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Every Man Needs A Challenge

Stuart Burnham
United Kingdom
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Large group gaming days are the ideal situation in which to try out games that are longer and/ or more challenging than the sort of things that you usually play. Ahead of the weekend’s Gathering of Chums(2) there had been much chatter on the dedicated Facebook group about various incarnations of the 18XX system that could be played in this company. I’ve never played anything remotely as deep or heavy but, as I said, these are the ideal occasions on which one can get out of one’s comfort zone and stretch the gaming muscles.

And so it came to pass that an unofficial Botswana bout was convened that afternoon. Unofficial in that no title was on the line but this was contested under full tournament rules and no quarter was asked nor given. Now I’ve played Loco several times and whilst Botswana (Wildlife Safari) is ostensibly same game it is quite objectively not the same game.
A full table of five, following normal convention random seating order and starting player (a strong advantage) applied. I found myself stuck between veteran big game hunters Boydell and (former) Regional Champion Green (widely credited with developing and then exploiting the “double lion” opening). I wasn’t expecting much of a rough ride from the other seats but there was a real danger that I would be safari spit roasted between these particular two.

A wild opening round saw scores in the teens and low twenties and I, as anticipated, at the back of the pack after my naive initial moves of Lion(!), Zebra(?!), Rhino(??) were ruthlessly exploited leaving me facing something of a Kilimanjaro. I hope I’m not overstating the basics and insulting your intelligence here but it has been definitively proven that, in a 5 player game, Zebra/Rhino (after an opening carnivore) is weak almost to the point of conceding.
Rhinos have an inherent vulnerability to an early 5 being played because, as Matt eloquently articulates, “fuck Rhinos eh?”
Zebras are notoriously weak, which Knizia had tried to address with the controversial Giraffe expansion that inadvertently led to the neutering of the double Leopard play and only further enhanced the situational strength of Elephants. Whilst this can be countered somewhat by further adding the unofficial Crocodile, Hyena and Gazelle promos this introduces too much chaos into such a high strategy game, and this messing around caused huge divisions in the professional ranks and, ultimately, the formation of the breakaway Rebel Bush League. I apologise for bringing the traumatic schism back up and repeating such elementary (and upsetting) information here, but there are always the occasional late comers to this most esteemed of games on BGG.

An obscene second round triple Lion (hey, I was desperate) saw me claw a few points back on the leaders, but as the scores were all in single figures (the classic Rhino rush ending the round early) it wasn’t going to be enough if things continued in conventional manner. In rounds three and four there was a fair amount of the “Noah” (2x2) tactic being deployed which is useful for consolidating a position but won’t allow you to overhaul one. I went for an unorthodox double Elephant (?!), a risky opening; as they say, “never double Elephant yourself into a situation that you aren’t prepared to Zebra yourself back out of” (a Pachyderm Pirouette) followed up by Leopard(!?) Lion(!) which is strong against the Noah but will come unstuck against any type of diverse herd. When you’re risking falling to anyone, even someone who’s been mad enough to go Zebra, you need the cards to fall just right and it was my good fortune that they did.

Round four saw me making my move, something which has had a cult following since it was first employed by Barnstaple in what was dubbed “The Cairo Classic”. This requires an opening Rhino(?), which is usually a transparent feint, and to then back it up with a second turn predator (Lion is traditional, although obvious) but, and here is where the mind-messing begins, this is the actual feint. In turn three you go back to Rhino(?!) (as long as you are confident that you not triggering the rush) and then go Elephant(!) Zebra((?!)but situationally(!!)) to leave the predators perplexed. Traditionalists may tut to themselves about this but they need to accept that the game has moved on and you can’t just sit back and wait for an opponent’s mistake to provide an opening, you have to counter press these days.

Going into the final round I was now a couple of points ahead of Green and whilst I was starting player he, to my right, would have the opportunity end the round and screw me over if I wasn’t careful, and the others complied. I was faced with a dilemma. Nobody has ever lost lost a round of Botswana with an opening Elephant but they haven’t won very many either, and I didn’t need to win, I just needed to maintain the 2 point gap. I considered my options but ultimately found my big boy khakis and went for “go big cat or go home” - I’d come this far and I wasn’t about to die wondering.
Lion(!) Leopard(?!) Leopard(!?) Lion(!!) ended the round with a bang and Green might as well have been holding an entire herd of Zebras for all the good that anything else could do in the face of doubled apex predators. A grandstand finish that caused even the 18XX players on the next table to marvel at the audacity of it.

This was a titanic contest at one of the ultimate tests of strategic gaming that, whilst it does not confer me with any official title, will leave me glowing as if I had been out on the savannah for real. Knizia has, I think, never bettered this design (often feted as his most thematic) that packs all of the decisions of a high level economic and share divesting game with the cutthroat Dominant Species-esque turns and the Twilight Struggle dynamic card play.
To play it is a demanding test of any gamer and it is certainly true that you’ll never be quite the same afterwards.
The definitive “minute to learn, lifetime to master” game.

Major props to Mr Green, (with an honorary mention to Master Bateson), in whose Botswana footsteps I have attempted to follow.

“Free the banned blogger”
Day 6: Jesus wept, this is long enough now isn’t it?
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