Solo Game: Neotraditional AMA

Today, Fairway takes a look at the first of two fifth place finishers in the The Game Crafter solo game challenge: Neotraditional AMA.

Neotraditional AMA is a single-player, dexterity game in which the player is a spearfisherman trying to dive deep, bring back fish and not drown. I followed my contest rubric for this game and these were the scores:

Total Theme (5) Art / GD (10) Solo (15) Game Play (10) Creativity (5) Other (5)
60% 4 4 10 7 3 2

Initial Impressions ^

Box Shot!
  1. Without a doubt, this game was the most unusual game in the finalists.
  2. The uses a unique, “complete your round before you finish exhaling” mechanic.  This was a much more zen-approach than those games that encourage just holding your breath.
  3. The core game is a not-so-well-disguised attempt to introduce the player to Kanji characters.
  4. The art is neat but so sparingly used that it was a bit disappointing.

How to play ^

Neotraditional AMA is a very straight-forward game to learn consisting of two decks of dive cards, a set of prey reference cards and a set of demand cards.  At the start of the game, the two dive cards are separated into shallow and depths and then separately shuffled together and placed in two draw piles. The players starting dive deck contains only the shallows. As the player advances they’ll add “depth” cards to their deck.

Fish cards

The fish reference cards are set out on the table. The fish cards include an illustration, English name, Chinese translation, and pronunciation.

The deck of demand cards is shuffled and then the top card turned face up.  The demand cards have some references a few of the target fish. 

Any seafood using a specific pronunciation.

The trick is that the reference is typically by some Kanji-related typography. For example, only fish with a specific character (“ra” in the example to the right).

Then, the player inhales a deep breath. When the player is ready, he or she begins to exhale (hopefully slowly) and starts flipping cards looking for matching cards in their dive deck. The “trick” here is that the dive cards have only the Kanji characters (along with value and weight) values on them.  The player is trying to quickly snag the matching seafood cards and then return all non-collected seafood cards back to the deck before they stop exhaling! To keep the player from just taking every fish, there is a max weight of five units which is the sum of the first numbers on the cards — the game also has a penalty for surfacing with too much weight.

If the player stops exhaling before they get all the dive cards back onto the deck, the player drowns.

If the player successfully surfaces, the player keeps only those cards that actually matched the condition and will score the points (second value) for the fish caught.  In addition, the player will take three cards plus one for each caught fish and then shuffle it into their dive deck.

The game continues in this manner until either the depths cards run out or the player drowns.

Watch Owen play ^

Where it shines ^

Language Learning Game? My house likes language learning games. We regularly play Verba and this game has a lot of similar subtle learning objectives: teach the player to recognize Chinese Kanji symbols even if they don’t want to.

Fish art. I think it’s fair to say that the illustrations were an immediate draw. They’re on a nice color palette that match the Chinese theme.  The only real issue: there was not enough of it!  The depths cards were largely under-illustrated (probably by design) and an off-puting water texture. This left us a bit confused with what to do.

Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly.  There is something somewhat relaxing in the pattern of this game: deep breath followed by a slow exhale.  This game could almost be a relaxation tool except for the fact that this rhythmic, relaxing pattern is frustrated by the equally frantic surfacing phase.

Play time.  This was overall the shortest and quickest game. For some, this alone might be reason to pick it up. A game gets set up in less than a minute and you can play as few or as many rounds as you want.  A complete game — played in a way to ensure you don’t drown — can take longer. But I never got the impression players really wanted to play that way.

Where it struggles ^

Got one… now I gotta get the cards back on the deck!

Final scoring.  Sum the values. That’s it: a challenge against your personal best. Unlike a few other games, it didn’t even include a way to record your bests, which would have been handy.

Rewards conservative players?  So, in reality, there’s no rush to get to the bottom of your dive deck. The demand cards are just reshuffled  when you need more. The only game limiters are drowning and reaching the bottom of the depths.  Relatively speaking, there are a lot of depths cards that you could not push yourself and do pretty well.

No one wanted to play that way, so most people’s games ends with the player drowning. I think reaching the bottom of the depths and/or demand cards would be a fair way to encourage deeper dives.

No extra language help.  One of the nice things about games like Verba is that even though you might not know the word, it at least comes with the picture too.  Diving through the dive deck and relying only on the Kanji characters and a reference card was disheartening. Much of the time was spent confirming the symbol leading to comparatively shorter dives.  It would take a lot of practice for someone to recognize the symbols alone. Any sort of contextual help would have been welcome.

Conclusion ^

Neotraditional AMA was the most unique game we played. It’s unique mix of dexterity and language learning was notable, but the fact that everyone had fun playing made it helped it sneak in a few extra points. In addition, Neotraditional AMA does exactly what a lot of people are looking for in a solo game: a nice tight package with easy setup and reasonable play time.

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