order of stopping the programming phase defines the order of playing for the next round. This makes it more interesting to program the bots faster than the other players. The playing order is important because one can collect limited resources and take unique cards before the other players. A programmed bot has to be placed on the upper portion of tableau of each player before it can carry out the action in the station. Only two bots may be placed there at the same time, each one on the corresponding program symbol. Thus before a third bot can be placed there one has to be removed before, as described below. Besides using the engineer a player can spent 3 time markers to directly program a bot (only once per round). The outer border of the headquarters contains the knowledge point counter as mentioned above. The player advance their colored token as they obtain knowledge point. But there are 4 red lines on this counter (every 11-12 points) which may only be crossed if the player

  • either returns an already collected black crystal to the common supply
  • or cancels the programming of one already prepared bot and takes it back on his tableau (no compensation)
If none of this is possible, then the player may not cross the red line and thus loses the remaining knowledge points.


The player’s board:

This personal tableau represents the supply with bots and submarines, additionally the programmed bots from headquarter have to be placed on the appropriate programming symbol on the top border of the tableau. There is a maximum of 2 bots simultaneously placed here waiting to be used in the station. If a third bot shall be placed there you have to return another bot to your supply before (and gain two time markers as compensation). Your 14 bots have to be placed in order (1-14) on the board and you have to take them in exactly that order from the board. Additionally the submarines have to be placed in a row below the bots. When taking bots or submarines from the board, take them from left to right (following the number scheme of the bots). When returning bots to the board in the course of the game, put them back in reverse order (from right to left of available free fields). Submarines and bots placed in the station yield additional knowledge points in intermediate scoring. The points depend on the highest visible number of an empty bot place and the columns with empty (already placed) submarine. Besides the fields for bots and submarines the board contains almost all possible actions, placement rules and scoring results of the game in a very symbolic and iconized manner. However, it will take you some gaming sessions to get used to it and immediately understand all the symbols and icons. Nevertheless, all you need to know is there, it is not just as obvious as you might expect at first glance.


The player’s lab:

At setup time you receive a base lab defining your initial capacity to store precious resources like time markers, crystals, octopods and research cards. By building lab expansion to your base lab you can increase the capacity. It is never allowed to exceed the capacity of your lab at any time. Additionally each lab expansion (including the base lab) contain a letter. At startup and when a lab extensions with 1 or 2 letters are built the player may place a bot at the corresponding station. For a completed lab (5 tiles) and for a collection of different letters on the lab expansions you can gain additional points during the final scoring the end of the game. The available lab expansions provide different capacities, e.g. for one time markers, crystals or octopods and sometimes also additionally for a research card, but there are also expansion with no capacity but only letters (valuable for the final scoring).


The station:

Now that we know how to program bots to carry out actions like gathering resources which we can store in expandable labs we do not know yet how and where we can accomplish all this? The answer is: in the Station! The Station consists of 6 equally structured sectors. Each player has a scientist who can move within the station sectors. The scientist determines by his current location the section where the player can operate during his turn. Two adjacent sectors of the station are accessible through locks with a value from 0-2. The value refers to the time it takes to pass the lock. Scientists may move through the sectors to place bots in another part of the station, but this will cost the specified amount of time markers. The scientist can move to another section at any time on the player’s turn or he can stay where he is, but sometimes due to the playing order, the current sector has become less attractive (only few resources left by the others) and moving to another sector is more reasonable. In the center of each section is the control space where the player’s bot has to be placed to carry out its programmed action. Each sector offers the same 7 fields for the 7 possible actions:

  • At the green area the adjacent laid out lab expansion can be taken and bots may be placed at the corresponding sector of the displayed letter (see below).
  • At the red area the adjacent laid out research card can be taken, also gain the depicted knowledge points of that card (light bulb symbol).
  • In the yellow area the available time markers can be collected, minimum 2 and up to the player’s capacity but with a maximum 5.
  • In the violet area the octopods can be captured, catching octopods immediately yields knowledge points (the more octopods the better), however the number is limited by the capability of the player’s lab. Caught octopods are returned to the common supply after the knowledge points have been obtained.
  • In the black area the crystals can be gathered, the player’s capacity to store crystals limits the number of crystals to be taken.
  • In the white area a sector specific additional programming action can be used, if programming a bot is not possible (programming symbol board occupied) the player gains 2 time markers instead.
  • At the blue area submarines can be placed. Only one submarines per player can be placed in a sector. Placing a submarine from the player’s supply in the sector costs the depicted number of time markers, the price is increasing from 1 to 4, so the later the more expensive. The player gets knowledge points as shown by the center tile (light bulb symbol). If all submarines of a player are placed in the station, this will be honored at the end of the game.

The player has to place the scientist onto a field for which action he has a programmed bot on his personal board. Only then he is allowed to place his bot at the center of the section. The player whose bot is on the control space fields also controls this sector (important for the intermediate scorings at the end of the round). If the center is already occupied by a bot (including his own), it is moved to the load station of that sector. However, the number of bots in the load station is limited and depends on the number of players (2 pl. 2 bots, 3 pl. 4 bots, 4pl. 5 bots). If the limit is exceeded all players immediately get all but one bot back to their personal supply (following the placement order there). Thus the load station are filling up more and more with bots, but some have to be taken back from time to time. On the one side this prevents the players from running out of bots to be programmed but on the other side the number of bots placed in the station yields better results in the intermediate scorings at the end of a round.

Having explained all the different boards, actions and possibilities the game is played in rounds where the playing order of the players turns is determined by the headquarter board during the previous round. The course of a turn a choice of one of these three options:

  1. Program a bot by moving the engineer on the headquarters programming board or paying 3 time markers (once per round).
  2. Carry out an action of a programmed bot by moving the scientist to the corresponding sectors field and possibly oust another bot form the central sector place.
  3. Pass and move the engineer to the playing order field for the next round on the headquarter board and thus terminate round for the current player, no more actions allowed then.

If the last player has passed the round immediately ends and an intermediate scoring phase is done:

  • Gain one time marker per deployed submarine
  • Use research cards which are allowed in this phase
  • Gain or lose additional knowledge points…
    • For the absolute majority of occupied sectors (6 KP)
    • For the highest number on the players board in a column with no submarine which is not covered by a bot the player gets that amount of knowledge points (1-14 KP)
    • For crystals in the players lab (1-21 KP)
    • For each sector controlled by a bot, the player loses knowledge points for octopods still residing in the sector (lose 1-21 KP)

After the intermediate scoring the headquarter board is rearranged, the pass order track will be the play order track, all engineers are set on the start field again. Rearrange the programming symbols according to the open programming card and draw a new one afterwards. Each sector gets a new lab expansion and research card, may be stacked onto the still laid out cards. The topmost center tile depicts the resources which are now distributed in the corresponding sectors: crystals, time markers and octopods and – depending on the number of players – neutral bots and submarines. After all new resources have been distributed, the center tile is discarded and the new one for the next round is visible. The game ends after 4 rounds respectively after the resources of all 4 center tiles have been used up. At the final scoring is an evaluation of possible extra scores takes place, 6 placed submarine (5 KP), complete labs (5 KP), number different letters in the lab expansions (1-21 KP), left time markers (+1 KP each). The player with the most knowledge points wins.

After having read the rules a couple of times I prepared the setup of all the different game boards and tokens and then it was up to me too explain the game to my gaming fellows. And that took quite a good amount of time due to the complexity of possible actions, different game boards and the many ways of how one can gain or lose knowledge points. At the end it is just having the most knowledge points and thus simply being the leading player on the knowledge point board. The same story for so many games. However, the gaming mechanism of Aqua Sphere to succeed is well balanced and smoothly running like a clock work. You have to follow a plan of how to finally make a certain action in the station, this plan has to be well prepared by selecting and programming your bots. With the right amount of time markers you are free in the selection of the sections where your bots carry out their programmed work. However, there is little room for adjusting the plan to react on your opponents’ actions, this is due to the fact that only 3 of 7 bot actions are possible and the order is not as flexible as one might want. The decisions made on the headquarter board by programming action are the basement of your turn. Even the playing order of turns is defined here which sometimes gives an advantage to win the evaluation round. Placing bots in a section with other players’ bots as the last player lets you control that sector and might force other players to take back bot on their board which costs them some knowledge points in the evaluation phase.

I have not honoured yet the setup and resource distribution mechanism. For each number of participating players the setup is adjusted. So for 2 or 3 players neutral tokens placed on the board compensate the absence of missing players. Therefore the placement of submarines (to gain knowledge points) is hindered in the same way as building places are already occupied. Neutral bots placed in the load station force the other players to take back their bots in case of overload situation which in turn also depends on the number of participating players. You can expect that the same level of details and complexity for the rule set also applies to the setup and resource distribution. I do not know many games where the rules and game mechanism gear into each other so smoothly and well balanced. This all compensates by far the in my eyes far-fetched background story of the underwater research lab. You could put all this to a space lab, power plant or factory and it would still work, so the story is kind of arbitrary. Nevertheless, if you are fan of complex and fine granular games somewhere between strategy and short term tactics then keep a place spare in your shelf of game collections for Aqua Sphere.

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Copyright © 2015 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany