#331 – Animal Kingdoms [Preview]

Box

Base price: $29. $45 for the Deluxe Edition.
1 – 5 players.
Play time: ~45 minutes.
BGG Link
C
heck it out on Kickstarter!
Logged plays: 5 

Full disclosure: A preview copy of Animal Kingdoms was provided by Galactic Raptor Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. 

Whew, after a whole few weeks without thinking about Kickstarters (though that Chai Kickstarter certainly looks good [or looked good, since it’s in its final hour]), we’re back on the Kickstarter train with the first game from a brand-new publisher, Galactic Raptor Games! They’ve brought the 2018 Cardboard Edison winner Animal Kingdoms to Kickstarter, and brought on Katy Grierson to do what is only describable as fantastic work on the art.

In Animal Kingdoms, you lead your house, trying to gain influence over the five Kingdoms. As you send your loyal beasts around, you must make sure to respect the laws and decrees of each kingdom you enter if you hope to gain any influence (or, better yet, a seat on the council). After three ages, a new leader will take over, and you hope that it’ll be you. Will your attempts and machinations be enough? Or will even your beast effort be insufficient?

Contents

Setup

Surprisingly not that much setup. You’re going to give every player some influence cubes in a color of their choice:

Influence Cubes

Also give each player a Score Marker:

Score Trackers

You’ll want to set those down by the scoreboard:

Scoreboard

Set the main board in the middle of the table:

Board

I’m told it’ll be more fold-y in the final version. Shuffle up the Decree cards:

Decree Cards

Place one of those face-up on each of the indicated spaces on the board. Next, shuffle up the First Place tokens:

First Place Tokens

Place three on each of the AK spaces on the bottom of each of the five kingdoms. Shift them so that they’re increasing, left-to-right, within a kingdom. Now shuffle the First to Withdraw tokens:

First To Withdraw Tokens

I’ll talk more about those later, but set three aside, face-down, and put the last one in the box without looking at it.

Give each player 4 cards:

Cards.jpg

They’re really something. Once you all have your hands ready, you’re ready to start!

Setup

Gameplay

Gameplay 1

Animal Kingdoms is fundamentally a game of area control — over the course of three ages, you seek to send animals to the various courts (following their decrees, of course) and increase your influence over each kingdom to earn points. The player with the most points wins!

On your turn, you can perform one of three actions: Play a Card, Rally, or Withdraw.

Play A Card

Alright, so, you want to play a card below the decree card in a Kingdom — this will help boost your control of that Kingdom. However, you must follow that Kingdom’s decree. Sometimes that means that you must play an animal that is not the most recent animal played in any other Kingdom, or it must be a certain animal or rank, or it must be strictly decreasing with no gaps. These are all real things. Helpfully, if, say, you have the “must match the most recent animal in one of the two adjacent Kingdoms” and both are empty, you can play any card you want.

Capital Claim

When you do, add a cube from your supply to the board on one of the available spaces. The silver spaces are Council Spaces; you cannot place there, normally. The starred space is the Capital; you may only place on that space when all other non-Council Spaces are filled up, and then you immediately Withdraw. More on that in a second.

After completing your card-playing action, draw until you have four cards in hand.

Rally

When you Rally, you discard as many cards as you want, draw back up to four cards, and then gain one point.

You cannot Rally after another player has Withdrawn.

Withdraw

Once you’ve exhausted all other possible options, you may Withdraw and place your hand face-down to indicate you’re done for the rest of the round. If you’re the first player to do this, claim a First to Withdraw token without looking at it and keep it face-down. You’ll score those at the end of the game.

Note that you must withdraw if you have 0 Influence cubes left.

End of Age

Gameplay 2

Once every player has Withdrawn, the End of the Age occurs! During this phase, resolve all the Kingdoms starting with the smallest and moving clockwise towards the largest. Resolve as follows:

  • Most cubes: If you have the most cubes in a Kingdom, you take the leftmost available number tile. If there’s a tie, a battle occurs! All tied players reveal a card from their hand simultaneously, and the player with the highest card wins! If an 8 is played, a 1 will beat it, as the only exception. If there’s a tie, go again (but don’t refill your hand, yet). The winner takes the number tile; the loser gets to refill their hand (and gets bumped to second place). Note that this means that the winner will have fewer cards for subsequent battles, and may end up with no cards. If that happens, they lose the battle unless their opponent also cannot play a card, in which case they split the number tile evenly (rounding up).
  • Second-most cubes: All players with the second-most cubes get 3 points.
  • Third-most cubes: All players with the third-most cubes get 1 point.

When you’ve finished with a Kingdom, move the cube on the Capital up to one of the two Council spaces, and it will remain there for the rest of the game. Then, remove the rest of the cubes in the Kingdom, returning them to the players. Continue on in this way until every Kingdom has been scored.

Gameplay 3

If you are at the end of the third age, the game ends. Otherwise, shuffle the discard pile into the deck, and every player should now refill their hand to 4 cards. Remove the Decree Cards and add 5 new ones. The player with the lowest score now starts the next Age!

End of Game

Gameplay 4

Once the third Age has ended, everyone with First to Withdraw tokens should reveal them and add those points to their score. The player with the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

The main difference is going to be the contention. You probably won’t see as many ties at higher player counts (since you’re not really able to go tit-for-tat against 2 – 4 other people as easily as you could against one person, though there’s some possibility of it shaking out as a tie), but if you do get a tie there might be more people in there than you bargained for. If you spend too much time not participating in a kingdom, at higher player counts, you’ll risk getting completely shut out, as well. At lower player counts, you’re either fighting for control or just giving up a kingdom, your call. I think they’re both interesting, though, so, no real preference, here. Thankfully, due to the way the Age ends, the time scales to be roughly the same at any player count, unless you’ve got particularly slow players.

Strategy

  • Always at least show up. If you’re not in a Kingdom, you get 0 points. That’s not ideal. Even if it’s only 1 point, which may not be terribly worth it, it’s still not 0 points. Plus, at higher player counts, getting that second-place tie is super useful, especially if you only place one cube. If you get second in everything, that’s far better than getting first in something and third everywhere else, for instance, no matter what the first point value is.
  • In a related vein, try to avoid overwhelming a kingdom. You don’t need to win by four or five cubes; you just need to win by one. There’s a real temptation to play in spots that you can make easy plays into, but that often just leads to you winning that Kingdom to the detriment of your influence elsewhere. It’s tough to strike the right balance, but if you can, you’re definitely going to be able to break away from your opponents.
  • Keep an eye on future council seats. Especially in the small kingdom, having two council seats will make you hard to overcome in future Ages. It may also be worth splitting your focus and placing one in each so that you’re guaranteed some points even if you don’t necessarily take the full first place. The important thing is that you need to make sure you actually get a Council Seat; don’t set yourself up and then miss it because you don’t have the right cards.
  • Count cards. If you see 7 4’s face-up or in the discard and there’s a 4 in your hand, your opponent cannot have another 4. That’s pretty good news for you, especially if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you can play on a spot without them stealing the Capital from you.
  • Try to anticipate that first withdrawal. If you can, use that hesitation to claim a Capital and then not only do you get the Capital, you get that sweet First to Withdraw token, meaning you get to double-down on those points. You don’t need all the First to Withdraw tokens to win (or any, really), but they certainly help.
  • When you’re battling (or preparing for battle), take player count into consideration. A 1 beats an 8, but it’s rare for that to happen in two-player battles; it’s much safer to play a 7, especially if there are already lots of 8s on the board. However, at higher player counts, any player could play an 8, meaning that the benefit of playing a 1 is strictly increased, in my mostly-unscientific opinion. That said, I still don’t usually play 1s in battles; I haven’t had the most success with them, and it just ends up being a mind game.
  • Don’t forget that the winner in a battle doesn’t refill their hand. It might be worth ceding one big battle (especially if you’ve tied a bunch) to force your opponent to go without cards for the rest of the round (and potentially take a bunch of other losses, if they’re tied with other people elsewhere on the board). It’s a bit mean, but, ~strategy~.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • Obviously, the art. The first thing you’re going to notice about the game is the art. The animals look regal and the game is a cornucopia of color; it’s truly excellent to look at. The cards themselves are impressive and dynamic, and they took pains to ensure that the icons are distinct enough to differentiate between the animals (basically triple-coding the cards, since you already have color and animal on the card), which is very nice.
  • Great table presence. It takes up a decent amount of space, but the art looks great and the way the cards spiral around the table is pleasing. It’s an eye-catcher of a game, for sure.
  • The theme’s solid. You’re sending animals loyal to your cause to influence the five great kingdoms and increase your power. It’s unclear what you, the player, are, but that’s fine.
  • The Decree cards (and their position relative to each other) ensure that the same strategy will not work every game, which keeps each game fresh. I like the Decree cards a lot. I think they’ve got a really solid challenge to them, and it’s always satisfying to see a player have to Rally because they can’t play anywhere. That with the battles forces players to calculate the trade-offs of keeping a card in case they need it for a tie versus playing a card to potentially advance in a Kingdom, and that’s a really interesting tension. The game does a good job forcing that (and then capturing it), so the whole game is compelling each round, especially as the Kingdoms become more valuable (and the Council seats begin to fill up). I’m a fan. I think I like the Decrees because they’re puzzley in the same way that The Shipwreck Arcana cards are? I’d love to see even more challenging Decrees to really add complexity to the gameplay.
  • Doesn’t overstay its welcome. Animal Kingdoms takes about exactly as long as I’d like for it to, which I appreciate. If your group has a bit of analysis paralysis, it can take a bit longer, though, so be careful.
  • I would be totally down for additional animals (essentially cosmetic) with this art style. Coup did a similar thing when it was on Kickstarter — it offered a wider variety of character cards (which was superb; the game felt incredibly vibrant with a wide variety of people with different appearances). I wonder if I a similar thing is possible for this game?

Mehs

  • It’s more amusing than anything else, but there can occasionally be kind-of-garbage Kingdoms that aren’t worth a ton of points. That’s how random goes, for sure, but it is kind of funny to just watch all the players kind of ignore the 5 – 5 – 6 kingdom for the entire game.
  • I’m not a hundred percent sure why the First to Withdraw tokens are always hidden from you and other players. Just from a math perspective, there aren’t that many options. If you have one, you have between 2 and 5 bonus points; if you have two, you have between 5 and 9 bonus points; if you have all three, you have between 9 and 12 bonus points. You would be totally fine to assert that each one is either three or four points and you’d have a mostly-workable strategy. As it stands, I figure they stay hidden so that they don’t accidentally get counted (and that means you can have bonus points that don’t affect the turn order calculations). The turn order thing is interesting, mechanically, but beyond that I don’t see much purpose to it.

Cons

  • I’m not wild about the battle system. I didn’t think that was a pun and now I kind of think that it is, but, either way, I am not super enthused that a lot of the tensest moments in the game come down to what is essentially “did you keep enough good cards in your hand?”. As far as the system itself goes, I think it’s well-implemented; I like that a 1 can beat an 8 so you never have a perfect guarantee of safety, but I think I just dislike it at more of a conceptual level. It’s not enough that it significantly impacts my enjoyment of the game, but I wouldn’t mind if a future expansion or tweak replaced it with something that potentially was a bit more deterministic (or felt less random).

Overall: 8.75 / 10

In Progress

Overall, I quite like Animal Kingdoms! I think that the thing I appreciate most about it is that it has some similarities to a competitive Shipwreck Arcana; the Decrees sort-of create a logical puzzle and solving that puzzle (or figuring out if you CAN solve it with the cards in your hand) is really interesting, to me. That’s kind of why I’m pushing for more intense Decrees; I want the difficulty to be figuring out if a card play is legal, not just strategizing about which card plays are your best option. Maybe a stretch goal; I’ll keep my fingers crossed. It would at least be fun to name the Decrees or some flavory thing. Beyond that, I mean, the art is absolutely breathtaking; this might be the best animal art in a game that I’ve seen (beyond ICECOOL, but, this game has no penguins in it so I don’t have to make those kinds of compromises). Ironically, when I first played it it kind of reminded me of the fast-paced card-playing that I remembered from UNO, and it was nice to see how a two-player game can move that quickly towards the end of the game as players get familiar with it. I don’t find it to be all that complicated of a game, either, so I could see myself pretty easily breaking this out for relatively new or fairly experienced gamers; it’s about the same weight as Realm of Sand, if I had to really think about it. All in all, you really want a strong release when you’re getting started as a new publisher, and I think Galactic Raptor certainly has that, here. If you’re looking for a game with great art or some solid strategy, Animal Kingdoms has a lot of both, and I’d recommend checking it out!


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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