Reef Review: Dive into a Watery Wonderland of Captivating Design and Skillful Play


Reef Review

Did you know coral reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth? If that piques your interest, you’ll want to dive into our Reef review. In this game, you’re not just exploring a reef – you become the reef. I’ve played Reef with gamers of all ages, from my nieces and nephews to my 70-year-old mother, and its appeal is truly universal.

Why a Reef review in 2023? Well, during my last game night, I managed to build a coral structure so tall it nearly reached my chandelier. I took it as a sign from the gaming gods that it’s time to spill the ink about this aquatic gem!

Reef is a treat for the senses and the mind, offering a unique blend of beauty and brain-burning decisions. As we delve deeper, we’ll find out if this game’s allure is as lasting and vibrant as a coral reef itself. Let’s set sail!

Just The Facts

Game TitleReef
DesignerEmerson Matsuuchi
PublisherNext Move Games
ThemeUnderwater, Nature
GenreAbstract Strategy
Target AudienceFamily, Casual Gamers, Strategy Lovers
Age Range8 and up
Number of Players2-4
Game Duration30-45 minutes
Complexity LevelMedium
Game ObjectiveTo score the most points by building and pattern matching your coral reef
Difficulty LevelMedium
Similar GamesAzul, Santorini
Awards2019 Mensa Select Winner
Release Date2018

Game Overview

Ah, the ocean. The tranquility. The mystery. And beneath the waves, a whole universe bustles in vivid color, full of life and adventure. This is the realm of Reef, a delightful abstract strategy game designed by Emerson Matsuuchi. The game places you in the metaphorical fins of a coral reef architect, working to cultivate the most beautiful and diverse coral formations on the ocean floor.

The objective of Reef is as colorful as the game components themselves. Players aim to amass the highest score by strategically placing polychrome coral pieces onto their player boards. On your turn, you can choose to either pick a card or play a card. Picking a card grants you new coral pieces and a new scoring opportunity, while playing a card allows you to add coral to your reef and potentially score points.

It’s a challenge of balance between seizing opportunities in the moment and planning for future scoring. In this world, not all coral is created equal, and success depends on pattern-building prowess. It’s an oceanic ballet of strategy and luck, with the game’s winner crowned the reef’s most resourceful architect.

Components and Artwork

Diving deeper into the game, the components of Reef are where the game truly shines, invoking the vibrancy of a coral reef in full bloom. This isn’t a game of muted tones and drab tiles, it’s a visual feast, boasting chunky coral pieces in a multitude of vibrant hues. The game’s coral pieces are durable and visually pleasing, with four different colors – yellow, purple, green, and red – and unique shapes for each.

The player boards and cards, too, do not disappoint. They’re sturdy and robust, ready to withstand many game nights. The artwork on the cards is clear and straightforward, with symbols that represent the coral pieces you collect and the patterns you need to arrange them in for scoring. There’s a certain minimalistic charm to the design that belies the game’s complex strategies.

Yet, despite the strengths in component quality, the artwork is where Reef might fall short for some. It’s undeniably clean and easy to understand, but it doesn’t quite capture the teeming biodiversity of a real coral reef. Sure, the vivid colors and shapes hint at the wonder beneath the waves, but there’s a lost opportunity for richer thematic art here. For those who favor a more illustrative approach to board game art, the functional design might come off as somewhat sterile. Despite this, the components and artwork work cohesively to create an engaging and visually appealing tabletop experience.

Gameplay Experience

In Reef, the gameplay experience is a delightful confluence of strategy, aesthetics, and just enough luck to keep you on your toes. The setup is a breeze. Each player starts with a personal reef board, a few pre-determined coral pieces, and a hand of cards. The central board, which displays a draft of cards, creates a shared focus for all players. From there, the rules are simple enough: choose a card from the draft or play a card from your hand. This straightforward rhythm of play becomes the backdrop against which your strategy weaves.

A card grants you two benefits: it allows you to add specific coral pieces to your reef and it depicts a pattern that, if replicated on your board, will score you points. The crux of the gameplay lies in this duality. There’s an enticing puzzle in managing these two aspects simultaneously, especially since the coral pieces you collect do not necessarily correspond to the patterns you’re trying to create. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces keep changing.

The game mechanics, with their effortless blend of card drafting, pattern building, and point scoring, strike a fine balance between strategy and luck. The shared card draft demands strategic foresight, as you vie with other players for advantageous cards. The pattern matching aspect requires spatial reasoning and invites a healthy dose of creative problem-solving. It’s an easy game to learn, yet its strategic depth and the randomness of the card draw offer a different challenge each time.

Reef presents itself as a deceptively simple game with layers of complexity tucked beneath the surface, much like a coral reef itself. It manages to capture a sense of liveliness and dynamism, keeping players constantly engaged without overwhelming them.

Theme and Immersion

In terms of theme integration, Reef opts for an abstract approach. The underwater, reef-building theme is more of a delightful veneer to the game mechanics than a deeply immersive narrative. Yes, the chunky, colorful coral pieces and the patterns you create can give the impression of a bustling, vibrant reef. However, the gameplay itself doesn’t inherently evoke a deep sense of underwater exploration or coral propagation.

That being said, the game does well to wrap the mechanics in a theme that is both appealing and universally understood. The coral reef serves as an effective metaphor for the game’s core mechanics of growth, expansion, and pattern creation. It’s easy to imagine yourself as a master reef architect, strategically placing your coral pieces to create the most stunning underwater panorama.

Despite the lack of narrative depth, the game’s simplicity and vivid aesthetics create an enjoyable and relaxed atmosphere that draws players in. Reef isn’t about spinning a deep-sea tale; instead, it invites players to lose themselves in the game’s puzzle-like mechanics, with the theme providing a colorful backdrop to this strategic dance.


For a game that’s as elegantly simple as Reef, it packs an impressive punch when it comes to replayability. The sheer variety of cards and the randomness of the draw means no two games will play out the same way. This, combined with the unpredictability of your opponents’ moves, creates a different puzzle to solve each time you dive in.

The patterns you need to create for scoring are fluid and ever-changing, leading to endless configurations on your board. The strategies that worked for you in one game may not be as effective in the next. Reef demands adaptability, constantly challenging you to find the most efficient way to score points given the current state of your reef and the available cards.

Moreover, the player interaction, while subtle, also contributes to the game’s replayability. The shared card draft allows for indirect competition as players vie for the same resources. There’s a satisfying tension in trying to anticipate your opponents’ moves while also focusing on your own strategy.

In short, Reef is the kind of game that invites you back time and time again, offering a fresh experience with every playthrough. It strikes a winning balance between strategy and chance, complexity and accessibility, making it a game you’ll want to revisit, like a beloved coral reef beneath the sea.

Player Interaction and Engagement

With its indirect player interaction, Reef creates a deceptively serene gaming experience that belies the subtle competition bubbling underneath. The shared card draft is where most of the interaction occurs, as players can potentially disrupt each other’s strategies by taking desired cards. However, the competition is always friendly, fitting well with the game’s relaxed, family-friendly vibe.

There’s no overt blocking or aggression in Reef, yet the game keeps every player engaged, pushing them to outthink their opponents. Whether it’s by snagging a card that another player needs or by cleverly timing your own plays, the game ensures that every move has potential ripple effects on the shared game space.

While Reef isn’t a game of dramatic player conflict or cooperation, it does foster a subtle, under-the-surface tension that keeps everyone engaged throughout. Its interaction is like the gentle ebb and flow of the ocean—constant, but not overwhelmingly so.

As the game progresses and the patterns on the player boards evolve, the tension builds, leading to a satisfying end-game climax. The scoring, done in secrecy on individual player boards, leads to exciting final reveals. Reef may not be a game of high-stakes negotiations or cutthroat competition, but it doesn’t need to be. The game remains consistently engaging, riding on its strategic depth and the indirect player interaction.

Learning Curve and Accessibility

Reef shines brightly when it comes to its learning curve and accessibility. The rules are uncomplicated and can be explained in just a few minutes, making it a great gateway game for newcomers to the world of board games. The game mechanic of choosing or playing a card on your turn is easy to grasp, and the objective of creating specific patterns is straightforward.

But don’t mistake simplicity for a lack of depth. While easy to learn, Reef provides enough strategic possibilities to engage seasoned gamers as well. This delicate balance of simplicity and depth means the game has a broad appeal, enticing a range of players, from families and casual gamers to more serious strategy enthusiasts.

The game comes with a clear, well-illustrated rulebook that provides examples of gameplay, making it even more accessible for first-time players. There are no convoluted exceptions or complex rules to memorize, which contributes to a smoother learning process.

However, one aspect where Reef could improve is its player aid. A simple reference card summarizing the possible actions during a turn and illustrating some of the common patterns could be helpful, especially for younger players or those less familiar with pattern-building games.

In all, Reef does an excellent job in being accessible to a wide audience. It’s a game that embraces and encourages inclusivity, offering a rewarding gaming experience to all who dare to dive into its depths.

Strategies, Tactics and Tips

Here’s a quick overview of some strategic considerations that might come in handy during your games:

  • Be flexible in your strategy. The card draft is unpredictable, and the best-laid plans may need adjusting on the fly.
  • Pay attention to the cards your opponents are taking. Anticipating their moves could help you make smarter decisions in your own strategy.
  • Timing is crucial. Sometimes, it might be worth delaying the scoring of a card to allow for more optimal placements.
  • Don’t neglect the bottom part of your cards. It’s easy to focus only on the top part that gives you pieces but remember that the scoring patterns on the bottom are just as important.
  • Diversify your reef. Focusing too much on one type of coral might limit your scoring options later on.


Currently, Reef doesn’t have any expansions. However, the standalone game itself offers enough replayability and strategic depth to keep players engaged. Keep an eye on this space for future updates.

Comparison to Similar Games

In the realm of abstract strategy games, Reef often draws comparisons to games like Azul and Splendor for their shared emphasis on aesthetics, simplicity of rules, and depth of strategy. Yet, each game carves out its own niche in the genre.

Azul, like Reef, is a game about pattern building and aesthetic charm. It offers a more direct player interaction with a higher potential for competitive blocking. Reef, on the other hand, keeps the competition friendly and indirect, making it more suitable for families or groups who prefer a less confrontational gaming experience.

Splendor shares Reef’s card-drafting and engine-building mechanics. While both games involve strategic planning and adaptability, Splendor leans more into engine-building and resource management, while Reef integrates pattern building and spatial reasoning into its core mechanics.

All three games are beautifully designed, simple to learn, and offer a good amount of strategic depth. Reef stands out with its unique 3D gameplay, allowing players to build upwards, creating visually striking coral structures. If you enjoy abstract strategy games but prefer a calmer, more visually engaging experience with a slightly lower competitive edge, then Reef could be your game of choice.

Hits and Misses

As with any game, Reef comes with its own set of hits and misses:


  • Easy to learn, yet strategically deep gameplay makes it appealing to a broad audience.
  • High replayability due to the randomness of the card draft and the variety of scoring patterns.
  • The game components are high-quality, durable, and aesthetically pleasing.


  • The theme integration is quite abstract and doesn’t add much to the gameplay immersion.
  • Lacks direct player interaction, which could be a drawback for players who prefer more competitive games.
  • The player aids could be improved to include a summary of possible actions and examples of scoring patterns.

Reef Review: Final Thoughts and Verdict

After diving into Reef, it’s easy to see why this game makes waves in the world of board gaming. With its blend of accessible rules, appealing aesthetics, and deep strategic play, it serves up an engaging gaming experience that satisfies a wide range of players. Its charming theme, though abstract, adds a delightful backdrop to the puzzle-like gameplay.

The game does fall a little short in terms of player interaction and thematic immersion. Yet, its strengths – a high replay value, simple yet deep mechanics, and top-notch components – make it a valuable addition to any board game collection.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Reef swims comfortably at a 7. It may not be the most immersive or competitive game out there, but it offers a relaxed, strategic, and visually engaging gameplay experience that makes it worth the dive. It’s a game best suited for families, casual gaming groups, and anyone who appreciates a good puzzle wrapped in a vibrant, oceanic theme.

Want Your Own Copy?

Looking For Even More?

Reef Review FAQ

What is the board game Reef about?
Who designed the Reef board game?
How many players can play Reef?
How long does a game of Reef typically last?
What is the age recommendation for Reef?
How complex is the game Reef?
Are there any expansions available for Reef?
How does Reef compare to other abstract strategy games?
Available for Amazon Prime