SNAP Review – Ecosystem: Coral Reef
Coral reefs are beautiful (like you). But did you know that they’re actually animals, not plants? They eat plankton and other microscopic bits of stuff. Coral reefs also shelter larger fish and other sea creatures.
Thanks to one of our favorite educational game companies, we have another way to explore the complex relationships between tropical sea creatures – a card game!
This is a SNAP review for Ecosystem: Coral Reef.
Ecosystem: Coral Reef is a card game for up to 6 players, designed by Matt Simpson, adapted by Steve Schlepphorst, and published by Genius Games.
It takes 15-20 minutes to play and it’s best for ages 8+, since there is a little bit of reading involved and players need to keep cards secret.
Let’s talk about the art.
The box cover is a pretty good hint to what’s inside this game – every animal in the game is represented except maybe the whale and the plankton. The illustrations by Mesa Schumacher are lifelike and interesting. (Except the plankton. I don’t think you can make plankton look interesting.)
All 11 designs are perfectly clear, and you’ll never be mistaking one type for another during play.
Let’s talk about how to play.
Ecosystem: Coral Reef is a sequel to 2019’s Ecosystem, which is a card drafting and placement game.
A game is two rounds. At the beginning of each round, every player gets 10 cards.
Every player will choose a card from their hand simultaneously, then put it into their own grid, adjacent to at least one other card. When everyone has placed, they pass their remaining cards – clockwise in the first round, and then counter-clockwise in the second round. (We’ve seen this before.)
At the end of the game, you will have 20 cards in a 4×5 grid, and it will be time to score. Hope you placed those cards in a way that works for you!
Each of the 11 card types scores in a different way: Coral only scores if it’s on the bottom row, Clownfish want to be adjacent to Plankton and Coral, and Whales score for every Krill card in your entire ecosystem. Most of the cards also fit into a food web category: Producer, Prey, or Predator.
Players score each group separately, and then take the lowest of those three scores and add it again as a “food web bonus” – showing how all of these creatures live in balance.
I was really excited when I saw the first Ecosystem game. Like many Genius Games, it takes a scientific concept and marries it with game mechanics to create something that’s both educational and truly fun to play. It reminded me of What in the Wild?, another game we’ve reviewed, but this one has fewer species represented, which should make choices easier.
On the other hand, I’ve played other drafting games from Genius that weren’t great. So we were hoping Ecosystem would be better.
Our biggest concern was not only would it be fun, but would that fun be married in the gameplay with something that teaches – something meaningful specifically.
Let’s talk about what surprised us about Ecosystem.
I’m going to start with a negative: The cards are really small. I know they did this to make it possible to build a 4×5 grid without taking over the table, which is great.
But there are 130 cards! (This is only about 60 of them.) That makes it very hard to shuffle. We found out how much of a problem that can be in our first game, where coral (you know, in the name of the game!) never showed up at all.
It’s also hard to remember how the various cards score. Everyone gets a player aid, which is actually very helpful. But I wish there was some kind of symbology on the cards themselves beyond the Predator/Prey/Producer symbols.
But now some positives! Card drafting games like this don’t usually work at fewer than three players. But the rules for Ecosystem: Coral Reef include adaptations for two players and for solo – and both of them work quite well!
At Two Players
Two player drafting uses a third hand of cards for a neutral player who is included in the drafting rotation, and randomly discards one card each turn. In some games that might not work, but in Ecosystem, it was perfect. Each player passes to the neutral player for half of the game, and you never know exactly which cards you’ll get a chance to see again.
[Andrew] I’m not shy about how much I don’t like “Automatas”. This one is very simple and just provides a buffer between players that just works super well.
Solo mode ditches the drafting entirely, which is great. It focuses instead on building the grid. You’re going to build two grids simultaneously – one for yourself and one for “Mocha”, a fake player with set rules for adding to their grid. Your goal is to beat Mocha by a wide margin – at least 50 points! (Better if you can do it by something like 70 points.)
This was another thing I really liked. In the solo game, you’re almost playing two games at the same time: one of them to score well, and one to score poorly.
Do we recommend Ecosystem: Coral Reef? The box here suggests that Ecosystem: Coral Reef is for ages 8 and up. I’d say that’s about right. Because in theory, reading isn’t required to play, but there’s a lot of scoring conditions to keep straight.
I think this game is really good for reinforcing marine biology and the concept of the food web. And you’ll have fun while you’re playing it!
I’d recommend it for parents and teachers ready to play along with kids. If you’re working through a module like this in your science class, or your kids are in their science class, it’s a good one to break out. Plus, it’s small, and relatively inexpensive.
What are we going to rate Ecosystem: Coral Reef?
We’re going to give it 3 ½ fish out of 5.
The Family Gamers received a copy of Ecosystem: Coral Reef from Genius Games for this review.
This post contains affiliate links, which do not change your price, but help support The Family Gamers.
SNAP review music is Avalanche, provided courtesy of You Bred Raptors?
Ecosystem: Coral Reef
Age Range: 8+
Number of Players: 1-6
Playtime: 15-20 minutes