There you stand – just as hundreds of commanders before you have in times gone past – surveying your troops arrayed in martial ranks, prepared for battle. The scene unfolds as it has innumerable times through history. The troops tense, uncertain, full of adrenaline, looking to you for reassurance and leadership. You can’t help but feel pride swell within your breast at the site. Teeth bared, wings spread, claws extended, paws firmly gripping ground, and not a little fur bristling upon the backs of necks. “Cry, ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Literally…
How it Plays
In Nature of the Beast, you command an army of four-, two-, and sometimes no-legged animals against another wild force in a desperate struggle over habitat. The first fury general to successfully deploy nine critters, before running out of troops, is victorious. Of course, you don’t want to tick off the humans too much, so make sure to keep those feral instincts on a short leash.
Each critter commander has a personal field – a board comprised of a 3×3 grid. The first to successfully deploy an animal to every space, whether it be a cute little penguin or ferocious polar bear, wins immediately. To send forces into the field – and keep them there – you’ll play cards from two different decks. The Troops deck comprises your animals. The Tricks deck has various support cards to aid your troops in the fight: items, events, traps, locations, and even human allies.
There are two factions included in the game: prairie animals and polar. Two previous publications within the series offer four additional environmental factions, all of which can be mixed and customized, if desired. Troops cards comprise a number of different species from all sizes and culinary preferences. Thankfully for the morale of your army, the nastier carnivores have agreed to set those tastes aside for the good of the habitat.
Animal cards have several important stats. First is their rank – or the amount of clout needed to recruit them into the field. When coming out of your Troops deck, all animals begin in your “pen” – the row of three spaces immediately beneath your personal board. Generally, the higher the rank, the better the card, hence it costs more to recruit. Animals are also rated for their clout, combat, and cunning. Critters use clout to recruit other varmints from the pen into the field. The combat value applies exactly as it sounds. Cunning is an animal’s ability to use special items, which come from the Tricks deck.
Another key element listed is the creature’s vectors. Vectors are critical to Nature of the Beast. Understanding and effectively using them is essential to victory. A troop’s vectors point to several of a compass’ eight main directions – the four cardinal points and the four in between. This indicates which way that animal can move and to where it can lend support as either an ally in combat or in transferring items. If you’re not paying attention, you can easily clog up your movement lanes and/or leave a powerful beast isolated and unprotected.
On top of all that, most animals also have a special ability or unique power. This is described in the card’s text and simply applies when appropriate. Usually it allows a critter to break or modify some rule in movement, combat, or support. There is still more information regarding the animal’s size, habitat, and preferred means of locomotion, but those only have an effect under exact circumstances.
Aside from troops that you deploy, maneuver, and fight with, you will utilize an assortment of support cards from your Tricks deck. These come in several different categories and are acquired in different manners. Each type has its own layout, textual explanation of abilities, and icons for usage requirements. Generally speaking, they all present different opportunities to bend or break the rules – either generally or under specific conditions.
You begin the game with three Troops face down in your pen and a hand of three Tricks. Every time a new Troop enters your pen, it also starts face down. Obviously, you’ll want to flip animals over so that you can get them into your field or use them to pay for recruitment. However, if you choose to leave one or more face down at the beginning of a turn, you may draw an equivalent number of Tricks as a bonus.
On your turn, you get three actions. That may sound straight-forward enough, but there are a lot of actions to choose from! You can recruit one of your zoological soldiers from the pen, move one already in the field, un-tilt a tilted one, attack a creature across the lines, call on a human ally, claim a location, defer/discard/dismiss an animal, draw a Trick, equip one of your wild little pets with an item or transfer one already out, lay a trap for your opponent, play an event card, or pass. Some of these cost an action point, while some are free. A few of them require you to “tilt” the animal afterwards, meaning it may not do anything else until spending an action point to un-tilt it. And some actions require you to meet other conditions like discarding cards or having enough cunning, clout, favor, and etc.
Most of the actions are intuitive once you learn the basics and are familiar with all of the icons. Essentially you’re managing your army, trying to deploy and maneuver troops around your field so that they occupy all spaces and protect each other. Combat is a little more involved and is the primary way to interact with your opponent. Any deployed creature with a combat value of 1 or higher can attack any other animal in the opposing field. However, you’ll want to save these fights for your stronger beasts, because the higher combat rating wins. You can call on other nearby animals for support as long as their vectors point to the attacker – the defender may do the same. Each one adds +1 strength to the contest. Other things like cards and locations may modify the outcome. And some animals, called Legendaries, can discard Tricks to increase their power. Any animal involved in the fight, except for the original defender, must tilt for their efforts. If the attacker wins, her original target is eliminated, or vice versa – though no supporters are harmed in the resolution of the fight.
The first faction to mark all of their territory establishes dominance over the habitat and proves the alpha consumer at the top of the food chain. Hopefully they don’t then turn on each other. You know, natural instinct trumped by that whole ‘Brothers in Arms’ thing…?
Jack Hanna Approved?
When I was a kid, my parents would take my sister and me to the ice cream shop, Baskin Robbins. Back then, they’re slogan was “Home of 31 Flavors!” Probably pails in comparison to today’s selection, but I always had trouble choosing which one to get. Nature of the Beast may not be as sweet. But it seems to offer just as many choices…and they’re less fattening, too!
That variety is one of Nature of the Beast’s strongest allures: variety in cards, variety in actions, and variety in game play options. Your Troops deck includes a number of different kinds of animals with assorted attributes – not just in basic stats as you’d logically expect, but also in special abilities. Pretty much each animal has some unique trait…and at most only one duplicate copy. Meanwhile, the Tricks deck has no duplicate cards, so there is a tremendous amount of options to utilize from beefing up your defense through locations, arming your animals with items, getting the humans to lend a (real) hand, laying deadly traps for your opponent to walk into, and numerous other ways to engineer your rise as King of the Beasts.
The ability to “self-regulate” the amount of interaction is also a wonderful option. Essentially, you can actually play an entire game without combat. I personally don’t recommend that. Then it just becomes a solitary, puzzle game. Now, the manipulation of your army on the board is an interesting element of the design. But without combat, it plays too quickly, you can simply throw up your cheapest critters, and it’s just not very exciting.
However, you don’t need to charge in like Custer, either. In fact, you really don’t want to, because it’ll slow you down. It uses up an action that you could be employing to recruit and move. Plus any animals involved in such an offensive must tilt, meaning you have to spend one or more action points to un-tilt any for future action.
You’ll also want to evaluate the number of fights you pick thanks to the Favor/Fury track. For each attack you initiate, you go up one point in Fury, whether you win or lose. If you’re too aggressive, the humans get a little nervous. They’ll hunt you to extinction if you reach ‘10’ on the Fury scale and you lose the game. Even PETA can’t save you’re rabid, little hinny! Therefore, the pre-game decision as to where to start on that track is another important decision in this game full of strategic choices. Just remember that whatever you choose must apply to both Favor and Fury. So if you think you’d like to start low in order to attack more often – and thus able to absorb greater wrath from people – well then you won’t be able to count on the humans to help you, as that requires Favor. If you start too high in order to enlist plenty of help from your more evolved neighbors, well then you won’t be able to fight much at all.
The other strong draw to Nature of the Beast is its unique theme and game play. There are plenty of combat card games based on historical military settings or fantasy and magic. One based on nature – with a dash of a fairytale aspect – is refreshing. The idea of habitat vs. habitat is quite brilliant (the other factions are Farm vs. Forest and City vs. Suburb). With other biomes to explore from jungle to desert to mountains and maybe even the ocean, there are plenty of diverse traits to tap for the game, in not only the environments, but the creatures that inhabit them.
In addition to theme, actual game play is also very original. Nature of the Beast has hints reminiscent of collectible card games and deck-building, yet there is not as much freedom in deck manipulation and searching. There is some inherent luck of the draw at play which can especially influence the early game. The “draw-then-play” mechanic is a bit more stringent a framework. There are ways to discard unwanted troops or shuffle them back into the deck. But doing so basically pulls new Troops off the top of the draw pile. Similarly, you have many options to play both Tricks and animals to gain new Tricks cards, but it’s still limited to what you take off the top of the deck.
The board play, on the other hand, is quite fascinating. Many times, you’re concentrating so much on which awesome combinations you can pull off, or the game’s combat elements, that you forget how critically important simple movement is to victory. Again, paying attention to your animals’ vectors is essential. You need to figure out how best to use those in moving around the board in order to claim all nine spots AND still have your creatures support each other in mutual defense…or attack!
Of course the real attraction to all of this variability is that you don’t have to spend wads of money to customize decks. You can buy one game and have tons of replayability with just the two factions. Or you can get one or both of the other titles for even greater replay – either with keeping the habitats pure, or mixing it up some.
Despite all of the variety and options, the design is not really fiddly. Moving or titling animals is simple. Actions are typically quick, except with combat, but that involves the other player, anyway. Other than that, downtime is light to moderate. First there are several things you can do for free, making it seem like you’re performing more than your three allotted actions. Second, options. It’s the main drawback to designs with lots of choices. It can be borderline analysis paralysis, although it’s mostly just present in the late game as the card count gradually builds.
While Nature of the Beast supports up to 4 players, you first need at least two copies of the game – it can be the same two of the same title, or two different ones. I have not played a 3 or 4 player game, but can imagine the positives and negatives. On one hand, it would open up even more tactical depth as you have multiple foes to watch and you’re allowed to support another player’s attack against a third party. However, I can imagine it adds some length and might be susceptible to a “gang up on the leader” element.
There is a high learning curve due to the nature of the design (see what I did there?). This is not a beginner’s game, nor is it a casual one. For starters, there are all of the possible actions and combinations to mull over and lots of tactical considerations. But also, each different type of card – troop, item, event, human, location – has a completely different layout and design. Then there are the icons. There are thirteen different symbols showing up in various combinations on just the Troops cards alone. Some of these pop up in the Tricks deck, as well, plus there are a couple other unique to those support cards. Players not familiar with the game will be referencing the rule book often.
The production value is quite good. The boards are thick and sturdy and the tokens are fine. The cards are of good stock, probably a little better than a standard poker deck. The art is kind of a mixed bag. Some of it is cartoony, while other parts look almost like naturalist paintings. Independently, both styles are well done. However, when laid out next to each other, it’s an odd visual, and a bit distracting at first.
Nature of the Beast is a fast-paced combat game, unique in both theme and mechanics. The card varieties and interaction will remind many of CCG’s, but the board play enhances that to make the design so much more. It is customizable and possesses good replay value. It gives players plenty of decisions, and allows them to engage in as little or as much interaction as they want and are comfortable with – though I recommend more, rather than less. With so many combos possible and lots of icons and abilities to learn, it is more suited for experienced gamers. If you’re looking for a smart and unusual two-player card game with plenty to explore, this just may be the thing to satisfy your inner beast.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Eye-Level Entertainment for providing a review copy of Nature of the Beast: Prairie vs. Polar.