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Review: Wombat Rescue

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Wombat Rescue Box

Apparently it’s a scientific fact that wombat poop is cube-shaped. Since wombats use their poop as navigational markers (being as they can’t see well and have to navigate by smell), evolution has gifted them with cubed poop that doesn’t roll away and isn’t easily moved when compared to, say, rabbit pellets or something. If ever an animal and its waste product was made for a game, this has to be it. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “Pushing cubes,” doesn’t it?

How It Plays

You are a mama wombat and the mean dingo has come along and scared your babies! They’ve run away from the burrow and are hiding somewhere in the environment. You’re going to have to eat, digest your food, and then poop cubes in order to create smell areas so you can navigate to find your babies and bring them home. The player who plans and poops most efficiently will win the game. Non-poopy translation: It’s a pick up and deliver game with some route building tossed in about getting your baby wombats back to the burrow using cubes as route markers.

One poop cube gives you a smell radius of two hex spaces around the cube, two cubes is a smell radius of three, and three cubes is a radius of four hexes. The more poop in one place, the farther away you can smell it, meaning you can move from poop to poop more efficiently. Using your poop to navigate and move is called a “Normal Move.”

It’s not just poop that creates smell areas. Your baby wombats create smell areas because what mother can’t smell her own young? Food also creates a smell area because any animal can smell food. If you’re within one space of your baby or food, you can move to those spaces, even if they are out of your poop area. These movements are “Special Moves.”

Wombat Rescue Player Components
Player board, action tiles, poop and wombats!

If you’re not within range of your poop, babies, or food, you’re lost. Bummer. If you want to move when you’re lost, you must draw the top card from the wander deck and move into an adjacent space from the options on the card. This is called a “Wander Move.”

The first phase of a turn is movement. You can move 0 – 3 times during movement using any combination of Normal, Special, or Wander moves. You can only move in a straight line. No turning or diagonal moves allowed. If you land on a space with food, you must eat the food. No doggie bags allowed! If you land on a space with your baby on it, you’ve rescued that baby and it will stay with you until you either reach the burrow or the dingo catches up with you.

You must stop moving if you leave your smell area, or encounter another players poop, a baby wombat, food, the edge of the board, or the dingo. If you land on a space with another mama wombat on it, you can push her up to two spaces in the direction you were moving, freeing up the space for yourself.

Wombat Rescue Wombats
It’s a herd of wombats!

Each player also has four special action tiles that can each be used once during the game. These are played during the movement phase and allow you to immediately return to the burrow, stop a set of food disks from moving through your digestive tract (it’s called Hold It In, but Constipation works just as well), move one space in any direction regardless of whether you’re in a smell area or not, and produce a poop cube immediately by moving food disks out of your digestive tract (we call it the ExLax tile).

Digestion is the second phase of a turn. Any food you ate now moves from your mouth through your digestive tract and eventually comes out as a poop cube. Once you have a set of food disks with a total value of three or more in your mouth, digestion begins. Those disks pass into your digestive tract, while any food already in there is pushed on through. If it comes out, you get a poop cube and you place it in your current location. Note that no matter how much food comes out, you only get one poop cube. That’s efficient digestion for you.

Wombat Rescue Tiles
The tiles that form the board/wombat environment.

The final phase of a turn is cleanup. This is when food disks are replaced and the dastardly dingo moves. Ah, the dingo. At the beginning of the game, the player last in turn order is given the the dingo die and places the dingo on an unoccupied dingo den. During cleanup, the player who controls the dingo rolls the die and moves the dingo that many spaces toward the nearest mama wombat who isn’t in the home space. (Dingos, unlike wombats, can make turns and don’t have to move in a straight line.) If the dingo moves into a space with a mama wombat, she is caught and must flee to the home space. If she has a baby with her, that baby flees back to the space where mama found him. The dingo die is then given to the player whose mama wombat was caught. 

Note that the dingo might also catch your own mama wombat. There is no safety provision for you just because you’re controlling the dingo. If your mama is closest, the dingo will go after her. The only consolation is that if your mama is caught you can give the dingo die to a player of your choice, possibly inflicting the same pain upon them next turn.

The game ends as soon as one player rescues all four babies and returns them safely to the burrow. That player wins.

A Beautiful Smell or Ugly as Poop?

I find Wombat Rescue thoroughly enjoyable, although I had reservations when I backed it on Kickstarter. I’m not a big fan of pick up and deliver games. I don’t hate the mechanic, but there are others I would prefer to play. However, I was drawn in by the wombats and the whole poop schtick. I haven’t been sorry.

The important thing to know about Wombat Rescue is that it is not a heavy, brain burning game. I’m not sure I’d quite put it in the gateway category, either, simply because pick up and deliver tends to be one of those mechanics that true beginners struggle with (at least in my experience) and this one combines it with route building. But anyone who has played Ticket to Ride or other gateway fare should be able to handle this, especially if they already understand basic route building.

For those with some exposure to the hobby, the combination of two mechanics makes it a great next step game. It’s also an easy introduction to pick up and deliver for someone looking for their first game in that category.

Wombat Rescue Poop
Poop cubes. Have you ever seen such pretty poop?

There’s not much here to take your focus off of building your route and then navigating your babies home. Everything is set out at the beginning of the game so you know where the babies are and where the food is. You’re also granted enough special abilities and “outs” if you get stuck that you’re almost never truly out of movement options. Even if you get lost, you can still wander. It might take you away from where you need to go, but there’s a chance it will help you, too. You have to decide whether or not to take the gamble.

You do have to think ahead because you have to wait for the food to digest before you can add to your route. You don’t poop instantly, after all. It’s not simply about plotting a course and executing it immediately. You have to figure out where the food is, get there and eat, and then plan where you’re going to poop and expand your network. It’s not a simple matter of running from point A to point B with no thought whatsoever.

There’s not a lot of luck in the game. The only things that can really foil your plans are the dingo or another player pushing your mama wombat away from where you need to go. You can plan for these things, however, by noticing where your opponents are heading and how far away from the dingo you are. Sometimes you might have to gamble and drift too close to another player or the dingo (and sometimes you’ll actively want to chase after another player or try to block them if they are getting way ahead), but that’s part of the fun of the game. 

Wombat Rescue Dingos
Bad dingo! Don’t eat the babies!

So while there is some thought involved and decisions to make, those looking for a heavy game are going to be disappointed. If you want a more cutthroat game, you can play so that the dingo actively disrupts smell areas by eating other player’s poop. You can also add a second dingo to the game or eliminate the “Run Home” action tile to make things more difficult. While the modular board and setup change with each game and there are some optional rules that can raise the difficulty, there is nothing that turns this game into something like Roads and Boats or even Istanbul as far as challenge and thought required. The variants make it more replayable, but not deeper.

With all of that said, I will note that I have the Kickstarter version of the game and it comes with several extras that are currently available for purchase. None of these are essential — Wombat Rescue is an enjoyable game regardless — however, they do make the game “better” and more variable for experienced gamers and people who have played the game a lot. I hate to talk about “expansions” in the review of the base game, but in this case I think I have to to give you the full picture of the game. 

The expansion pack includes extra tiles to make a larger, more diverse playing area, boulders that create obstacles and enhance the difficulty of the game, and dingo protection tiles which, when played, mean that the dingo will ignore you for one turn allowing you to pass unnoticed. These things add extra challenges, variability, and strategic options that make the game more gamer-friendly. 

Wombat Rescue Food
Food! Om nom nom.  (Note that the stickers were a Kickstarter extra and come in the expansion pack.)

(Note that you could proxy the boulders with beads or something, and you could make your own dingo protection tiles. In that case, you’d only be missing the extra tiles and the stickers. Just sayin’…)

Further complicating things is the fact that the rulebook that comes with the retail game references these extras without noting that they are an extra purchase. It’s confusing to see discussion of boulders in the rulebook, for example, but there are no boulders in your set. I understand that the developers likely did this to avoid the expense of printing extra rules, but it’s not fair to buyers of the retail version to confuse them about things that aren’t included. If you’re seriously aggravated by this kind of thing, it may impact your enjoyment of the game.

My advice is this: If you’re going to play Wombat Rescue with gamers or you’re going to play it often, get the expansion pack. Not only does it make the game better, it makes the rulebook make sense. If you’re only going to play Wombat Rescue with kids or in the family setting, the base game will be sufficient.

Wombat Rescue Cards
Wander cards (fronts and backs).

The other negative to the game is the rulebook. Not only does it have the problem described above of mentioning phantom components, it’s just not that great to begin with. It could have been better organized, and it certainly needed a proofreader. Fortunately, Wombat Rescue isn’t so complex that you can’t figure things out on your own with some effort and trips to BGG.

None of those negatives dim the charm of the game, however. The art and the theme are unique and draw people in. Who doesn’t want to play with cute wombat meeples? Unlike most euros with cubes, here the cubes are actually thematic. They make for really pretty poop! The theme makes for fun conversation because who can’t come up with a hundred poop jokes? It’s also a little bit educational because you’ll learn a lot about wombats (possibly more than you wanted to know).

The problem with Wombat Rescue is that I think it sits in an odd place as far as its intended audience is concerned. It’s too light for hard core gamers and it’s not quite light enough to be a true gateway game that you can pull out with someone who’s never played a modern board game. With a recommended age beginning at ten years old, it’s not quite a kid’s game, either. It is a solid family game if the family consists of gamers and kids who are gamers-in-training. It’s also good for gamers who enjoy lighter fare, or who play with non-hobbyists who’ve tackled some hobby games. Beyond that, I’d say it’s a try before you buy. I’m not sorry that I fell for the theme, the charm, and the cuteness, but I do know many for whom the cuteness just wasn’t enough.

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Summary

Pros

Poop jokes galore!
Cute art; thematic gameplay. (The whole poop thing actually makes perfect sense.)
Teaches you (more than you wanted to know) about wombats.
Great intro to pick up and deliver mechanics.
Lots of variants to adjust the game.
Lightweight game that works for gamer families and gamers who like lighter fare.

Cons

While the expansion pack isn't necessary, it does complete the game, especially for gamers.
Rulebook not the best.
Not heavy enough for hard core gamers, nor light enough for newbies. Odd audience fit.

8.0 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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