What do you do when you happen to have a large surplus of animals?
Why, you stuff them on giant boats, of course. Only, as it turns out some guy named Noah has a patent on bringing pairs of animals onto large wooden floating vessels, so you’ll have to make sure you avoid those. ‘Course animals prefer not to be alone, so it’s better to bring in large groups at a time.
And of course, a few other people got the same idea, so now it’s a competition for who can get their boat filled with the best animals.
So quit messing around, players. It’s time to get your Animals On Board.
How It Plays
The goal of Animals on Board is to get the most points by bringing sets of Animals onto your ship while avoiding pairs.
Gameplay is simple: On your turn you have two options. Either to split a group of animals into two groups of animals in any configuration you choose and take a food token. Or, claim one group of animals by paying 1 food token per animal in that group.
Once you’ve claimed a group, you’re out for the round. Once everyone has claimed a group, all remaining groups are put back together and refilled with additional animals, and the next round starts in the same fashion – splitting or claiming.
The game ends at the end of a round if at least one player has at least 10 animals on board (!!) their ship.
Scoring works like this: for each animal type, if you have only 1 tile, you score the value of that tile (between 1 and 5). If you have 2 of that animal type, you must discard those tiles. No points at all. If you have 3 or more of a single animal type, each tile is worth 5 points. Any remaining food is 1 point each.
The player with the most points wins!
Enough Food On The Boat?
One of the games I remember playing a lot as a kid was Rummi-Kub (or Rummi-Z, depending on which… ummm… now that I think of it, I have no idea what the difference is between those two). It’s one of the first games I remember that went beyond the basic kid-level games like Sorry and Mouse Trap, that required some skill but that I could still participate in. Rummi-Kub/Z tasked players with creating sets of numbers and colors before playing them to the center of the table. The tile draw was random, but once sets were on the board, you could split up what had already been played to form different sets and play your own tiles.
I bring that classic game up only because in many ways, Animals On Board plays akin to a reverse Rummi-thingummy, only with fun and colorful animal pictures instead of dark and intense colors and numbers. You’ve got a lot of the same elements; trying to collect sets, splitting and rearranging groups on the table, drawing tiles.
Anyway, Animals on Board is designed to be a light, accessible family game that kids can play and enjoy with their parents. At least, I assume that’s what it was designed to be, because it executes that task with near perfection.
Let me talk first about the “kids” part of that equation. There are many ways a game can be kid-friendly. If it heavily relies on luck, everyone can participate equally. If there’s a significant toy factor – like Animal upon Animal (no relation) – kids have something to mess around with when it’s not their turn. A goofy dexterity skill can give kids and adults alike a challenge that’s just ridiculous enough so that kids don’t feel out of their league. Ever play Coconuts with a 6-year-old?
I have a couple younger niblings in my family that enjoy playing games. By observation, I’ve noticed they have the most fun when they can actively participate and make choices that are fun for them, and avoid losing disastrously. In all of these categories, Animals On Board succeeds wildly. Let me break it on down for you in a few basic steps:
The art is colorful and friendly and even interesting. Each animal is clearly represented with a consistent icon, but the different numbers have different ages – the one is a tiny little baby animal, while the 5 is a full-grown adult. That makes it fun to collect sets, and kids enjoy looking at the different animals.
The scoring lends itself to how kids like to play. Even if it wasn’t the goal, my nephew and niece would try to collect all of one type of animal, just because that would be fun for them. In doing so, they’ll score a lot of points! I barely have to explain the strategy to them.
Perhaps most important, the game mechanics themselves are easy enough to grasp. The concept of dividing a group doesn’t go above a kid’s head. They might not grasp the nuances of strategy right away, but they’ll quickly realize they need to divide something into a small enough group that they can afford to buy it. It’s also not terrible difficult to grasp that you don’t want to let someone get a bunch of fives, and that you don’t want to let a big group of the same type of animal end up together so that someone else can snatch them up first. The concepts are simple, but the very act of dividing a group makes it feel like they’re really doing something – that they’re an active participant in the game, and they don’t necessarily need help to succeed. Usually, the groups that anyone can afford to buy only contain 1 or 2 animals, so no one’s going to get a big huge game-winning group of animals all at once because a kid did something strategically wrong.
Also, there’s a clever rule about stocking up food that keeps the game from stalling. You can only carry five food – if you already have five and you want to split another group, you have to pay a food instead of earning one. Might as well just claim a bunch of animals, and it helps contain some of the weird ideas people might get that could totally screw up the balance and fun of the game (For some reason, people in my family like to try really hard to come up with weird strategies).
The components are just right, too. Beyond the friendly art, tiles with a holder are much easier for a kid to handle than a hand of cards. Tiles have a better tactile feel, which makes it a little more fun to split up groups. You can’t shuffle tiles like you would cards, so kids can help shuffle tiles by mixing them up on the table.
And finally, the game is just the right length – not too short, not too long – so you’re not losing kids attentions halfway through.
Basically, in summary, every aspect of this game’s design allows kid players to be active participants, to succeed by playing to their natural instincts without a handhold.
But a game can be kid-friendly and not really adult-friendly, and we here in the hobby world love our kids games to come with all the side dishes of adult-level strategy or at least interesting choices. So how does Animals on Board fare with the older players?
Well, I wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of my gaming night, but it definitely holds up after a few plays. In an adults-only setting this is definitely a filler game, and it’s quick to set up and fast and smooth to play. Fortunately, it’s paired with enough interesting decisions for us to stay engaged.
Adults can put a lot more thought into how exactly they split up the groups. There are plenty of ways to manipulate things; either by forcing others to take tiles they don’t want to get what they need, to making the tiles you’re after look less desirable so you can keep others away. You can try to stock up on food early on by staying in the round as long as possible and claiming a cheap last-minute animal, or you can bow out as soon as possible with a decent group. The I-split-you-choose dynamic is inherently interactive, forcing players to guess or second-guess what they think the others want. At the same time, you can’t really prevent someone from getting their needed tiles without giving up your own, so the spite level is low. Usually it’s just a difference of preventing someone from getting a really amazing group of animals at once, and just getting the best tile out of it.
Would this game stand up to dozens of repeated plays in a short of time? Probably not with adults. But when you have kids around, this is a nearly perfect choice to have on hand. It’s something an adult can fully enjoy and a kid can actively compete with. It’s entertaining, colorful, doesn’t last too long, and smart.
My only real complaint is that it caps out at four players – I wouldn’t mind a mini-expansion that took it to five or six. Sometimes you just have a crowd, you know?