Imagine someone had created a cooperative board game out of domino rally. There you go, you've just imagined Aya and to be fair I could leave the review right there.
In Aya you and your friends have discovered a new land and are travelling inland via river, exploring the untouched wilderness and photographing the local wildlife and breathe taking scenery.
Your exploration upstream is represented by a procession of tiny wooden tiles, each one stood on end to make a potential domino run. Every so often you will reveal a tile with a camera and this will give you the opportunity to add a new landscape or discover the local fauna. Landscapes are disks that are placed on the board and to score the disk you have to ensure that all the tiles that touch it after the big push have matching terrain. Animals are placed on top of the dominoes and again must only touch the terrain they represent.
Tiles are drawn one at a time and unwanted tiles can be placed in a reserve stack, ready for when they're needed. You also have a 20 minute time limit, with a break in the middle to re-evaluate strategy.
Once you've built up your beautiful wilderness it's time to give the big push and see if your run holds up, just like this:
Of course this is a game and you're scored on your endeavour after the big push, gaining points for matching landscapes and animals with the correct tiles. You also gain points based on the number of pushes it took to knock down the entire run, encouraging you to make an efficient pattern.
Where Aya feels a bit weird compared to many other cooperative games, is that there is no way to lose, the game is merely a score attack. Of course it is possible to score zero points but to do this you would either have to have built a pretty atrocious run or accidentally knock everything down seconds before time runs out. However scoring big points takes a lot of effort, careful strategy and a delicate touch.
And the delicate touch makes this game an interesting proposition. It turns the game from your standard cooperative game to a multiplayer strategic Jenga, requiring communication, planning and a steady hand.
The lack of a lose condition means that the game lacks the stress of other cooperatives. The only thing that can go wrong is someone knocking the table or accidental destroying the entire run. That still adds some pressure but this isn't intending to be heart attack enducing stress test that Pandemic often ends up being but a more relaxed chilled affair.
The best part of Aya is the pay off. There are a lot of comparisons between Aya and Carcassonne, drawing tiles and finding their ultimate spot, but if you think the look of the board after playing Carcassonne is a great reward it's nothing compared to activating the domino rally and watching it flow.
Aya is a light cooperative experience, combining elements of Carcassonne and Jenga with the payoff of domino rally. It's difficult not to screw it up, which means you're guaranteed with the enjoyment of watching your rally every game but it's also difficult to score the big points, meaning there's plenty of challenge to play this game again and again.
This review is based on a full retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.