WildLife is a game of competition for survival. Space is limited and the survival of your own species at any cost is your ultimate goal. Conservationists won't like this game at all. It is a somewhat heavy game better suited for the full complement of players (six). This is because each of the six species (one per player) is supposedly balanced against the other five. Therefore with less than six players there are 'holes' in the relationships between each species and the game can be somewhat spoiled (or enhanced, depending on your point of view) by a match-up that results in two or three players in intense competition while the remaining players happily takes over the other half of the board, unchallenged.
Obviously this can be overcome by smart play but for purists it does unbalance the initial conditions considerably. Therefore my group of three decided we would see how the game played with exactly half of the full complement.
- my wife, P
- my brother, S
As this was our first attempt with three players, we elected to follow the rulebook as-written. We wanted to see how the game would play out as intended by the designer. The only rule we changed was the selection of the species for each player.
We laid out all six species boards on the table and examined their strengths and weaknesses. By arranging them in a circle so that each species 'attacks' one of the 'No Action' environments of the next species, we wanted to make sure that no species 'expands' into a region that is initially attacked by another species. We decided that Man, Mammoth and Eagle seemed furthest apart. I think we made a mistake because as we set up the game it became quickly apparent that Man and Mammoth were going to clash quite considerably on the plains and savannah, so we reanalysed and chose Mammoth, Crocodile and Eagle instead.
Our informal analysis wasn't very thorough however it was clear that the distribution of species across the environment types is not symmetrical. At some point I intend to graph the relationships between each species and this may allow better selection for the four-player game too.
We randomly selected our starting species from the three candidates:
- I took crocodiles, masters of the water, breeding in the forests.
- P took the mammoths, strong on the plains, growing in the savannah.
- S took the eagles, lords of the mountains, nesting in the desert.
Food chips behave rather interestingly with three players. Often the card submitted for auction was only of some use to a single player, so a winning bid of 3 (the minimum) was common. This resulted in an excess of three food jumping around the table. Later in the game, the application of cards such as Food Surplus and Famine affected the absolute amount of food in the system, but it still continued to cycle around. At one point when S had only 3 food I was able to sting him by offering a card I knew P would pass on but that he would want and then playing Famine immediately afterwards, forcing him back five success points.
There was some comic relief provided by P's auction of the Food Surplus card. S and I noted that regardless who won it, P would receive 3 food (as she was coming last). Also, the winner would get seven. Therefore we incorrectly concluded that the only value that made any sense to offer was seven, to prevent the other player gaining any sort of profit on the card. So, P ended up with 10 extra food and S and I broke even. It was even more amusing when she offered another on her next turn! Stupidly we applied the same incorrect logic and P won another 10 food! Then we realised our mistake. The correct response (in this situation, with the auctioneer coming last) is for both players to pass and for the card to be discarded, unactioned. Doh! As soon as one player bids anything for it, the other will respond until the value reaches seven, giving the benefit solely to the auctioneer. We all had a good laugh about this.
I decided that because my preferred habitat had no natural predators nor prey, I would need to adapt quickly and spread into neighbouring territory. I chose to focus on the savannah and plains, directly competing with P and her mammoths. P decided to head into the mountains and take on the eagles, however S had already targeted the desert and proceeded to focus on populating these arid areas. Neither player adapted to challenge the crocodiles in the water or in the forests.
There are five types of abilities available, with a hand limit of two per type. These are very easy to acquire simply by playing an ability card and selecting one. There is no way for another player to prevent you from acquiring the card you want, however you remain somewhat safe from losing your own cards if you are behind in success points. Due to the high number of ability cards in the deck, there was a lot of 'churn' throughout the game. The intelligence ability grants you an additional action on your turn. It also applies for the turn you acquire it, so it's effectively a free take if you have a spare ability card because it pays for itself. If you choose not to take someone elses intelligence ability, then you give them the use of that card in their next turn without having to spend an action to get it back. Because of this, these cards were shifting around all the time. Only the player in last place (usually P) was safe from this.
Additionally, the two defence abilities were not very useful. A determined attacker would acquire your defence ability prior to an assault. It would cost them an action but combined with aggression it did make holding ground quite challenging. S managed to hold onto both defence cards as well as aggression but because of his isolationist strategy they weren't very useful to him.
With three players, there are a lot of 'safe' (unchallenged) areas at the start of the game. We all identified this with rapid adaptation to take advantage of these. With this in mind, the game might have been quite dull if nobody had elected to step out and challenge another player. This is never a problem with six players. Fortunately, we all enjoy a good conflict so very quickly I had my crocodiles eating woolly mammoth on the plains and P had her oversized mammals plucking careless eagles from the cool mountain air.
The first two major scorings took place quite quickly. The last three regions took about half the game duration to complete. I consistently picked up points from numerous categories because of my diversity. S created a massive herd of eagles and consistently won the largest herd reward, but his lack of diversity or smaller herds meant he won little else. My aggressive adaptation to the plains (from No Action to Attack in one turn) meant I always won the points for most adaptations. P didn't pick up many points because although she was present in many areas she did not have the dominance and so tended to take second place for each scoring.
The game ended when I played my last crocodile onto the water. The total duration was about 1.5 hours. I took the victory with considerable spread between myself, S in second place, and finally P bringing up the rear. I think the key to my victory was my total dominance of the water and most of the forests as well as my aggressive adaptation to life on the plains and savannah, directly challenging the mammoths. P and S battled for dominance in the mountains and ultimately the mammoths fell to the focused might of the eagles.
I think the key to understanding and appreciating this game is that it's highly dynamic. The abilities do move around a lot. I think this is the intention of the design, because there is still a cost to be considered in terms of the number of actions. The conflict can be heated but with only three players I think it's important that everyone regularly assesses the situation and does not allow a single player to achieve total domination in more than one niche. As in general ecology, diversity is often the key to long-term survival however a complete monopoly is useful and the crocodiles illustrated this point nicely.
How did our game compare to the five or six player game? Well, the rules do not provide a reduction in the number of abilities or adaptations, so the limits that you encounter in those games simply do not become relevant in the three-player game. For the abilities I think this is unfortunate. I would like to experiment with limiting the number of food and intelligence cards to two. I don't think there's a problem with all three species achieving 'attack' in a single environment, so I don't see any reason to limit the number of adaptation upgrades.
We felt afterwards that although it "worked" the game with three still lacks a certain something. I can't really put my finger on it. Perhaps the map was too big and didn't provide enough pressure to compete? Certainly the six-player game does not suffer from this problem at all. I really feel with a bit of careful modification that the three-player game could be quite satisfying. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Nice session report, Meowsqueak, if indeed that is your real name. 2.1 GG, very smooth. It has inspired my keeness for a (six player) game. Count me in!