Full disclosure: A review copy of Mantis was provided by Exploding Kittens.
There’s been a really interesting trend popping up in board games, lately. I mean, it’s always been present, to some degree, but with the increased prevalence of board gaming societally and the full-court press that Target is trying to pull off in the board game space, you’re starting to see these really intriguing tendrils trying to connect the mass-market and hobby audiences. It’s essentially a gold mine, I suppose, if you can figure out how to get folks moving from the mass-market pool to the hobby pool, but that’s a bit beyond my area of expertise. Just interesting to watch. And so you start seeing more and more games emerge in a really interesting space, as they try to court both audiences, to some degree. I think the folks at Exploding Kittens have been thinking a lot about that space, and so I’ve been intrigued by some of their more recent releases. I’ll be covering a few, so, keep an eye out for those. Here’s one! It’s called Mantis. Let’s see what’s been going on.
Mantis is a game of theft, revenge, and re-theft. Your goal? Have ten of your beautiful, perfect mantis shrimp in your tank. However, your opponents are clever dastards and will make off with your mantis shrimp at the drop of a hat. You can steal them back, just as easily, but that gets you nowhere. Only locking them down by scoring will make you feel truly safe. Can you build a collection that’s totally yours? Or will you lose all your precious shrimp to your opponents?
Effectively none. Shuffle the cards:
Place four face-up in front of each player to form their Tank. You’re ready to start!
Mantis is dead simple to play, and I love that. Your goal is to get 10 Mantis Shrimp cards into your Score pile, and you’ll need to steal a few if you want to get there.
On your turn, you’ll flip the top card of the deck. But before you do, decide: are you planning to Score or Steal?
If you want to try and Score, flip the top card of the deck into your Tank. If it matches any color card in your Tank, you add every card of that matching color (including the card you just added to your Tank) to your Score pile.
If the card does not match, it remains in your Tank.
To Steal, flip the top card of the deck into an opponent’s Tank. If it matches any color card in their Tank, take all cards of that matching color (including the card you just flipped) and add them to your Tank (not your Score Pile).
If the card does not match, it remains in your opponent’s Tank.
End of Game
As soon as any player has 10 cards in their Score Pile, they win!
With two players, you’ll play mostly normally, with two exceptions. First, you play to 15, not 10. Second, if a player Steals successfully on their turn, they may take another turn immediately after. A player can make multiple consecutive Steals, this way.
Player Count Differences
I wouldn’t say there are a ton, though I generally prefer this game in the four players or less range, just because more players invites even more chaos. Chaos is almost completely the name of the game, here, so if you’re looking for more shouting and more laughs, more players will definitely get you there. I wouldn’t say I’ve got a particularly strong preference, though. The biggest player count difference is at two players. Rather than playing to 10 cards in your Score pile, you play to 15, which helps extend the game a bit, and you can chain a Steal action. Essentially, if you successfully Steal from your opponent, you can immediately take another turn. This means that you can Steal multiple times in a row, or you can chain a Steal into a Score (and potentially lock in the cards that you stole). That makes the game a bit more interesting, so I was impressed. No explicit player count preference, but I’m most likely to play this game at four or fewer players. The two-player variant works very well, though!
- I mean, all you can do is Score or Steal, so if you’re not sure what to do … it needs to be one of those things. There’s a certain elegance to only having two possible actions on any given turn. You don’t really need to think all that hard about it. The important thing to do is to look at the back of the card and make a decision. Generally, I Score if it’s guaranteed or if it’s a good chance of a big payoff. I Steal for the same reasons. I tend to prioritize Scoring over Stealing, though, since that draws less ire from other players.
- Generally speaking, a guaranteed Steal is pretty good, so if you’re positive you can Steal, do that. A guaranteed Steal is most useful when you can get a lot of cards away from a player in the lead, but even being able to take something isn’t too bad. Though, sometimes, it’s worth leaving a player with an exposed Tank so that another player can Steal from them. That costs them some Mantis Shrimp and prevents the other player from taking a Score action on their turn. That may work out in your favor! There’s really no way to win if you just keep Stealing back and forth.
- Watch out for getting too much negative attention from other players. If you make a big Steal, you’re likely to end up with a target on your back. Think about whether or not that’s worth it. It might be worth not doing that so that another player gets that dubious honor, instead. It’s a bit manipulative, but you gotta be, sometimes.
- Scoring subtly isn’t a bad idea either, especially if a group of players are just stealing back and forth. Taking two or three cards here and there can be really good for you! You only need to do that a few turns in a row to win. If you see some players just fighting endlessly, it might be worth trying to slide under the wire and take the win before they get their big payoff.
- Winding up for a big Score can be how you win the game. I mean, if you can pull off a major Score action, that’s cool and all, and that can win you the game in a single turn. It’s just hard to do well, since as soon as you get enough cards, you become everyone’s target.
- In a two-player game, you can really successfully bully a player with multiple consecutive successful Steals (or Steals chained into a Score). You can essentially whittle another player down to nothing and then turn that into a Score, if you get particularly lucky. It’s mean, but if you keep getting the right cards, it can work. Just watch out; that has a funny way of coming back to bite you.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s a very colorful and engaging game, which I think will work really well for the target audience. I think this game cuts really nicely across simple and engaging, but I think the color scheme and whimsical theme are going to be what gets folks to pick the game up. I’ve seen that work well for a lot of folks; it’s the kind of box that pops on the shelf and catches the eye, and the cards look really good, from a graphic design standpoint, too. It’s a weird game, but a very pretty game, too.
- I do love a colorful game, but I love a colorful game that double-codes its colors for accessibility reasons even more. I appreciate them using symbols and colors together to avoid just using color as the primary way to distinguish cards. It’s a very, very basic accessibility fix, these days, but it’s still nice to see.
- I think what elevates this game from “basic” to “solid”, for me, is the simple addition of the three possible colors on the back. I really like this. Even though all the cards are, obviously, one of the six available colors, being limited to three possibilities gives players an avenue to set expectations and have those expectations not pay off. Limiting that space is an incredibly smart move, and that is a simple little thing that makes the game a lot better.
- Honestly, the simplicity of this game is very appealing. I really like that there are only two actions? It makes the game dead simple to teach other players, and it’s the kind of game that I could see my family actually playing with me (as opposed to the more overtly complex games that I love so much). It reminds me a bit of PUSH, in the “unexpected simple game that’s great within its niche” way.
- There’s a lot of avenue for player interaction, which I enjoy. Not just in terms of stealing from each other, but you’ll also see players goading other players into trying to steal from their rivals and just generally jockeying for certain actions and interactions, which makes the game more fun. Plus, the luck of the draw is thrilling; the cheers and sighs when the cards come up good or bad can make the game doubly entertaining with the right crowd.
- Pretty portable, though the box is a bit too large for easy transport. It’s just cards, so I can throw that into a Quiver if I’m going anywhere. I need to repack my Quiver, actually; I’ve got some travel coming up where it might actually come in pretty handy? That’s a Later Eric problem.
- Yeah, the whole mantis shrimp theme doesn’t really come through in the gameplay at all. I’m going to assume it’s one of those Oatmeal things that I don’t really get since I don’t actively consume the comic content. It doesn’t bother me in any way; it just doesn’t really have anything to do with the game proper. I like a weird theme, but I also like a weird theme that feels integrated into the gameplay in a way that matters, rather than just a weird theme for the sake of a weird theme. Though, I’ll freely admit that a weird theme for its own sake is still better than a boring one.
- There’s not really a way to come back from a major point deficit unless you get extremely lucky, but I also think that’s this kind of game, at its core, so you do have to take it or leave it. I can see that being frustrating for some players I’ve gamed with in the past, but, more broadly, I think the game is sometimes just going to be luck of the draw, since you’re literally flipping cards hoping for a good result. That’s how it shakes out, but that also may mean the game isn’t for you. I don’t mind it, honestly. It helps that the game is so short.
- I do kind of wish there were a clearer way to tell how many points other players have. It’s not like anyone’s trying to keep anything secret, but I’d like to know how close other players are to scoring. Some simple tokens would be great, or just having player splay cards explicitly or something. But I suppose it doesn’t matter that much.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Mantis! Mantis is a solid iteration on simple, easy-to-learn card games, and shows the power of a bit of good design. The simplicity of the game is how you get people drawn in. All you need to learn is to flip a card and look for a match, either in your Tank or theirs. The key to its strength, however, is the backs of the cards; by smartly limiting the pool of possible colors the card can be, player expectations can be set (and played with), leading to more player investment in the game itself. It’s honestly quite clever, and it elevates the game, as a result. Granted, the game’s got some pretty solid production value to boot, but I would kind of expect that, given the whole Exploding Kittens thing. I think Mantis shows that Exploding Kittens is trying to think about how to expand its audience, and that’s both good and interesting for gaming. What’s that graduation rate look like, from mass-market to hobby? I’d love to see things expand, there. In the meantime, though, Mantis will probably end up in a Quiver that I take to game nights with newer gamers. It’s quick, approachable, and the quirky theme will get a lot of people quickly interested. If you’re looking for a good game to start game night with, you like colorful games, or you’re just a die-hard mantis shrimp fan, Mantis might be right up your alley! I’ve certainly enjoyed it.
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