Full disclosure: A review copy of Ecosystem was provided by Genius Games.
I’m generally very pro-animal games. Some of my favorite ones very prominently feature them: Cake Duel, ICECOOL; not everything needs to be about people. So, most animal-themed games I get, I endeavor to try out. Delightfully, Ecosystem, new from Genius Games, seems to be more than just animal-themed; it’s a bit closer to food-chain-themed. Not quite to the same degree as Evolution: CLIMATE, but it’s also a much lighter game. Let’s check it out!
In Ecosystem, you are trying to build, well, an ecosystem. It’s nice when the names work out like that. You’ll be getting various animals (and some natural features, very foresty) and adding them to your budding environment, trying to score points. Naturally, the player with the best ecosystem wins, and there are only so many animals to go around, so you’ll really need to work to tilt the food chain in your favor. Draft cards, play animals, and don’t forget that diversity is critical to a functioning ecosystem. Will you be able to create a vibrant forest?
Pretty much none. Shuffle the cards:
Give each player a player aid:
Set aside the scoresheet:
Deal each player 10 cards. You should be ready to start!
This one’s a pretty straightforward drafting game. Drafting, if you’re not familiar with it, is a game system in which you start with some large quantity of something (a hand of cards, in this case), choose one, and pass the rest to your opponent. As you do, your options diminish. Your goal, here, is to build the best ecosystem by placing cards adjacent to or near each other so that they synergize into a bustling area of activity. The player who scores the most points after playing 20 cards, wins!
You’ll notice you start with 10 cards, but I mentioned playing 20. Don’t worry too much about that; after you play the first 10, you’ll get 10 more. When you play cards, place them adjacent to any card that you’ve previously played, provided you do not create more than four rows or five columns. That 4×5 space is going to be enough for all of your cards.
Turns are simple, and played simultaneously: all players choose a card from their hand, reveal it, and pass the remaining cards to their left.
After 10 cards are played, every player draws 10 more and this process repeats, but now you pass to the right. Don’t forget!
Once everyone’s 4×5 area is complete, the game ends! Now, you score. Everything scores pretty differently (with the exception of Rabbits, which don’t score; they just swap two cards when they’re played), but the critical thing is that if you have four or more categories in which you take a 0, you take an additional Diversity Penalty for not having a diverse enough ecosystem. It’s important!
Tally up your scores, and the player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Given that players don’t interact, you generally won’t see a lot of differences in this game at various player counts. The one thing to note is that you use fewer cards at lower player counts, so you don’t have perfect information at any player count but six; it’s possible the cards you need to complete your perfect stream play are buried in the out-of-play stack, which is a bummer. But yeah, without much player interaction, there’s no ganging up or dogpiling which typically worries me in higher player-count games. There is the small detail that hands will cycle through you less frequently, though; at six players, you’ll see every hand of cards once, but you won’t see all of them twice. It means that it’s harder to plan specific downstream effects for other players (the one tiny form of player interaction drafting games have), but I’m not terribly bothered by that; that’s just a consequence of having additional players in the game. I do generally prefer games at lower player counts, but I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this game that concerns me as you add more players.
- It’s generally not a bad idea to get at least one stream and one wolf, if you can. Even if you don’t need them, unless you’re playing a six-player game you’re decently likely to score off of them (even slightly). That said, honestly, even in a six-player game if you can get one of each you have decent odds. It’d be better if you could get a few more, though it may not be worth the opportunity cost in points. Keep an eye on what other players are doing and see if you can make some profit with a minimal investment.
- Keep an eye on which cards you tend to see across multiple cycles; you can use that information to prepare a bit. This works best in games with lower player counts; at higher player counts, you’re not going to get the same hand of cards that many times, so this may not be the most useful information. That said, if you see that certain cards aren’t going to be available in subsequent hands, you can use that information to inform which cards you pick.
- Hate-drafting isn’t usually your best move, in this game. Try to take the cards that are best for you, generally, not the best ones for other player. The nice thing is that most cards are pretty good to take. You can also do some hate-drafting by not taking certain cards. Leaving your opponent with a bunch of foxes a hand of bears and wolves is still very spiteful, and it will almost certainly cost them points, but you didn’t have to take anything bad.
- Careful with overdoing it on foxes or deer. As I imply above, taking a bunch of foxes does open you up to potential sabotage, but deer see diminishing returns after 4 – 5 of them (the fifth one only scores half points, since it can occupy a unique column, but not a unique row). You can (and should) read up more on the pidgeonhole principle for that one. It’s also a fun computer science concept, so, bonus learning!
- I’d basically only take rabbits if you have a bunch of eagles or if you made a huge placement mistake earlier. They don’t score you points. Even if you move something into a scoring position, you’re paying an opportunity cost by missing out on playing a potentially higher-scoring card instead of the Rabbit, If the math works, then do it, but otherwise, I’d recommend going after a different card for your ecosystem.
- Unlike Villagers, the other drafting game I’m reviewing this week, going too deep in Ecosystem will hurt you. It’s not what you want to do, since you’ll take that Diversity Penalty. You need to make sure you’re scoring a bit with almost everything, and then, if you want, you can use your remaining resources to go a bit deeper.
- Functionally, there are a few different food chains. Figure out which ones you want to hone in on, and make sure you’re filling them out well. This is pretty key. There’s river-based chains, forest-based chains, and some extra apex predators. They all interact with a small set of other cards and either offer penalties or bonuses from that. Try to lock down the appropriate sectors of your grid so that you don’t have any bad overlaps.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like the art, a lot! It’s very colorful and has many great animals on it. I appreciate that they went the realistic route; it contrasts nicely with the more anthropomorphic Everdell, though that game is a lot more complicated. You can have nice art either way.
- Pretty simple drafting game. It’s another one of those games that’s not bad for teaching the mechanics of drafting, though I’d argue that the scoring makes it a bit heavier-weight than some of the most basic ones I’ve played.
- Definitely portable. It’s mostly just tiny cards; you can throw those in a Quiver or something with no issue. Or you could take the box, I suppose, if you like taking boxes places. And I do.
- Plays pretty quickly. Once everyone knows how to play it’s just 20 quick card plays; pretty much nothing past that.
- I like the spatial element of the gameplay. A lot of drafting games don’t deal with this aspect as well as Ecosystem does. Some cards depend on adjacency, some depend on multi-space adjacency, some depend on other cards being adjacent; it’s all very interesting.
- Lots of different ways to win, given the diversity of the available scoring options. There are a ton of different cards and good combinations available — will you be more water-focused or meadow-focused, or try to make your way with apex predators?
- Shuffling a lot of tiny cards can be a frustrating endeavor. There are so many of those little guys. It’s mostly just inconvenient, which is fine, but I’ll keep complaining about tiny cards.
- Lower player counts will experience some randomness due to not having all the cards in play (as opposed to a proportion of them). The hands are already random, but you may be depending on cards that are completely out of the game, which is always a bummer.
- Not really much in the way of player interaction, beyond hate-drafting. And hate-drafting isn’t terribly useful, so that’s not that much fun either. Having some animals score for the grids to your left and right could be fun, or treating the leftmost and rightmost columns as adjacent to your opponents’ rightmost and leftmost columns (respectively) could be cool. But I’d like to see more nondestructive player interaction.
- Each card having its own scoring condition can be a lot to keep in your brain, and it does make it hard to score at the end of the game. You really need that player aid. This game’s a tough one for new players because it’s simple in concept but very easy to mess up things like Dragonfly scoring (very complicated). Just make sure everyone keeps an eye on their Player Aid.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Ecosystem is a pleasant little drafting game. I already like the theme a lot, and the art does a lot of work in making the theme a bit more tangible. Sure, it’s a bit abstract, but I like that it feels like you’re trying to get the right mix of animals to keep the ebb and flow of your little biome going. I think the things I’d like to see from this game are a bit more streamlining around scoring (it’s tough to explain just because it’s so varied), some better player interaction, and maybe a way to ensure that all cards of a type aren’t left out of the game at lower player counts. They’re small quality-of-life fixes, but for a quick little drafting game decreasing the overhead of learning and executing it goes a long way. I think, as to be expected from Genius Games, this isn’t a bad game to have in the classroom, especially if you’re covering biodiversity or ecology; there’s a lot you can do with this one. The scorecard also implies there are promo cards, so perhaps we’ll see even more around that, later. I’d love to see a version of this that also deals with aquatic life, but generally I have a Known Preference for the ocean, so, that’s not surprising either. It’s a small, quick game with great art that can scale nicely to six players, so that’s usually good enough to earn some praise from me. If you’re looking for a drafting game, you like good animal art, or you’re wanting something to help you teach some science concepts in this part of town, I’d recommend Ecosystem! It’s a pretty fun little game.