After Keythedral I had some real trepidation with another Richard Breese design, because I do think that Keythedral is not a good game; it's too chaotic for almost any strategy, and the theme is as flat as a board. Reef Encounter, on the other hand, plays like a finely tuned machine. It's got great strategy and superb tactics. It also has two elements that I think really make a game: the constant fear over what your opponents will do; and the occasional look-what-a-brilliant-move-I-just-made moment. It's a little long. We were up around 2.5 or 3 hours when all was said and done, but it was well worth playing the whole time.
I'm surprised by the comparison to Caylus, which I also think is a long, but well-designed game, and which was also released to the U.S. market late last year. I was surprised by the comparison, because I don't think Caylus is actually in the same league as Reef Encounter, and thus I'm sad that it's Caylus that's gotten the groupthink adoration, not Reef Encounter.
I mean, they both have some of the sharp edges you find in indie games. Reef Encounter has a slow startup with not much chance for interesting moves for 30-45 minutes. If setup involved getting players on the board with some corals already in place, the game would have played better and more consistently. Caylus on the other hand has some severe mismatches between strategic & tactical decisions & outcomes. But looking at each game as a whole, Reef Encounter has a finely tuned set of individual game systems that work together, while Caylus feels much more haphazard.
I think Reef Encounter had two things going against it:
1.) The similarities to Tigris & Euphrates are obvious & meaningful. In many ways RE is a more complex T&E, with the random elements removed (much as Keythedral is to Settlers of Catan). It was probably harder to get people excited about a game so reminescent of something else (though the Caylus/Puerto Rico comparisons were there from the start, people also clearly stated how they differed from each other too).
2.) Reef Encounter was released in a limited ed. in 2004, then only pushed out to a wider release in late 2005, which probably killed any momentum that the game might have achieved, while Caylus went straight out into a Rio Grande edition.
In any case, I'm definitely going to sing Reef Encounter's praises when I writeup my review, and in the meantime Caylus and Reef Encounter are both going into my bag for a special Saturday gameday at EndGame tomorrow; hopefully I'll get to play both.