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Preview: Cartoona

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Kickstarter has been used quite a bit in recent memory to bring games to market that are off the beaten path. One of the more whimsical games to fall in this “other” category is Cartoona by Robert Burke, a “creature-building, tile-laying game of strategy and chance” that has almost four weeks left to go in its campaign.

It certainly looks good—how does it play? Read on and find out!

[Ed. Note: all pictures are of the print-and-play version, and the components will not match the final version. Presumably the art will, but check the Kickstarter page for the most up-to-the-minute details. As a further note, this is a PREVIEW of an unfinished product, not a REVIEW of the commercially-released game.  Our opinions reflect the state of the game at the time of our playing, not necessarily the final product.]

How It Works

The goal of Cartoona is to score 50 points before the other players do. Players score points by building creatures from the ninety-four included body part tiles and from the clever use of cards.

Players start a game of Cartoona with a hand of five creature part tiles and two action cards. At the start of a player’s turn, he draws one card and one body part tile. He may then play one card and/or play one tile, in either order; then play passes to the left.

Ninety-four tiles ensure lots of different creatures to make.

Tiles each have a point value (determined by the tile’s color; some colors are rarer) and come in several different body parts: heads, ears, beaks, body fronts, body backs, forelegs, hind legs, and tails. A creature can be as large as eight tiles or as small as one tile. Body parts come in different colors, and a completed creature formed all from one color of body part is worth double the points. A tile may be played adjacent to any already placed tile, but a player may only have two work-in-progress creatures in front of him. (Thus, if a player has no tiles to play on either creature, he may not play a tile.)

All of this sounds super easy, and it is. Where things get a little trickier is the action cards, which have zany abilities like swapping creature parts with another player, making certain tiles worth more (or fewer) points, drawing extra tiles and cards, or generally messing with your opponents. There are also cards that allow players to block their fellow players’ antics or even karma cards that give would-be antagonists a taste of their own medicine.

Once a creature is completed, a player may score the creature, getting the entitled points and discarding the creature’s tiles. Players are not forced to immediately score completed creatures, but any creature still in play is up for grabs and can be the target of other players’ schemes. Leaving any creature on the table is risky business.

The first player to score 50 points is the winner.

@FarmerLenny’s take:

Cartoona is an enjoyable game that’s super simple (that is, easy enough for a child to play) but interesting enough that it shouldn’t bore any adults at the table. And the art is fantastic if you like cartoons. (I sure do.)

Cartoona is described on its Kickstarter page as “a tile-laying creature-building game of strategy and chance,” and that’s a pretty accurate statement. It only takes one look at the cards to envision the chaos the box contains. I was surprised, however, by the clever choices that players must make during gameplay. Should players build big creatures, which are generally worth more points but have a large target on them for other players, or smaller ones? Should players play cards to benefit themselves or hurt their opponents? Should players wait to start building until they have the tiles they need, or should they start building immediately? These choices aren’t brain-burning decisions (nor are they meant to be), but they do give players a sense of some control over what they do.

Cards = chaos in Cartoona. That can be good or bad.

But the game really is chaotic. Some of the action cards are very powerful and can interrupt the flow of the game quite a bit. A steal at the opportune moment can deprive a player of a key piece to the creature. “Prevent” cards can keep players from finishing their creatures. Lock cards can prevent the use of cards on creatures. And don’t forget the karmas or the cheats, which have major repercussions on the game. I’m not a huge fan of chaos in games, but with the light-hearted artwork in Cartoona, these elements did not seem out of place.

That said, parents of competitive children should be warned: Cartoona has a large “take that” component that might hurt the feelings of younger players and sour the experience for everyone. The game can be played in basic mode without the cards, but I’m not sure how interesting it would be without them. The artwork is still fantastic, and younger players might just get a kick out of seeing their creatures grow, but the game element, I think, would be destroyed without the cards (though I didn’t test this).

And while I liked the game on the whole, there were a few things about it that dragged to me. There could be a lot of waiting for just the right tile to come up, and because tile draws are luck based, this waiting can happen several times during the game. Also, since playing a card is not always advantageous, a player’s hand can fill up quite a bit. I think I had eight cards in my hand at one point. This isn’t so bad, but it does start to feel a little cluttered. The game also lasted a bit long for what it is. I mentioned above that the rules to Cartoona are very simple, and they are. Because of this, and just the general nature of the game, I expected something shorter. The game lasted about fifteen minutes longer than was optimum for me, but this may not be a problem for other players.

Still, on the whole, Cartoona is a decent game in a fantastic-looking package at a good price ($25 scores you a copy on Kickstarter—that’s not too shabby). It comes with multiple play modes (including partnerships, solo play, and “basic” play) and is suitable for families and children. And who knows? Your gaming pals might even get a kick out of it, too. If the idea of building wacky creatures from excellent cartoony artwork is appealing to you, I don’t think you will be disappointed with Cartoona.

@Futurewolfie’s take:

Good ol’ @Farmerlenny summed it up pretty well, so I’ll just add a few thoughts.  While the art is enjoyably simple and the concept is fun (and it’s enjoyable to slowly watch your creatures build up), the game definitely lasted a bit too long for what it was.  Maybe it was due to a lack of thorough shuffling (one of the major issues with the “print-and-play” review copy.  Normal paper just isn’t designed to be shuffled, and so you tend to get clumps of similar cards together a lot more frequently), but the game suffers from what I call “Catan Dice Syndrome.”  That is, if the dice never roll your number (or in this case, if you never draw the body part you need or a card that can get you that part from someone else, if they even have it), you can’t really play very much.  It’s actually pretty common to block cards, and many of the action cards are very specific towards one type of tile, that you might find yourself essentially passing several turns in a row.

So it took us forever to finish our creatures (well, not forever, but longer that it seemed like it should have), which made the game seem slow.  This is the kind of game I would expect to play quickly on a break, or with kids (who often have a short attention span), but it barely fit in our lunch break.

More sweet creatures!

That being said, there are good times to be had.  At one point we had an epic climax as the game neared it’s end – all players were inches from completing the monster that would win them the game, and the [good]tension was high as we plotted our moves.  A few “Gotcha!” action cards later, @Farmerlenny finally sealed the deal.  If the whole game had been like that (and lasted less than 30 minutes) it would have been a delight.

It’s highly likely that the final product – with quality tiles, player aides, and a better ability to shuffle – will help make the whole experience more enjoyable.  It’s got its moments, but it’s just not quite there yet.  The Kickstarter page says they’re still refining rules and playtesting, so maybe some of these issues will be worked out, but right now all we have to go on are the rules they gave us.  So take that for what it is.

iSlaytheDragon received a print-and-play copy of Cartoona for review. There is still time to back the game and ensure its funding on Kickstarter!

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the review!

    I think you’ll find that as you develop different strategies the game speed picks up quite a bit. For example, focus on smaller creatures, unless you have both the tiles and cards you need to secure a larger one. Earn the tiles you need through swaps and steals. And most importantly, learn when to hold back!

    Also, team play (especially 2 teams of 3 or 4 players each) is much faster as there are more choices and teammates can help out. It’s my favorite version!

    The basic game is obviously MUCH less chaotic and very quick, let me know if you decide to try it!

    Thanks for the well written review!

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