Explore the Fjords with the Great Roll-and-Write Board Game Riverside

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Explore the Fjords with the Great Roll-and-Write Board Game <i>Riverside</i>

This past year saw an explosion in roll-and-write games (and their close cousins, the flip-and-write), meaning games where players roll dice and then use the results to mark something off on their personal scoresheets. Two made my top 10 games of the year, Three Sisters and Get on Board, while several others made my honorable mentions, including Riverside, which adds the twist of a modular board that changes your strategy every time you play.

In Riverside, players take on the roles of tour operators who are signing up tourists on a boat that’s cruising down a river in some icy part of the world (think Scandinavian fjords). In each round, players roll a set of six dice and pick one to represent tourists for one of the five matching boats on their scoresheets, with the option to use the sixth die to mark off more spots for a small penalty. After each roll, players may send all tourists from one boat to a matching excursion point on the board, as long as it’s within three spaces of the boat’s current location. Each excursion point has a specific multiplier value, and your reward for an excursion is that multiplier times the number of rows you’ve completed already on that boat. The river on the board doubles back on itself, so you’ll get several chances to visit any particular excursion point, and might choose to save one for later in the game when you have more rows completed. The boat moves a variable number of spaces each time, equal to the median number of the five tourist dice you roll (excluding the green captain’s die), and the game ends when the boat hits its final spot on the river. At that point, players add up the values of completed rows and excursions for each of the five boats. There’s a 15 point bonus if you have the highest low number—that is, the lowest point total from your five boats—and a 15 point penalty if you have the lowest one.

One of Riverside’s clever twists is how it divvies up the dice after each roll. One die is the aforementioned captain’s die, which you roll first and set aside. Then you roll the five tourist dice, each in a color that matches one of the boats on everyone’s scoresheets, and line them up in order to pick the median die. That die represents the temperature outside. All dice equal to or less than the median die’s value are available for any player to choose for free. (Multiple players can choose the same die in a round.) Dice with a higher value are available, but you have to mark off fire spaces on your scoresheet to use them, one per pip on the die you choose. Those spaces don’t have a specific cost, but when you’ve used them all, you can’t choose the higher-valued dice for the rest of the game. You also have the option to add the value of the captain’s die to whatever die you choose, but you have to mark off fire spaces for the pips on that die as well. You want to use all of your fire spaces before the game ends, but it’s often good to save at least some of them for a big late-game move.

As in most good roll-and-writes, Riverside offers you bonuses and the potential to chain them. The boats on your scoresheet each have four rows, and when you finish any row, you get the bonus shown to the right, which entails marking off one or two more seats on a specific boat elsewhere on your sheet. There are also two purple seats in the third spots of the bottom two rows of every boat. When you mark off both purple seats in a boat, you unlock that boat’s bonus action for any subsequent turn, a one-time power like letting you choose a die without having to check off fire spaces, or letting you choose an excursion up to six spaces from the boat (rather than three).

There’s a lot to keep track of in Riverside, and playing with kids, I found there was a real challenge in making sure everyone remembered to take an excursion (if possible) after each turn. Once you’ve finished one row anywhere on your scoresheet, you’re probably going to be able to take an excursion on every turn, at least until the very end when you might have filled all three excursion spots for one or more boats. Remembering to choose a die and mark off seats is easy to remember, as it fits the normal rhythm of a roll-and-write. The excursions add a lot of points, but they’re less natural, and there’s no easy way to remind everyone to take them. The three-space rule also isn’t very intuitive, since the river spaces don’t apply to any other aspect of the game, and you can access excursions across the board through spaces the boat doesn’t take, since the boat follows a straight line but excursions can cut to the other side.

That said, Riverside succeeds because you always have good options, and the rules are pretty flexible to allow you to do something on just about every turn. The fire spaces are huge, because even in the unlikely scenario that the “free” dice at/below the median are always the same colors, you can fill up those boats, get some bonuses, and then use the fire spaces to work on other boats. The scores do get pretty high, at least into the 200s, which in my experience made for some good math practice for the 9-year-old (multiplication for excursion scores) and the 6-year-old (a lot of addition). You can play a full game in about a half an hour once everyone knows the rules, and obviously I think younger players can hang with this if someone coaches them on the excursion portions. It just missed my top 10 for 2022, getting edged out by a few great releases from late in the year, but if you really love roll-and-writes, this is a strong entry.

Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.