Zoos! Everyone likes seeing animals, so the concept of building / owning your own zoo has popped up in popular media from time to time, from mediocre Matt Damon movies to well-loved video games to board games. Habitats, a recent game from Cwali (makers of Factory Funner, a favorite over here at What’s Eric Playing?), is another game delving deep into the idea of how would you run a zoo?
In Habitats, you play as rival zookeepers seeking to build the best zoo (and the best habitats for your animals, because you care about their well-being and want them to be happy) so that you can make both the guests and the animals as happy as possible. You’ll add tiles and create large areas in the hopes of making your park the best one there is. Will you be able to create the best zoo?
Setup is pretty straightforward. Give each player a Zookeeper token:
And a corresponding Park Entrance token (the building matches the player color):
Take the scoring tokens and place them on “0” on the Scoreboard. You may need to add a variant scoreboard tile if you’re playing at 2 / 3 players:
Additionally, flip over a goal tile by Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3 on the Scoreboard (this has changed as of the Third Edition; now you flip over two):
Now, shuffle the tiles:
Set three stacks near the first player — that’ll determine how many rounds are in the game. The stacks are of the following size:
- 2 players: 9 tiles, 6 tiles, 6 tiles
- 3 players: 8 tiles, 6 tiles, 6 tiles
- 4 players: 7 tiles, 6 tiles, 6 tiles
- 5 players: 6 tiles, 6 tiles, 6 tiles
You’ll start with the largest stack. Set the other stacks of tiles in easy reach of all other players. Now, set up the central play area by creating the Tile Market, which is the area all players will pull tiles from. I’ll post pictures of each of the different tile configurations in this slideshow. For reference, the player order is Red -> Yellow -> Brown -> White -> Bluish-White (sorry, the black zookeeper token does not show up):
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to begin! Play begins with the first player.
So, Habitats is a tile-laying game of zoo construction. On your turn, you’re going to move your Zookeeper token to a new space in the Tile Market, take that tile, and add it to your zoo so that it’s orthogonally adjacent to another tile.
You’ll notice there are four kinds of tiles:
Animals (and flowers) are your friends. They also have certain things that they need in order to be happy, such as tiles that they’re adjacent to. Generally, the tile types are:
And animals will have symbols above their heads to indicate which habitats (and how many) they need in adjacent areas. The two exceptions to that are flowers, which are always complete (and worth one point), and bees, which require flowers to be adjacent to them.
Note that if more than one of a symbol appears, then an animal needs both of those tiles in an adjacent area. This means that they may be connected (so a block of two water tiles can satisfy an animal with two water symbols) or not (a water symbol on each side of an animal with two water symbols also works). The game recommends flipping the tiles upside-down until you satisfy them, and then flipping them right-side up; that’s decent but also makes a real mess at the end of the game. I just keep track, myself.
Roads are interesting. They score the points indicated on their tile if you connect them to tiles at the indicated edges (the yellow boxes). Note that the other edges cannot connect to other tiles — those are access roads! Your starting tile has a similar effect, but it is infinite in length whereas these road tiles are not. Roads, like your starting tile, count as the tile type that they appear to be. An incomplete road tile scores 0 points at the end of the game.
Watchtowers are just for lookin’ at animals. Some go on infinitely (the ones with the line continuing off the board) and some only look at adjacent animals, but they have the same general idea. You’ll score if the watchtower can see completed animal habitats in its direction. Note that a watchtower can be rotated when you place it, but its line of sight stops at another watchtower. If the animals it sees are incomplete, it gains you nothing. Focus on making animals happy.
These tourists are just here to check out the park, I guess. There are two types of tourists you’ll have to deal with, in your park-building:
- “Big” Tourists: These tourists are just super excited about the type of area in your park that’s on their tile. Within the area they’re connected to, they’ll score you one point for each tile of that type in that area (except for their tile). You really want to use this tile when you have a huge area of a specific type.
- “Many” Tourists: These tourists are all about quantity, not quality. They’ll score you a point for each distinct area of the type on their tile. This means you’re better off not connecting a bunch of drylands if you have the Many Drylands tourist, as one giant area is only one giant point. Note that they don’t count their own tile in that scoring, not their own area.
In either case, for animal habitat purposes, tourists count as the tile type that they appear to be, and you can use that to benefit animals in their habitats. A watchtower seeing a tourist scores no additional points, though; you didn’t pay all this money to come to the zoo and see other people.
So those are the different types of tiles. How you get the tiles is kind of interesting, as well. So you notice that your zookeeper token is laying down? Look at the direction they’re facing. They can either turn left, right, or go straight ahead and take the next tile in that direction. That’s how your zookeepers move, by sort of slithering around the tile market. If another zookeeper is in your way, you may skip over top of them! Just kind of hop. If, by some weird coincidence, there are no tiles available in any of the three directions you can move, you may move backwards and take that tile. Only in that case, though.
Once you’ve taken a tile, refill from the available stacks. If you’re the first player, refill from your pre-filled stacks. Once one stack is depleted, you are in the final year. Every other player gets a turn (after yours), and then you move on to year-end scoring.
During year end scoring, take a look at the goals:
Score the two that’re relevant to your year, and only those. The goals are:
- Biggest Area: Which park has the largest area of one type of terrain?
- Many Areas: Which park has the most distinct areas of multiple types of terrain?
- Long Park: Which park has the longest row of tiles? Long park is long.
- Diagonally Long Park: Which park has the longest diagonal of tiles?
- Landscape Types: Which park has the most of each landscape type? If there’s a tie, count the number of sets of each landscape type.
- Flora Diversity: Which park has the most different flowers? If there’s a tie, count the number of flowers.
- Compact Park: Which park is the most compact? Basically, who has the most tiles
- Keep It Close: Which park is the closest to the entrance? Find the tile that’s farthest from your entrance tile. Count the number of tiles between that tile and your entrance tile; whoever has the smallest number gets these points.
- Accessibility: Which park has all their tiles the closest to a road tile? Do the same thing you did for Keep it Close, but choose the tile that’s furthest from any road tile. The smallest number gets these points.
If there’s a tie beyond the criteria I’ve mentioned, the tied players get the points for the lowest rank they would normally get. This is weirdly worded, but basically if 3 people are tied for second place, if they weren’t tied they’d get second, third, and fourth. So instead, they all get fourth place’s points.
Play continues until the game’s end. Normally, what I do is I score all the animals at the end of the game, along with the watchtowers, tourists, and roads. Once you’ve done that, the player with the most points wins!
Variant: Hard Mode
So I made a mistake in my first few plays and misinterpreted the rules, and ironically, no tile in the game made it clear I had made a mistake. I still like that variant, so I’m proposing it as a slightly more challenging variant for Habitats. In this version, instead of allowing adjoining tiles to count toward an animal’s habitat requirement, the animal’s habitat requirement must be separate tiles (not necessarily areas), all adjacent orthogonally to the animal’s tile. This doesn’t change much (the warthog, for instance, still requires a tile of each type adjacent), but it does make certain tiles more difficult (the catfish, for instance, must be in the middle of three water tiles, rather than adjacent to a large lake). What do you think of the variant? Let me know in the comments if you end up trying it!
Player Count Differences
The major difference at higher player counts is the level of contention in the tile market. Generally speaking, it’s not a bad idea to follow another player around if you can’t find anything that you need or want, since they’ll leave new tiles in their wake that you can take for yourself, if you want. At higher player counts there’s a lot more entropy of that sort happening in the player market, since so many people are moving around through it. Honestly, other than that, not much changes; the scoreboard has more places for scoring the year-end goals, so you can get minor points off of those (whereas if you’re not first in a two-player game, you score nothing). No real preference, though I do find that it plays a bit faster at 2 – 3 players than it does at 4 – 5 (as most games do). Particularly fast players can probably get a two-player game in in about 20 – 30 minutes.
- A well-placed Watchtower is a great move. I had one game where I just made an incredibly long park with watchtowers at either end, pointing towards each other. Earned 7 points per tower, 14 points total. That’s a massive swing. Keep an eye on how to use them to benefit your park, especially if certain goal tiles are in play (Long Park / Diagonally Long Park).
- Don’t worry about completing animals taken with like, three or fewer turns to go. Focus on completing animals you already have placed, unless you need those animals for watchtowers or you get a particularly lucky draw. I’m not saying it can’t happen, so consider it.
- Don’t get Big and Many confused. Big wants a particularly large area, whereas many wants a bunch of small, noncontiguous areas. I find that Many is a bit better in the Hard Mode variant, and Big is a bit better in the normal variant. You may have a different experience.
- Flowers are generally not bad to take. They’re not very valuable, but they can be placed just about anywhere. Using them to fulfill your habitat goals is usually a pretty solid idea.
- Roads aren’t bad, but don’t take too many. They’ll start shutting off access to certain areas of your park and make it difficult for you to place (and score) animals. I find they’re best used along the edges of your park, especially for the Accessibility Goal.
- Keep an eye on the goals. They may not seem like a lot of points, but the scores can sometimes be close in Habitats, and having the extra few points to tip you over the edge may be the thing that wins you the game. Plus, it’s a nice way to change up your play style between games.
- Keep track of your animals. There’s a real temptation (and honestly a limit on your cognitive capacity) to grab more and more animals rather than focusing on finishing the ones you’ve already taken. If you aren’t careful, you run a very real risk of forgetting to complete certain habitats just because you forgot, not for any bad strategy.
- If you can’t find anything you want, follow another player around. Players leave new tiles in their wake as they move through the tile market, so just take what you need from what they leave behind. You’ll likely be able to get more of what you want, that way.
- Try to plan ahead. People can’t disrupt your plans too aggressively (unless they serendipitously line enough players up to hop into your business), so you should be able to predict what will be available (at least, from what you can see) a few turns in advance.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the theme. It’s a fun game about building nice places for zoo animals to live. It’s a great theme.
- All the unique animal tiles are delightful. You can totally play this and ignore the victory condition and just try to collect your favorite animals and still have a pretty good time, all things considered.
- The tile market is a super cool way to select tiles. I think the novelty of that is super nice — it’s always fun to see games put a new spin on a mechanic, and the sort of movement-based tile-placement is pretty unique, as far as I can tell. It provides neat incentives.
- Plays quickly. It says 40 minutes on the box, but once everyone knows how to play, you can probably bust a full game out in half an hour or so. The main hurdle is teaching, and even that’s not so bad. It’s pretty independent; just players pulling from a shared market.
- Pretty easy to learn. There are only four types and kinds of tiles, so, there’s not a whole lot of cognitive load for players, rules-wise. I will say that it’s hard to keep track of all your animals in your head, so you’re likely to forget some over the course of play, but that’s not really a “rules” cognitive load thing as much as it is a gameplay one.
- Removing tiles from your zoo and flipping them around when they’re complete seems like a recipe for a total mess. Imagine doing that in Carcassonne, and the tiles are about the same size in Habitats. You’re better off marking them with a coin or a token or something once they’re complete, but that would have required a ton of tokens.
- The insert is kinda wacky. There’s no real way to store the tiles in there practically without them just kinda sloshing around. It’s a bit like Between Two Cities in that regard.
- Most players will confuse the field and the forest terrain types. They’re both green and, like, a reasonably similar green. Plus, the field icon isn’t super clear? Most players get that confused. It might have been better to do, like, a tundra or snow part or something. Then we could have had like, penguins, which would have been great.
- Big vs. Many isn’t super clear to new players. A lot of players mess up the Tourists on their first game. Take some extra time to explain that to new players, lest you frustrate them when they realize they grabbed one but wanted the other one and now don’t get many points.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, Habitats is delightful! It’s got something for everyone. It’s a reasonably simple tile-laying game, sure, but it’s got a great theme and some cool mechanics to really make it work. It’s a bit more complex than, say, Kingdomino, but it’s a great follow-up to that sort of simple tile-laying mechanic that it does so well (as opposed to Queendomino, which, well, I feel increases the complexity without necessarily improving the overall gameplay, but that’s another review entirely). My only real complaint with Cwali is that their games are very difficult to obtain due to a lack of off-Kickstarter distribution in the US. I love pretty much every Cwali I’ve played (which, to be fair, is just this and Factory Funner), and I’m always a bit disappointed when someone asks how to get it and I have to say, “either go back in time a year and back it on Kickstarter or hope for a new edition”. Hopefully, they can partner with a stateside publisher to increase their distribution, because if you’re looking for a fun game about animals (that’s perhaps a bit more open to many animals than, say, Bärenpark) that’s got some cool tile-laying mechanics, I’d definitely recommend giving Habitats a shot!