It’s not often you find a game where the theme and the experience feel the same. I’m not saying games don’t have themes, but I don’t see many where the gameplay feels like the subject matter.
So, I was surprised when I picked up a game of painting landscapes that made me feel like I’d leisurely strolled through nature creating art.
Dr. Finn’s Games and Pencil First Games, created a unique experience in their “picturesque game,” Sunset Over Water. Although competitive, I appreciated the easy, tranquil play that intertwined the theme with the game’s feel.
In Sunset Over Water, players portray artists hiking through natural landscapes. Along the way, they create masterpieces, some to keep and others to sell.
Artists gain renown as they fill commissions and meet daily goals. The painter who receives the most points by the end of the 6th day wins.
The game itself is modest and elegant – tokens moving along a five-by-five layout of scenic cards, gathering landscapes, and then discarding whichever they want to match current commissions. Although there are several stacks of cards involved, the game board (and play) is simple and turns flow smoothly.
Each round (or “Day”) includes three Phases: Planning, Trek, and Clean Up. Once six rounds are done, points are tallied to determine the winner.
The Planning phase involves a deck of eight cards; each artist has their own Planning Deck, duplicate yet shuffled. The Planning Card tells players their position in turn order (“Wake Up”), how they can move (“Hike”), and how many landscapes they can take (“Paint”).
This stage is often a bidding war and strategic, as players draw three, pick one, and put the remainder on the bottom of their deck.
An early “wake up” time gives you first shot at the board but may limit your movement or quantity of work. Conversely, you might get up late (leaving fewer landscapes available that day), but you may find more freedom in your trek and paint far more than your opponents.
The Trek is the most involved phase as it involves three sub-phases: Hike, Paint, Sell. You not only move your hiker but also figure out which landscapes you’re painting and possibly sell some of your work.
Your Planning Card tells you what directions you can move, how far, and how many pieces of art you can create. You also cannot change course during your Hike; once you choose a route, you must stick to that direction.
You aren’t required to move the maximum amount of spaces, however, and often you can’t. If you’re near a board edge, would enter an empty space (where a Landscape Card was already taken), or would end your movement on another player, you’ll have to stop.
Once you’ve moved, you can choose to pick up (“paint”) any Landscape Cards you passed over, up to the maximum listed on your Planning Card. One exception is that you can’t pick up Cards on which that other players are sitting.
The final part of the Trek allows you to Sell your paintings to acquire the Commission Cards for that round. You merely Sell the required amount that matches the Features demanded, discarding the Landscapes, and gaining the Commissions; your only limit is that a single painting can only be used to match one Commission (although individual Commissions might require multiple pictures).
You’re not required to Sell anything, and it’s possible you don’t have anything that matches the current Commissions, or there are none left. You can still sell previous Landscape Cards in your possession, however, so you might want to hold onto them until you see the right Commission Card enter play.
A significant part of this phase is the Daily Goal, which provides points for completing something as simple as moving diagonally. The catch is that the card only goes to the last person to perform the action; this is another advantage of choosing a later “wake up” time during the Planning Phase.
The round ends with a Cleanup Phase, which is where most of the cards are replaced. The Landscape Cards are replenished, a new Daily Goal is turned over, and new Commission Cards are laid out.
After six rounds, or if there aren’t enough cards to fill the Commission row, the game ends. Points are earned primarily for Commission Cards and Daily Goal Cards, although some are received for any Landscapes the player kept.
The player with the most points (“Renown”) wins, with ties broken by majority Daily Goal cards. They are the most prominent landscape artist of the group!
One aspect I love about Sunset Over Water is that it’s “simple”. Not “simple” as in mindless, but as in ease of learning, quick set-up, and small table space.
Once you know the basic rules and goals, rounds are often finished within minutes and games in under half-an-hour. Although primarily consisting of cards (which makes this not ideal for playing outdoors), Sunset works well as a “travel” game brought along for fun and introductions.
This experience is why I feel Sunset’s gameplay reflects its theme. Turns and rounds flow so smoothly, that you almost enjoy the peacefulness of your artist hiking through nature.
Although there’s still a competitive edge, I often enjoyed just looking at the landscapes I was collecting as I wandered through the board. The stunning artwork by Beth Sobel plays no small part in that feeling.
I also appreciate that, despite its simplicity, there’s a surprising amount of strategy to the game. Given the initiative order and how cards aren’t replaced until after everyone has finished their Trek, you need to think ahead.
You must choose your Planning Phase carefully, often based on the Commissions and Daily Goal available, so you know when and where to move. Each round may favor different players, and even previous rounds can help fulfill big Commission Cards.
Sunset also has a Solo mode, where you try and beat a scorecard; it adds new mechanics to refresh and even a bonus score for returning to the center (“home”). This variation was designed by Keith Matejka, who you may know from Roll Player, and the rules are as enjoyable as that award-winning game.
Sunset Over Water is excellent for family or those who want a more peaceful game experience. It’s a game of strategy only in that you try to move through the landscapes you want to achieve commissions and goals.
As much as I love epic science-fiction battles, post-apocalyptic survival, or searching for sanity-shattering artifacts, sometimes you want a more “serene” game. Sunset provides just that, a competitive game that remains tranquil and still provides the strategy you need.
If there was one complaint about Sunset Over Water, it’s whether it retains replayability. Although there is some variation thanks to shuffled decks, overall each session is the same game.
Still, sometimes you only want to play something familiar, picturesque, and pleasant. I think Sunset does just that so that it will remain a staple on our shelves (or in our luggage) for quite a while.
Sunset Over Water is on shelves now. 1-4 players, 20-30 minutes, Ages 8+.
I give Sunset Over Water a tranquil 4 happy little trees out of 5.