Living in the Western United States, we’re very familiar with Pioneers.
In fact, many of our ancestors were pioneers who helped settle the West.
So games about pioneers have a certain draw for me. The big question though will always be if they’re any good.
It’s relatively quick to play, keeps players engaged throughout, and has a good balance of luck and strategy.
Check it out!
How to play The River
The River is a worker-placement game where players compete to get the most victory points.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “worker-placement” game is one in which players place their “workers” (meeple character pawns) in different locations to take certain actions. In The River, the players’ workers are referred to as Pioneers and take actions related to settling (gathering resources and building) along a flowing river.
In The River, each player gets their own Player Board that depicts a flowing river, a boat, and 5 Pioneers.
There’s also a central Main Board where players will place their Pioneers during their turns to take depicted actions.
Before the game begins, each player gets to choose a beginning Terrain Tile. In reverse player order, each player selects a face up Terrain Tile from the main board to place on their first Terrain location of their player board (top left most terrain space on a player’s board as the river flows from the top left). Then the Terrain Tile spaces on the main board are refilled to begin.
The River takes place over a number of rounds.
During each round, a player will place 1 of their Pioneers from their boat onto a space on the main board and complete the corresponding action. Then the next player in clockwise order will place 1 Pioneer and take an action. Players continue placing their Pioneers and taking actions until all players have placed all their Pioneers.
Also at the start of a player’s turn, they may first trade any 3 resources from stored locations on their player board for 1 food.
After all boats are empty (all players have used their Pioneers), there’s a clean up phase and a new round begins.
The islands on the main board represent different actions. Some actions are limited in the number of Pioneers that can be placed there and some are endless. This changes depending on the number of players in the game. As the main board and player boards are double-sided, one side is for a 2-player game and the other side is for a 3 and 4 player game.
The different action areas, starting from the left side of the main board are:
- Claim a Terrain Tile
- The player picks 1 face up Terrain tile and places it on the next free terrain space on their player board (as the river flows).
- If the tile covers a symbol on the player board, that item won’t be available going forward but any resources on that space can be moved around.
- Some Terrain tiles grant immediate items, resources each round, or bonus points at the end of the game.
- Construct a Building
- The player either takes a face up building card from the main board or a reserved building card in front of them and builds it and pays the required resources. Food tokens are also “wilds” and can be used as any resource. If it’s a reserved building, the player pays 1 less resource.
- The Building card is then slid under the right side of their player board enough to hide the point value.
- The player takes the next Bonus token and places it face down on the circle on their player board next to their just-built building card.
- Take First Player Pawn
- As the name implies, the player takes the first-player pawn and will go first in the next round.
- Swap Terrain Tiles
- The player may swap the location of 2 tiles on their player board.
- Any resources on the swapped tiles remain on the tile.
- Produce Resources
- The player takes as many of the chosen resource type as there are number of those symbols visible on their player board.
- Depending on the number of players, the first person to take a resource type that round may also get an extra resource of that type.
- The taken resources must be stored on their player board using the Warehouses (barn-like symbol) on their board. If they don’t have any visible Warehouses, they must discard extra resources.
- Reserve a Building
- The player picks a face up building card and places it in front of them face down (to be built later using the Construct a Building action if they choose to do so).
- Players can only hold a maximum of 2 reserved building cards.
After all players have used all their Pioneers and taken their actions, the clean up phase occurs.
Players retrieve their Pioneers from the main board and place them back in their boat. If a player has covered up a space showing a Pioneer with an X on it, they place one of their retrieved Pioneers in this space. That Pioneer has settled that area and will no longer be available to the player for taking actions.
All leftover face up Terrain Tiles on the main board are removed and new tiles are drawn and placed in the designated spaces. Empty Building card spaces are refilled.
If the game hasn’t ended yet, a new round begins.
Game End and Scoring
The last game round is triggered when one player either has 5 Bonus tokens on their player board (4 in a 2-player game) or claims their 12th Terrain tile. That round is played to completion and then scoring takes place.
Victory Points are scored from the following:
- Constructed buildings
- Bonus tokens
- Every 3 resources equals 1 point.
- Each column with 2 matching Terrain Tiles on a player board scores 2 points. Or if a column has 3 matching Terrain Tiles, the player scores 6 points.
- Some Meadow Terrain Tiles also grant additional victory points.
The player with the most points wins the game!
Can the whole family enjoy playing The River
While the recommended age on the box is 8+, we feel that’s a bit generous. We can’t imagine a group of 8 year olds sitting down to play The River together. But when played with adults, those in that age group may be able to get a better grasp of the game. Our recommendation however would be more along the lines of 10+.
That being said, it’s a wonderful game to introduce worker-placement mechanics to players.
That’s because the amount of actions players can take is just right. It gives plenty of choices with each Pioneer, but not too many to overwhelm someone.
Players will have lots of things they’ll want to do each turn but are limited in what they can do. They’ll be limited on the number of Pioneers they can place. And since some actions have a limit on the number of Pioneers that can be placed there, some players may be blocked out from doing that action in a round.
These limits create a light level of tension throughout the game.
Players are constantly wondering when to take certain actions. If they don’t do it early, they may be blocked.
This is also what leads players to take the First Player action so they can get out in front on some of their Pioneer placements in the next round.
Another aspect we really enjoy is the trade-off between adding Terrain Tiles to our boards that grant resources, warehouses, or other special items and covering up the starting symbols on our boards.
Each player board has different resource symbols on their boards to begin the game. But as we gain new Terrain Tiles, they inevitably will cover up some of those symbols — which we’ll lose the use of. A couple of those spaces also mean the loss of their Pioneer meeples.
And that’s the beauty of the game. It keeps players engaged constantly throughout the game because they’re weighing each choice.
We also really like that each player only places one Pioneer before the next player places a Pioneer. This means that turns go by quickly and players get multiple turns in a round. So there really isn’t much downtime in the game because each player just does one action at a time.
The length of the game is another big plus.
Many Pioneer-related games are long games with a lot of depth. But The River is a light game with fun choices that don’t overstay their welcome.
When we’ve played, it almost feels like the game ends too soon. Maybe that’s the completionist mentality in us, but we rarely get to the end of our rivers before the game ends. Most games have ended because of players constructing the required number of buildings to trigger the game end.
Plus, we enjoy seeing the varied landscape look of each of our player boards at the end of the game.
All in all it’s a fun game that provides a good sense of accomplishment at the end of the game whether or not we win.
And let’s not forget the artwork is a wonderful fit to the game. The Terrain tiles are easy to know how to place on your board because the river flows right through them on the top. Plus there are unique visual elements on each player board and boat that give them their own character. The icons on the boards are easy to understand and it all just works so nicely together.
How does The River score on our “Let’s Play Again” game meter?
The River scores well on our “let’s play again” game meter. Like we mentioned, since the game flows so nicely and seems to end before we’ve completed filling in along our rivers we inevitably want to play again.
It’s also a great light-weight, worker-placement game for introducing new players to. One of our favorite worker-placement games is Alien Frontiers. However, that’s a much longer game where player turns take longer each round because of the many possible choices and actions.
But The River doesn’t have that constraint. Since players lose the use of some Pioneers as they build along their river, the amount of actions they can take on a turn stays fairly steady. Plus, players can plan their options while waiting for other players. And they don’t have to wait very long because players only take one action at a time.
So the quick flow makes it a great game to get repeated plays.
If you’re looking for a fun Pioneer-related game that has a good balance of luck and strategy, The River is a great choice.