Full disclosure: A preview copy of Food Chain Island was provided by Button Shy. 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.
Here’s something I’ve been excited about for a while — a new Button Shy title! So excited, in fact, that I barely let it arrive before it hit the table four times and I got some photos for it. Now I’m here to spin you a tale of how bad I am at this game and how little that matters to me. That said, I do appreciate Button Shy coming out with another solo title; I needed something I could play at home by myself. I’ll probably throw up another time lapse video for y’all before this review gets published so you can see the game play in hypertime. Either way, though, you came here for the review, and the review’s what you’re getting.
On Food Chain Island, things are pretty simple: eat or be eaten. If you’re a plant, that’s a bit of a bummer. But if you’re a polar bear, well, things are pretty good. It’s good to be the king. If you’re a shark or a whale, honestly, you’re largely unaffected by this; it’s mostly a land problem. Yes, I’m aware polar bears can swim. Yes, I’m aware they’re one of a handful of animals that actively hunt humans. Yes, I don’t like polar bears much. That’s not what this review is about. But let’s dig in and see what this review is about. Will you be able to take your rightful place on top of the food chain? Or does nature have other plans for you?
Setup is relatively low effort. There are many cards:
Remove the two Water Animals. Shuffle the remainder and create a 4×4 grid of the 16 Land Animals, face-up. Once you’ve done that, you’re good to go!
The game’s not too complicated, as well. Your goal is to finish up with one card left. How do you do that? You eat!
On your turn, move an animal card orthogonally one space on top of an animal card with a value that’s 1 – 3 less than the card you’re moving. Each card has a list of animals it can eat, as well, helpfully. When you do, the top card’s ability activates, and you must perform that ability, if you can. Certain cards let you swap cards, remove cards, and even move cards around (keeping in mind that you can’t end a card’s movement on another card, but you can move through another card’s space as long as you don’t stop there). So, for instance, a 10 could eat an 8, but then on the next turn you must eat by hopping over a card that’s orthogonally adjacent.
When you’ve finished moving an animal, take another turn. You may move the same animal or a new one; up to you.
At any point in your turn you may also discard a water animal to perform its special ability. The water animal’s ability overrules any other card, even the card you just activated.
Once you can no longer move animals, the game ends! Check to see how many animals are left:
- 1: Great win!
- 2: Good win!
- 3: Just scraped by.
- 4: You lose!
If that gets too easy for you, first off, share your notes, but second, you can increase the game’s difficulty by creating new layouts or by removing one or both of the Water Animal cards. See how well you can do!
Player Count Differences
None! Solo game.
- Don’t let animals get too far apart. This can be what kills you (and is definitely what messed me up in my first game). If you bisect the groups every time, you’re eventually going to end up with a lot of animals that aren’t orthogonally adjacent to each other. When that happens, they can’t really eat, and you starve yourself out of a win. Try to keep clusters open and moving, where you can, so that you give yourself some runway.
- Don’t necessarily eat all the lowest-value animals first. This is another mistake I made early on. It seems like a good idea at the time until you realize that you’re having trouble moving all the animals around because there’s not that much real estate, so you have to move them into locations that you don’t really want them to be in. Instead, waiting until the end (if you can) allows you to move animals into more convenient areas and set yourself up for a potential game-winning combo, which is always better. Don’t forget that areas outside the 4×4 grid are technically legal, which means that you might even end up widening your grid, if you’re not careful. That’s not particularly good, since you’ll have to do more work to shrink the grid back down, eventually.
- Watch out for the strings attached to higher-value animals’ powers. For instance, using the Polar Bear means that you can’t use the Polar Bear next turn. This is a problem if your plan was to use the Polar Bear to clean up the high-number cards at the end of the game, so, make sure you’re not setting yourself up for that.
- Try to save your Water Animal cards for as long as you can. This is just my general opinion for very useful cards. Try to hold on to them in the hopes that you won’t need to use them. Though, I will say that I ran into this problem a lot in my storied JRPG past when I would get the Megalixir and never use it, so, there’s always a few good times to use it; just try to identify those times and use the Water Animal cards then. One useful thing is that the Shark allows you to pretty effectively bisect your feeding as long as you can get your last two animals to be adjacent; then you can use the Shark to allow your larger animal to eat your smaller one even though it lacks the correct number for it.
- Cards that let you remove Animal Cards from the game can be helpful in covering your mistakes, should you make any. I use them to try and clean up animals that I don’t think I’m going to get around to. The board’s randomized each time, so it changes a bit, but if I can get rid of enough then I can greatly simplify my game. Would that it were so simple to get rid of all of them, though; that’d certainly be something.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cute art. I think they did a really good job on the art! I wish I knew who the artist was so I could credit them directly, but for a game about animals basically straight-up monching each other, I think it turned out pretty cute.
- Nice and quick puzzle. As with most Button Shy titles, the game plays pretty quickly as well. It’s easy enough to get through once you set up the grid and just get going.
- Not too complicated to learn. An animal can only cover a card that’s within three of its value, and read the card for more information. That’s most of the rules. Button Shy does a great job keeping their games fairly simple but still very interesting, and that’s always appreciated.
- Always portable, which is appreciated. It also, being an 18-card card game, can pretty much go anywhere. Which is more than I can say, currently, but it’s a good feature of Button Shy’s entire line, so I mention it every time I review one of their games.
- You could see some interesting alternate cards emerge as promos / a sequel, if they wanted to go in that direction. I feel like alternate art is a fun thing you can do to switch it up a bit, but honestly, I really like this art a lot? So, I’m kind of partial to it? Maybe themed versions? I dunno. It’s also got that thing that Lost Legacy had where you could potentially sub in other cards to create a custom deck, if they wanted to go that route. Sky’s the limit.
- I always appreciate a game with some spatial reasoning components to it. Moving the cards around is a nice thing, and the stacks are just enough to get my 3D verticality brain excited.
- It’s pretty tough! It’s got a good challenge to it, but I can consistently get down to at least three animals and barely scrape a win, so, that’s also nice. I appreciate that there’s room for additional challenge, but it doesn’t feel unwinnable, so I think they got a good sense for the appropriate difficulty.
- Might be a bit macabre, if you have to regularly eat any animals you really like. That’s the way the world works, but, yeah, if you’re not a huge fan of that, it might be less your speed.
- Great Win vs. Good Win doesn’t really inspire me that much? I’m not sure what it is about it, but it feels … incomplete, almost? I’d love a title or something that feels a bit more in-theme than great vs. good. This is an aggressive nitpick, though, as I am occasionally wont to do.
- It seems like it’s decently easy to make a mistake that’s hard to recover from and you won’t find out lost you the game until much later. You can definitely put yourself into a bad way and be out of luck and the game takes a bit to get to that conclusion. That’s okay, given how short the game is, but that’s also just going to be how it works for games like this, since you need to get rid of as many cards as you can.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Food Chain Island is another solid title for the Button Shy line! I’ve been pretty pleased getting to review these over the last few months? years? unclear. Button Shy has really gotten “producing solid titles” down to a science, which is great, especially now. As far as solo games go, it’s a bit simple, but frankly, that’s excellent for a quick 18-card game. Even if you lose, you’re just going to reshuffle and play again, and the game’s easy in that it enables you to do so. You’re not messing with even things like scoring; you’re just playing, winning / losing, and playing again. That’s a smart cycle for a game in the Button Shy line, and one that I’m glad I’m getting to see here. I think I’d be interested to see how they expand / adapt the game if they decide to build more onto it, as well; it seems to lend itself nicely to that kind of addition. Beyond that, though, it’s a good and straightforward puzzle that has a lot of potential permutations, and I’m interested to explore them and see how much progress I can make! I’m going to get better at this game eventually; I just know it. If you want to see how you can fare, you’re a huge fan of puzzley solo games, or you’re just a perennial Button Shy Lifer (unsurprising, at this point), you might enjoy Food Chain Island! I’ve certainly had fun trying to crack its secrets.