Avalon Hill, £25
Designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel
2-4 players, 1 hour per player
Reviewed by Steve Kingsbury
This game, as I'm sure you know, is Avalon Hill's version of the game of the same name by Moskito, released a couple of years back. I saw them both in my local shop and the bright blue packaging and great artwork of Avalon Hill's version won the day. Having not played the original but having really enjoyed this version I felt moved to write this review.
Opening the unusually shaped box you are confronted by a board, element discs, strength and frequency markers (remarkably few counters for an AH game - a good start I felt) and 28 creature cards. These form the heart of the game. Each card has a beautiful picture of a primeval animal such as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, the classic Tyrannosaurus and even includes Homo sapiens rather before our time. On each card three environment elements are marked. These are usually all different but some creatures have two of one type. It is these elements that determine the creature's match with the current environment and their ultimate biological success (more of this later). On the back of each card is a detailed description of each creature.
The board is divided into three areas: the primeval world, the special spaces and the environment. The primeval world is a grid of four rows and four columns: each row belongs to one player (a primeval scene tinted in red, green etc) and each column is marked with 0,3,6 and 9. These numbers denote the number of points each player scores for a having a surviving creature in that particular column. As the game progresses each primeval creature, mostly dinosaurs, enter at the 0 space (sometimes the 0 and 3 space) and evolve, one column per round, up towards the 9 space. To the left of the primeval world are three special spaces, marked 12, 10 and 7. The creatures enter these spaces on a 'first in, first out' basis and continue to score points until they are displaced from their successful evolutionary niche by later animals.
The environment area has two parts: the current environment and evolution. Both parts are divided into the same four rows as the primeval world and coloured likewise. It is here that the element discs are played and then displayed, although in contrast to the primeval world each player can play discs on spaces that are not his own colour. Before this all becomes too confusing let me explain the element discs. There are 84 of these, 12 each of Sun, Fish, Trees, Bone, Cherries, Grasses and Water. Each type is denoted by a picture and is distinctively coloured. During play discs are placed one or two at a time face down in the evolution spaces. When these face down discs outnumber the face up discs in the current environment space of the same row, environment change occurs. This process involves discarding the current environment discs and replacing them with the most common element from those exposed. If there is a tie they are left exposed until the tie is resolved. At the beginning of the game there are three rounds of each player being able to place discs and later this progresses to four and five rounds which can become pretty hectic.
The third aspect of the game is how the animals gain strength and then battle each other. Basically each player has one opportunity per round to attack another animal with one of his own. The number of dice he can use is determined by the number of matches the particular animal has with the current environment called the animals frequency. The number of hits he achieves is the number of dice that roll equal or less than the animals strength. Each animal starts with a strength of one, shown by the picture of a die showing a one on each animal card. A battle is the best of three battle rounds (excluding draws). How does an animal gain strength? Well either in the element disc placing round when a complete match of animal elements to the current environment occurs or by defeating an animal of equal or higher strength in battle. It is tough back in the pleistocene as a defeated animal becomes extinct and is removed from the board.
So the basics described what are the tactical choices that make this game so interesting? Firstly in choosing an animal from the available piles of face up animal cards there a five tactical alternatives. One, do you pick an animal with elements that match your own animal group - thus making your placement of element discs more effective. Two, do you pick one that matches your currently held element discs - so you can change the environment towards this animal. Three, do you pick one that matches the current environment - hoping that this doesn't change much and gives your animal a head start. Four, do you pick one that has the best match with the current elements of all the animals of the board - to be in the environmental mainstream. For example if water is the most popular element amongst the current animals it is likely that most players will try to keep water on the current environment. And Five, do you pick an animal which has two of one type of element on its card - this is very successful if matching the current environment but is susceptible to environmental change and extinction.
A second area of tactical choice is in the placing of element discs. Here the alternatives are to support your own animals, to try and eliminate discs in the current environment that you don't have and others do or do you try and eliminate discs that match particularly strong or highly scoring animals of other players - hoping that it will have no matches at the end of the round and so become extinct?
The third area of tactical choice is in the battle sequence. The various merits to choose from are eliminating animals of other players that are scoring well, eliminating animals in your animals columns (each vacant row in one of your animals columns scores an extra point), eliminating animals of equal strength to your animal (thus gaining strength) or eliminating animals that want a different current environment to your group. As you are basically allowed only one attack this choice can be quite sharp. There is a final area of tactical complexity in the progression to the special spaces. Remember if you can keep an animal in these spaces it remains there until pushed out by lower orders evolving up. As the four rows narrow into the one lane of the special spaces (an early precursor of the M1) it is quite a bun fight, particularly at the end of the game to be the last in and therefore the last out. The order is determined by the highest frequency going last and when tied by the highest strength going last.
There is an optional rule that adds to the game which is that some animals in the face-up piles can appear covered by a Dominant Species card. Its effect is that you don't know the element discs of whichever animal it is but it starts at strength 2. A play for those who like to gamble.
Overall we really liked this game. It has simple rules which result in a satisfying range of tactical choices, takes about three hours to play and is beautifully presented. Nice bits make a nice game and it isn't swamped by endless hard to read counters that typifies AH at their worst. Personally I like games that reduce bashing other people to a minimum and although some inter-species competition does occur this is driven by tactical choice which makes it acceptable. On a Sumo ordered/chaos rating (0=order, 10=chaos) I'd give it at least 7. Good play is rewarded but the vagaries of which animals are available to choose, the sometimes rapid environment changes and the choices and outcomes of the battles make it mostly chaotic. One point though is that at times you are rolling a lot of dice and if enough are available it adds to the excitement if they can all be rolled in one go. Fifteen dice trying to score 2 or less versus 11 trying for 3 or less is great fun and brings cheers from the group as each roll occurs. To conclude, this game would be in my ten to take to a desert island.
On to the review of Dambusters or back to the review of Road Kill.
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