On a week long camping trip in and around the Rocky Mountains back around 2018, my son’s scout group became fascinated with Joraku, a tiny box trick-taking+ game that was all about setting up your samurai and warriors to take over parts of Japan. It was quick and thinky, but suffered from one big issue: king-making. The area control scoring mechanism usually revolved around the last actions of each round, and people in the back could mess with the finishing order pretty hard.

I shied away from that combo mechanic for a while, until our recent play of Brian Boru revived the trick-taking + area majority intrigue for me. And what do you know? In the mail a few weeks ago arrived a brand new copy of Tidal Blades: Banner Festival. I snooped around a bit, and was cautiously but pleasantly surprised that it’s listed trick-taking and area majority moves on its dance card, too.

Enough blather, let’s dive right in.

Tidal Blades: Banner Festival is a game for up to five players set in the Tidal Blades universe. It’s not an expansion to the popular game, but instead, Banner Festival consists of a brand new standalone game experience. It’s designed by the team of JB Howell (designer of Gumbo fave, Reavers of Midgard) and Mike Mihealsick (Flotilla) and published by Lucky Duck Games in partnership with Druid City games.

What I mean by standalone is that it has absolutely nothing mechanically in common with the original giant box Tidal Blades game. It’s a wholly new experience, one that has a setting that is very familiar.

Players take on the roles of rival merchants trying to make the most profit (I.e. victory points) in a number of ways:

  • Help your House’s jet ski racer finish laps around the Banner Festival course faster than any other player by winning tricks;
  • Or score points straight out of cards you play;
  • Or place banners for points;
  • Or place banners for end of the day (“who has the most banners here”) points;
  • Or just collect juicy starfruit. (Not sure where that idea came from, but the squeezable fruit are admittedly cool looking.)

The back of the game box says the whole thing will take you and your fellow house merchants about thirty minutes to play all three days. Each day consists of playing one card after another from your hand. I know what you are thinking; thirty minutes seems like it would be way too short to take that many turns. But, it’s got a simultaneous play mechanic that works really well, because once the players figure out who won, lost, or fell in the middle, the actions that result are all independent of each other, making the turns very snappy.

If you are familiar with the base game’s setting, I think you might get a little bit more enjoyment. The artwork is gorgeous, from Mr. Cuddington again, and veteran Tidal Blades players will recognize some of the characters on the cards. But you honestly don’t need any experience with Tidal Blades other than getting into the setting because the game play is so different.

The dealer splits up the deck of cards give a hand to each player. Each hand consists of cards from four different tricks, each numbered zero to nine. Each day, players play cards out of their hands, competing to win tricks. Or lose tricks. Or even just be mediocre. We determine the winner by comparing the cards played to the strength of the four suits in whatever area the trade gate is located. Each section rotates the winning and losing suits, so in one area, yellow might be strongest but purple the weakest.

Winning a trick might be the winning move. Here in Banner Festival, playing a high number means you can move your watercraft that many spaces, as long as you don’t pass the trade gate. The racecourse is essentially just a big “O”, and players will geaux around the “O” as fast as their winning cards will let them until they hit the trade gate (which the losing player moves each round.) That makes it easy to remember — beat all the other players, and move your racer.

But if you play the weakest, then you get the bonus action of the card. These can be weak (if you are playing the “0” or “1”) but can be really strong if you can sneak an “8” or “9” as the “worst card”. The nine is so strong that if it somehow wins a trick and get the bonus power, the card must be removed from the deck and added to your tableau for some bonus points. The bonus powers that the cards have scale up as the cards get stronger, and some of them can really change the festival standings.

The last outcome that can happen is just being a mediocre player…I mean….neither winning nor losing the hand. But fear not, playing a card to the middle isn’t always a waste. Being vanilla here allows you to play the “banner” (or sometimes two) onto the festival grounds. Almost every banner laid give you some kind of a bonus, like getting more of those squeezy juicy fruit for points during the “feast”. And when the day is done, we count up all the banners in each half of the board, and give out even more points for the three merchants who have managed to put more banners out on those locations than anyone else.

Knowing that the board resets each day, like the board does in a recent game we reviewed called The Guild of Merchant Explorers, could be a little chaotic and self-deflating. But it isn’t. Because like in Guild, there’s a way — albeit very tricky to pull off — to make your banners stay on the board from round-to-round.

Sometimes, either through a card effect or your inability to put a banner in the normal spots in the festival area, players get the opportunity to put a banner onto one of the two towers on the board. There is one for each half of the board, and they are permanent banner positions. All that means is that at the end of the day, players remove ALL of their banners from the board EXCEPT for those in the tower. The excitement of playing a bad card but somehow getting a permanent upgrade to the tower area is one of those satisfying moments that happens frequently in this game.

Tidal Blades: Banner Festival has a lot going for it. The turns are very quick, and many times you will know exactly what you need to do on your next turn even as scores are tallying. I also can’t help but laugh when I scheme and strategize to play the perfect card, only to have my arch-nemesis play a card just under me or just over me causing me to miss one of those sweet bonuses. Argh! But in all honestly, it’s a good kind of “argh”, because the game plays fast and loose enough that even when plans get diverted, it’s one of those laugh out loud moments with shock and surprise.

That’s essentially the game. Players are trying to get the most money each day by playing each trick very tactically to gain the juicy little fruit or place the perfect banners in the perfect area or race as fast as you can to complete the next lap which generates even more endgame points. In all of our games, we’ve seen people latch onto different strategies, and there’s been a lot of zigging when others are zagging. It’s almost a necessity in this game, especially due to the randomness of the card draws and the other players moving the trade gate just enough spaces to mess with racers and trick-layers alike.

I been pleasantly surprised lately with some games that have been better than expected. Tidal Blades: Banner Festival easily fits into that category. I don’t own Brian Boru, and as much as I enjoyed my play, Tidal Blades: Banner Festival does everything I want from that experience. As faithful readers know, area majority is my least favorite mechanic, but when done well and when king-making is eliminated, my distaste melts away quickly to grudging admiration.

If you are expecting more of the Tidal Blades battle fest that you got in that big box of stuff from the original game, you might be disappointed. But if you are looking for what is essentially a trick-taking card game with an ingenious high-low-mediocre bonus structure that sets off the area majority and collection point strategies, you should definitely check out Banner Festival. It’s been a hit with everyone that we’ve introduced it, too, I think in part due to the low rules overhead and the fast playing turns.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ fro Board Game Gumbo

A complimentary copy was provided by the publisher.

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