Full disclosure: A preview copy of Animal Inc. was provided by Nightdreamer. 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. Also, while I don’t charge for Kickstarter previews, the publisher was charged a rush fee due to the tight timeline they needed the review completed in.
Alright, more Kickstarters this week! Two, in fact, between this and The Lost Worlds of Josh Kirby. I occasionally do the previews, so, you know, always interested. This one comes to us from Nightdreamer, which made Crossroll Hong Kong, a very interesting roll-and-write last year. I quite liked that one, and, of course, cute animal games are my jam, so naturally I was interested as soon as I heard about this one. Let’s see how it shakes out!
In Animal Inc., you’re trying to climb that corporate ladder. Or pyramid, really, if you think about it. Along the way you’re going to have to work a few jobs (and balance out your desire to nap) to really maximize your capital in that animal gig economy. But you’re not alone! Other players want to do the same thing, so you’re going to be working hard against them if you want things to turn out. You’re in the corporate jungle, now; will you be able to rise through the ranks?
Not a ton, surprisingly. Deal an equal number of cards to each player:
Each player then discards a certain number of cards, depending on the player count:
- 2 players: 3 cards
- 3 players: 2 cards
- 4 players: 1 card
Set out the scoresheet, depending on your player count:
You should be good to start!
In certain rounds of the game, you’ll start the round by passing four cards to the player to your left, right, or directly across from you. Check the scoresheet for the particulars. Anyways, in this game, your goal is to build (or sabotage) a card pyramid! We’ll talk about how and how that scores.
On your turn, you’ll simply play a card. That’s it. Add one card from your hand to either the left or right of the bottom row or play above two cards, forming that pyramid shape I was mentioning. Note that the bottom row can have 8 cards, maximum.
If you want to play above two cards, the card you play must be the same color as one card or the other. There are no restrictions on cards you can play in the bottom row; any card may be adjacent to any other.
If you cannot play any other cards, you’re done for the round. Put the rest of your cards face-down and let people know you’re unable to play. Even if you are able to play in the future, you cannot.
Once every player has dropped out, the round ends. Now, check the pyramid. If the pyramid was constructed such that there are cards on and / or above the 5th level (a four-card base), the pyramid was constructed successfully! This causes players to score:
- Last player: Score points equal to the total value of cards on and above the fifth level.
- All other players: Lose points equal to the value of the highest card in your hand.
If the pyramid was not completed successfully, it’s been sabotaged! This causes a different scoring event:
- Last player: Lose points equal to the value of the highest card in your hand.
- All other players: Gain points equal to the value of the highest card in your hand.
Start another round! Note that the start player shifts every round (and the drafting direction, potentially). If confused, check the score sheet. Play until players agree that they’ve played enough rounds (the game recommends … a lot for various player counts), and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Yeah, the sweet spot for this game is three players. At two, it’s just … a struggle, since you’re pretty much evenly matched. You’re going to be hard-pressed to stop your opponent from building the pyramid, which means the cards in your hand are a bit more important since you’ll want high cards when you build and low cards when your opponent builds. At four, it’s sort of the opposite effect; with three players working in concert against you (or even 2v2) it’s often quite challenging to get the pyramid built at all, so again, you’ll want to keep your hand in good shape, just the other way. Low cards when you build, high cards when someone else does. At three, though, it’s unbalanced; at any time, one player can change the outcome of the round by helping or hindering. And that’s interesting! It means that there’s a lot more room for subterfuge / backstabbing / trying to double- or triple-cross your opponents. It’s very sneaky! And I like that. Definitely would suggest playing at 3.
- So, if you want to block someone, really just dump all the cards of one color on the bottom of the pyramid. If you make the entire bottom row the “Sloth Zone”, that basically kills any chance the pyramid has of growing. Sure, the player who wants to build up can stop you somewhat, but there are (at higher player counts) far more of you than there are of them. Just steamroll, you know, if that’s what you want to do.
- If you see someone doing that, interleave them with other colors so that you can build up afterwards. This is the safest counter strategy, but it does require you to have plenty of cards of other colors, otherwise you’re going to peter out pretty quickly and that’s still no pyramid. And remember that you’re usually working on building the pyramid alone, so, you can’t necessarily rely on other players to help you.
- To counter that, simply add the cards of one color on top of those, further cutting off the route. Just make sure you don’t leave the bottom open! You can start doing this all day, but remember that building up the pyramid should be the job of the player who actually wants to do that. Don’t build up too far; just helpfully make it so that you can’t play.
- If you’re getting the pyramid cut off, start building the base on the far side of that so that you have a spot you can still build up. If they’re building a sloth zone, place your cards on the far edge to build up a non-sloth base. That can usually help if they poison a large chunk of the pyramid.
- If cards of a certain color don’t make it into the base, you won’t be able to play them. This is super handy if you’re sabotaging the pyramid and your whole hand is pink. If the base has no pink cards in it, there won’t be any pink cards in the pyramid and you’re out early!
- If all else fails, try to ditch your high-value cards so you don’t take a huge penalty. This is the coward’s way out, but, sometimes that’s the only way to survive. Not glamorous, but, it works.
- You need to play to win, and sometimes that means working against your “team”. Sometimes you need to sabotage your team so that you can lose fewer points than they do. If that happens, effectively, you’re gaining points on them, right? That’s one way to think about it, at least? It’s just an odd goal to shoot for, I feel.
- If you try to play both sides, you’ll more than likely end up messing yourself up. You kind of need to stick to Construction or Sabotage. If your priorities change, it can be hard to stop the thing you’ve already set in motion, and you may lose tons of points.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the art. It’s cute! In the “let’s watch animals perform labor” sense, I suppose. It’s also got a pretty nice mix of some animals I quite like. I’m always up for a cute game.
- I also like the animal puns. A whale-based rideshare service called Oober is pretty good.
- Very simple game to learn. It’s essentially a pyramid-building game with only one person trying to make any progress on building the darn thing. Essentially, it’s every group project you’ve ever done in college. At least a few people are actively sabotaging it but the best you’re gonna get is someone who is just generously indifferent.
- Very portable, as well. It’s just cards, so, in the Quiver it goes. And a scorepad, I suppose.
- I also really appreciate the bright colors. I’m just generally a fan of games with bright colors; I think it gels with my mildly-saturated photography style. Plus they just look vibrant and exciting.
- I don’t think I’ve ever played a game like this one. It reminds me of Saboteur, which I would say is its closest living relative, but it’s very different. The semi-cooperative elements combined with the desire to try to math the game break my brain, but it’s so interesting. I really can’t say it’s much like Saboteur, being real; it’s a different animal entirely.
- There are a lot of things happening in the game without clear in-game justifications for them. Why does the one suit have more cards? What’s the numbering scheme for the different suits? Why are there so many rounds? It’s just odd.
- Highly analytical. Will lead to severe analysis paralysis with the wrong players. The fact that you need to consider who will score and how much if you contribute to the pyramid and how best to limit your card placement options in the long-term can really mess with people.
- The game is just … too long. At four, it’s recommended that players play 16 rounds. I have yet to play a round that’s really been under 5 or so minutes (usually 10). That means we’d be in it for almost 3 hours? That’s a long time for such a short game. It feels to me like perhaps it’s not worth it to make sure that every player gets every combination of going first and experiencing certain draft condition changes; it adds too much extra weight to the game and drags the playtime into the untenably long sector.
- It feels hard to stop a player from completing the pyramid at two players, and without some significant help, very hard to complete the pyramid at four players. It feels like a mild balance issue, but perhaps the game is supposed to just swing that way? It’s something it would take me a few more plays to figure out, but given that each round is effectively its own microgame, I’ve played 20+ rounds and haven’t really arrived at a clear conclusion.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, uh, Animal Inc. is one of the strangest games I’ve played. It’s dead simple, in concept, but holy heck is it complex when you sit down and play it. It takes a few rounds for players to even realize that the sabotaging they’ve been trying to do is insufficient to stop one player who’s been getting the high cards, and now they’ve got a breakaway lead? That’s terrible! Now you’ve got a game where backstabbing, self-sabotage, and deception start to emerge organically as players try to decide if it’s worth hurting themselves to devastate another person. Sometimes yes! Sometimes no! It’s complicated! I think I … like the game? But I’d be hard-pressed to think of a time I’d want to break this out except to watch players slowly erode their own sanity against each other. Maybe we overthought it? Not sure. My intense confusion aside, there are places and times it can speed up. My three-player rounds of it were much faster, but maybe we were playing with less analytical people? Hard to say. I think the potential for massive analysis paralysis being there with no incentive to speed up is a problem, though, since a lot of players will get caught in that trap. That said, if you can get players to move quickly and you like semi-cooperative games, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to do with a very low amount of rules complexity (the footprint of the game is large, but what can you do if you want to build a card pyramid?). If that sounds interesting to you, Animal Inc. launches on Kickstarter soon!