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[Review] Wildlife

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I didn't know what to expect when I first opened the box of WildLife (which is probably too big, by the way.) I had heard that Wildlife (Uberplay, 2003 - Wolfgang Kramer) was a "meaty" game, and I certainly expected a good game from Kramer, who has produced such masterpieces like El Grande and Tikal. The game came with piles of tiles, cards, and chips, and I hoped that the gameplay would match the "bits" factor. Wildlife is a game that simulates the theory of evolution, as each player takes a different creature type (mammoth, bear, crocodile, eagle, or snake) and make it the dominant species.

Upon playing WildLife, I was immediately impressed by the ability to customize one's race. The options to a player are many; and while this can slow the game down, it made my playings of it extremely fun. It's one of my favorite Kramer games, and I enjoyed the huge player interaction, the many, many ways to score points, and how Kramer managed to masterfully integrate area control, attacking, special abilities, and food supplies is simply amazing. The game is a little on the heavy side; and with five to six players, there can be some significant downtime; but the game, for me at least, was so intriguing that I didn't mind. It's not for the fainthearted, with the blatant attacks involved, but the payoff is worth it.

A board is placed in the middle of the table, showing a large island split into a square grid. Each square is one of six terrain types (forest, savannah, water, plains, desert, and mountains) and is part of either a "large" region of that terrain type (8-9 spaces) or a "small" region. (4-5 spaces). Each player chooses a race card and takes an amount of creature tiles (from 18 to 30) that match it, depending on the number of players. Each race card shows the six different types of terrain on the board, and the current level of adaptation of that creature in the terrain (no action, migrate, expand, or attack). A pile of food chips are placed near the board, with each player receiving eight of them. Fifteen ability cards of five types are sorted and placed face up near the board, as well as seventy-two adaption tiles, twelve of each terrain type. Each player places a scoring marker on the first space of the scoring track, and eleven "region markers" are placed on the Minor scoring track, and a purple scoring marker is placed on the Major scoring track. A deck of cards is shuffled, with ten being dealt to each player, and the remainder forming a face-down deck. Players then, in turn order (oldest player goes first), place a certain amount of creatures on the board (amount varies with players). Each player places a creature in one terrain square - but only if they can migrate, expand, or attack in that square. There are some restrictions as to the total amount of initial creatures in each region. The first player then takes their turn, with play passing clockwise around the table.

On a players turn, they can take three actions, but playing cards from their hand. One of these actions must be auctioned off to the other players, which can be done at any time during a player's turn. They simply show the card, and players bid in a clockwise order around the table, using food chips (minimum bid is 3). Once all players but one have passed, the player who won the auction immediately plays the card (or discards it if they want). Players may also, at any time, trade three food chips for one point on the success track, or vice versa. The cards a player can play are of five different types:
- Text: Some of the cards have specific actions, like causing all other players to lose food points, etc.
- Terrain: Many cards show one of the six different types of terrain. These allow a player to either migrate (move a creature into the region from another space according to some movement rule), expand (place a new creature from the player's supply into one empty spot of that terrain), or attack (replace an opponent's creature - discarding it - with one from their supply.) Attacking can only be done in a region that's completely full. A player who has attack can also expand and migrate; while a player who has expand can also migrate.
- Arrowhead: The player may take one of the five ability card types from the middle of the table. If the ability card they want is not available, they may take one from the player who has the most victory points.
- Wheel: The player may take one of the adaptation tiles, and upgrade one of their terrain types by one level: No action to migrate to expand to attack.
- Lightning: This card acts as a joker and may be used as a terrain, arrowhead, or wheel card.

Players may also take one free migration per turn, as well as use the abilities on their Ability cards. Whenever a player places a creature in the last space of any of the twelve regions, then a "Minor" scoring occurs. The first region marker is placed in the region, to show that that region has been scored, and the player scores the points underneath the region marker. When the fourth, eighth, and eleventh region markers are placed, then a Major Scoring occurs, tracked by the purple marker. Players score for a variety of things, such as
- Having monopolies in a region, or in the top three players of a region.
- Having one of the top five largest contiguous herds. (adjacent creatures)
- Having the most or second most adaption tiles.
- Having the most or second most ability cards.
- Having the most or second most food chips.
After all of these things are scored, the game continues. After the third Major Scoring, which occurs after the eleventh region is scored or after one player runs out of creature tiles in the storage area, the game ends, and the player who scored the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the gameā€¦

1.) Components: There are a lot of components in the game, with over 200 tiles, piles of cards, and other markers; but even more empty box space. Wildlife comes in a nicely illustrated box, but it's large and long, and with the amount of empty space in it - easy to crush. All of the other components are fairly nice - with the exception of the creature tiles; they were exceedingly annoying to punch out, although they do look nice on the board. I've bagged everything in the game and do enjoy the artwork and the way the theme fits the game (even though I disagree with it).

2.) Rules: The rulebook contains fifteen fully-colored, illustrated pages. The final two pages show a detailed explanation of a Major scoring, which certainly helps in that slightly confusing phase. The rulebook is easy to understand, but a lot of the game comes from just playing. There's certainly a lot for new players to absorb - with the scoring rules, and the card rules, and auctioning off an action, etc. I enjoy the game tremendously, but with new players, the first game is almost always a "practice" game for them, as they make too many mistakes. Even in my summary of the rules above, I skipped many small details - there's just too many of them!

3.) Customization: I really enjoy how the game allows for a lot of customization of each creature race. Do I try to upgrade the bears so that they can attack in the desert, or should I take the Intelligence Ability card, which lets me play an extra card each turn? Should I take the Food ability, which gives me two extra points each turn, or try to make it so that my creatures can migrate into all six areas? This customization gives each game a different feel. One can find different discussions on the internet about which ability cards are the most important (our group currently enjoys Intelligence the most), but I can see how races can take different routes to victory.

4.) Strategy: One must combine the customization of their race with strategic play. You can't simply just build up your creatures - you have to be attempting to control as many regions as possible - for maximum point payoff. Players can't ignore the largest herd bonuses either, for they provide some of the most points in the game, but a player with a large herd is often vulnerable to attack at choke points. I enjoy WildLife for this reason - a player must strike a very careful balance between upgrading their animals and controlling as much of the board as they can.

5.) Interaction: WildLife can become a very nasty game with players attacking each other, discarding tile, purchasing cards from other players for the sole reason of not allowing another player to get it, playing cards against one another, etc. Some people enjoy the game for this reason - there aren't too many Eurogames that allow players to directly come in conflict with one another, but others may not enjoy the fact that they can be targeted. I personally found the experience very refreshing, simply because of the tactics the game offers. Is your opponent killing all of your bears in the water? Simply move them to the forest, or upgrade their ability to "Attack" in water, or take Defense ability card. The choices are great, and players can only do so much damage to another player before that player retaliates.

6.) Downtime: Because a player has so many options on their turn, analytical players may bring the game to a crawl, as they spend a long time perusing their options, thinking about the different things they can do. This may cause players who are impatient grief, and it certainly makes the game longer. A five player game can take up to three hours if slow players are involved, and players can wait a while between turns. Fortunately, I've found that the auctioning mechanic helps alleviate this to a degree. Players can always bid for the opportunity to play once on their opponent's turn. The auction rounds are interesting (although I still don't know why the minimum bid is three), and players have a small part in each players' turn. For me, this eliminated the problem of "analysis paralysis", although I'm sure it would probably bother some.

7.) Fun Factor: For me, the fun of the game came from the massive amount of options that a player has. There are so many ways to score in the game that a player can take a different route each game, and new games always feel refreshing and exciting. I like the amount of aggression in the game, and how the customization allows a player to defend against or even retaliate against such intrusions.

Wildlife is not a quick, easy game; but as with many Kramer games, there is a lot of depth and strategy involved. I enjoy any game that permits players so many options, and games in my group have been close and exciting thus far. The game suffers from a bit of fiddliness - there's a lot of pieces to move, and players have to keep an eye on many different scoring opportunities, but all in all, it's a very satisfying experience. If you are looking for a deep, strategic game that allows you to customize your strategy, then this excellent game by Kramer will delight you.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games."

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