What do zoo animals do when they get fed up with zoo life? They hijack a park ranger and a jeep to take them back to the wilderness, of course. While that’s not exactly the premise of Outback, the game, it could be the premise of Outback, the movie. (At least in my imagination.) Think of it: Dwayne Johnson careening through the wilderness with a jeep full of animals! He’s dodging all kinds of hazards, trying to get each animal settled safely into its new habitat before the villainous zoo manager kills them all! Well, that’s all a bit more exciting than Outback, the game, but the game is still a fun, family-weight dice rolling game in which you are a park ranger resettling some zoo animals into new Outback habitats. Now, if only it included Dwayne Johnson…
How It Plays
Outback is a dice rolling and set collection game that casts you in the role of a wildlife ranger. You’re trying to strategically settle zoo animals into their new wild habitats so they are comfortable and happy (and earn you points). The base mechanism will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played Yahtzee. You roll a pool of dice a few times, keeping the ones you want to use and re-rolling the others, hoping to get more useful dice. Once you’re happy with your rolls, you place the corresponding animals into your habitat. (Or, if the dice are unkind, you end up with nothing.)
There’s more to it than that, though, so here’s how the whole thing rolls. (Sorry. I’ll show myself out.) At the beginning of the game, five animal tiles are drawn from the bag and placed on the open spaces on the jeep. These are the animals available for the first player’s turn. Every player begins with their animal scoring markers on the -3 space on their player board. Everyone also has their own set of bonus tiles, one for each animal in the game.
The first player rolls all six dice. He may keep any (or none) of the dice from that roll. A player can roll a total of three times per turn, keeping or re-rolling dice as he chooses. Even previously kept dice can be re-rolled if desired. Each six-sided die shows one each of the five animals in the game, plus a joker which can represent any animal you choose. You’re trying to gain dice that match the animals in the jeep so you can take them and place them onto your player board. Animals not in the jeep are not available on this turn, so it will do you no good to collect dice for them.
Each row on your board has a number next to it. This is the number of matching dice you need to have in order to place an animal in that row. For example, if the koala is in the jeep and you want to place it in the third row of your board, you would need to roll three koalas, or have enough jokers to make three koalas. (You must have at least one animal in order to use a joker, though. In this example, you can’t just roll three jokers and declare them all to be koalas. You’d need to roll at least one koala.)
It’s possible to get more than one animal per turn. For example, if you roll two platypuses and three emus, you could place a platypus in row two and an emu in row three, assuming you had enough vacant spaces in each row to do so. Each animal you place is worth one point, and you move its associated scoring marker ahead one space on the score track. If your marker reaches the top of the scoring track that runs along the side of the board, keep moving it around the corner and onto the track at the top of your board. More on how these two tracks work in a minute.
It’s not just about sticking animals into rows, however. You get extra points when you place an animal adjacent to another of its kind. So, for example, if you place an emu in row four so that it’s adjacent to emus in rows five and three, you would earn three points. One for the new emu, and one point each for the emus touching the new emu.
There are also bonus points available if you place three animals of the same type into your habitat. (They don’t have to touch for the purpose of bonus scoring.) The first matching set of three you place earns you one bonus point, the second earns two, and so on up to five bonus points if you place three of all five animal types in your habitat. These points are tracked by placing a bonus token into the vacant spaces on the bonus track, filling the track from left to right.
If you exhaust your die rolls and end up unable to place any animal into your habitat, you must pull a tile from the bag and place it face down on any empty space on your board. It can never be occupied by an animal and will be worth -2 points at the end of the game.
The game ends when one player has filled all the spaces on their player board. (You can also opt to play until everyone finishes their board. Players who finish early sit and wait until the others fill up their boards.) The round is played out until everyone has played one last turn, and then everyone counts their points. Points earned on the upper scoring track are scored as indicated. However, for the side scoring track, points are only awarded for the for the last three markers on the track. If there are more than three markers on this track, any above the bottom three score nothing. Every blocked space on your player board subtracts two points from your score. The player with the most points wins.
There are also rules for a more advanced game called, “Outback Plus.” For this version, you flip over your player board to the side with seven rows to complete. An extra die is also added. The bigger changes come from two sets of extra tiles. The first set of tiles are objective tiles, which replace the bonus tiles in the base game. These include things like being the first player to complete specified rows on the player boards, or being the first player to have a specific number of a given animal on their board. The first player to complete an objective takes the bonus tile and scores the points.
The other type of tile changes how the blocked spaces are scored. Instead of them being worth minus two points as in the base game, these tiles randomize their losses. One tile increases the loss to three points across the board, while another ties the amount of points lost to the row in which the blocked space is located. Others subtract points based on which animal(s) adjoin the blocked space. You only use one of these tiles per game, chosen randomly at the beginning. The winner is still the person with the most points.
Is this really, “Just another version of Yahtzee?”
Outback looked like something we would enjoy (and it’s from Michael Kiesling, whose work we really like), but when I read the comments prior to buying it, many people called it, “Just another version of Yahtzee.” Many implied (or outright stated) that there was nothing to the game other than rolling dice and completing sets, just like in the original Yahtzee. “Total luck-fest,” they said. I was deterred at first, but as I read the rules I found myself thinking, “This isn’t just Yahtzee. Not even close.” I bought it and crossed my fingers that I was right.
So was I, for once in my life, right? Or was I wrong and Outback is really nothing more than a cuter Yahtzee? Let’s see.
First of all, let me state that I really have nothing against Yahtzee. It was one of the games I played often before I discovered hobby games. There’s something that my slightly OCD, completionist self finds soothing about it. Also immensely frustrating, but in a “I’ll beat you yet,” kind of way. Plus, I just love chucking dice. So even if Outback was nothing more than a re-skinned Yahtzee, I’d probably still find something fun about it.
That said, Outback isn’t Yahtzee. Yes, it shares the “roll multiple times, keep the best” mechanism. And it involves filling up rows on a board/scoresheet. But that’s where the similarities end.
Outback isn’t a deep game, but neither is it as simple as Yahtzee. In Outback, you’re dealing with two score tracks to manage, an animal supply that dwindles as the game progresses, and bonuses for “solving” the puzzle of optimal animal placement. There’s also the potential for negative points and, in the advanced game, that potential increases and can become more variable. I’ll unpack each of these below.
First, let me state this up front for those who hate luck: You can stop reading now. For all that Outback has more going on than Yahtzee, it is still highly luck dependent. There’s the obvious luck of the dice, but there’s also luck in which animals will be available on your turn. Animals get into the jeep randomly, so there’s no guarantee that the animal you need/want will appear. And there’s even less guarantee that you can roll the numbers you need to place that animal where you want it. Outback is definitely a game of making the most of what you get.
The most intriguing thing about Outback is the dual score track. Each animal begins down on the -3 space on the left-hand track but as you earn points, the animals move up that track and can get as high as nine points. That’s great, you think. But hold on. You likely won’t earn those nine points. Why? Because if you continue to score points for that animal, it will round the corner and move onto the top scoring track, where it will start again at one point. As you earn more points for that animal, it can get all the way up to fifteen points. But… You’ve got other animals to tend to, so you can’t focus your energy on just one or two. The wrinkle here is that any animals remaining on the left-hand track at the end of the game may not score. If you have more than three animals on that track, only the bottom three (the three in the lowest scoring positions) will score. You can’t afford to neglect any animals.
And this is true from the very beginning of the game. Because the supply of each animal is finite, you will eventually run out of each species. You have to be moving animals opportunistically when they appear. Let’s say you’re focusing on the lizard and the emu, figuring you’ll get to the others later. But other players are focusing on kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses. When you get around to the others, there may not be any left. Of course this somewhat depends on how the animals come out in the draw, but you have to remember that there are only so many of each and when they’re gone, your opportunity to move those animals up the score track is gone, too. You may want to zoom that emu up the track, but doing so at the expense of other animals may cost you in the end.
While you’re balancing your animal acquisition, you also have to “solve” the puzzle of where to place each animal. You get extra points for grouping animals together, so you always want to be looking forward to preserve your best options. (And doing whatever voodoo dance you do to make the dice roll in your favor.) This becomes more difficult as the game goes on and spaces fill up. You’ll find yourself having to settle for suboptimal placements and hoping you can salvage something else later. Personally, I love this sort of game where the puzzle evolves as you go along and the decisions get more difficult and agonizing. (It’s why I liked Draftosaurus so much, as well as Tiny Towns.)
As the board shrinks and the animal supply runs out, you’ll also be more likely to have to place a tile for negative points. In the base game, it’s a loss of “only” two points. But in the advanced game, it can be more. Worse, if you’ve got the Huch version of the game with the randomizer tiles, your losses can be tied to the animals adjoining the blocked space. This makes the puzzle much harder to solve because you want to not only group your animals wisely, you want to keep the costly ones away from any space you have to block off.
I hope you’re getting the sense that this is more than a Yahtzee clone. Yes, it’s light and random, but there is a puzzle here and your decisions about what to place and where can be agonizing. You may not be able to control everything in the game, but your reactions to what the game throws at you determine your success or failure.
If you want to bump up the difficulty a bit, there is the advanced version. I touched on the major differences above and while none of this makes the game a heavy game, it does add some complexity to the puzzle. If you’re playing with young kids or non-gamers, it may not matter. But if you’re playing with older kids or experienced gamers, those extra bonus and scoring tiles do add extra layers of complexity/planning. It’s nice to have the option in the box.
The best part about the advanced game is the bonus tiles. Those tiles give you something to compete for. The base game is strictly a solitaire puzzle. There’s really no player interaction, or anything you can do to mess with your opponent. It’s all going to come down to the die rolls and which animals are in the jeep on a turn. However, the bonus tiles give you a little something to compete over. If you can look at your opponent’s board and see that you are both one tile away from finishing row three, you might want to finish yours first to nab that bonus tile. There’s only one of each tile in the game and when they’re claimed they’re gone. It might behoove you to keep an eye on your opponents and try to beat them to the tiles if you can. Granted, this doesn’t provide a ton of interaction and it doesn’t change the mostly solitaire aspect of the game. However, it does give you a reason to care about what’s going on around the table.
And now for one unfortunate problem with the advanced game. When I was researching this game, I was confused by the early vs. later reviews. The early reviews showed the tiles that randomize the scoring for blocked spaces. The later reviews did not. At first I assumed this was some difference between a Kickstarter version and a retail version. When I realized the game hadn’t been on Kickstarter, I looked deeper. It turns out that the initial, international version published by Huch includes those tiles. However, the English version produced by R&R Games does not. (I have no idea why.)
If you want the version from Huch that includes the full advanced game, you’ll have to source it from Europe. (I got mine from good ‘ol Amazon.de for only a bit more than getting it from a US retailer.) If having the whole advanced game doesn’t matter to you, the the R&R Games version will be fine. Note that the Huch version includes the rules in several languages, including English, and the components are language independent. I’m not even sure why an “English” version was needed, much less why they had to strip out part of the game. It is what it is, though, so if you want the “full” game, look for the Huch version.
The components are good quality. The boards and tiles have a glossy finish and are thick. The scoring markers are a bit small and easy to lose, so be careful. The jeep for the animals is nothing but overproduced fun. They could have just gone with a board for the animals, but they included a 3D jeep. It doesn’t matter to the game, but it is fun.
The theme and components do a good job of hiding the fact that Outback is, essentially, an abstract game. Much like Yahtzee, you could just be filling in a score sheet. The animals could be colored tiles, for all that it really matters. But we’ve been given cute animals and a fun theme, so it’s better for convincing kids and non-gamers to give it a try.
Overall, I was impressed by Outback. It may not be my favorite Kiesling design of all time, but there is more here than meets the eye. No, it’s not in the same league as something like Vikings, or even Azul. But if you’re in the market for a light, easy to learn yet puzzly game that has a certain cuteness factor going for it, Outback may suit you. It’s just a bummer that there’s no Dwayne Johnson movie version.