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The Alea series of bookshelf games has included some of the highest ranking board games there are (Puerto Rico, Ra, Princes of Florence, etc.). So any addition to that line has high expectations demanded of it, as a natural part of its family heritage. Mammoth Hunters (Ravensburger and Rio Grande, 2003 – Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum) sounded like a good idea to me, being part of this “family.”
And how did it measure up? In truth, I like many of the aspects of Mammoth Hunters, including one very unique mechanism. There was just something about the game that didn’t really provide us with a desire to play it much more, however. The game seemed to end abruptly, and there was a serious kill-the-leader problem. It didn’t seem like the winner won because they played better, but rather because they were in the right place at the right time. To understand this, let’s first go over an explanation of the rules.
A game board with twelve regions on it is placed in the middle of the table. Each region is a different type (grasslands, etc.) and are numbered one to twelve. Each player takes 13 hunters (wooden cylinders) of their color and place one on a scoring track that goes around the edge of the board. Two decks of cards are shuffled, one “light” deck and one “dark” deck and placed at the side of the board, with two light cards and three dark cards being dealt to each player. Depending on how many players are playing, some of the regions are then covered up with icebergs, effectively removing that region from play for the remainder of the game. Four wooden mammoth tokens are placed on the board in certain regions (again depending on number of players). A long cardboard divider counter is placed between the light and dark card decks, and a pile of stones (from 20-30, depending on number of players) is placed above the dark deck, to the one side of this divider. A small pile of six cardboard club counters is placed nearby. Each player also receives four stones to start the game with. A pile of campfire tokens are shuffled (with values from 0 to 2) and placed facedown in the open regions.
Players now begin a setup round, where in clockwise order, each player places one of their hunters in a region. This continues until each player has six hunters on the board. The game then begins with the first round, of which there are four. Each round is made up of four phases.
The first phase is the Settling phase. One player goes first, then the others follow in clockwise order. On a player’s turn, they MUST play one card from their hand, may discard another, and then refill their hand back up to five cards. If a player plays a light card – they must pay the indicated amount of stones on the card and place them above the light card deck. They then can follow the action on the card, which is a benefit to them. If the player plays a dark card – they receive the indicated amount of stones on the card from the pile above the dark card deck. Then they choose another player (or in some cases – all the players) who get a benefit from this card. When the last stone is drawn from the pile above the dark card deck, this phase is over. Examples of cards include:
- Light cards: Place three hunters in a certain terrain type on the board, move 3 hunters and a mammoth on the board to another spot, move a campfire tile, place a new mammoth, give a hunter a club, etc.
- Dark cards: All other players add a hunter, one player can remove any one hunter from the board, one other player can remove a mammoth, etc.
The next phase is the conflict phase. Each campfire on the board is flipped over, and each region is checked to see how many hunters it can support. Each region can support at least three hunters, plus the sum of the numbers on the campfires in that region, plus one for each mammoth in the region. If the amount of hunters actually in the area exceeds this amount, then conflict occurs. The player with the smallest amount of hunters removes a hunter, then the next smallest, etc. This continues until the number of hunters is supported. Any hunter with a club is immune to being removed.
Each region is now scored. Every player receives one point for every hunter they have in a region with no mammoths, two points if there is one mammoth in the region, and three points if there are two or more mammoths in the region. Scoring markers are moved, and then the glacier phase occurs. The player with the fewest points picks any region on the board that is currently next to a glacier, and places a glacier tile on top of the region, removing all hunters, campfires, and mammoths that are there. All stones are moved from above the light card deck to above the dark card deck, and the campfires are reshuffled and placed on the remaining regions. The next round then begins. After the end of the fourth round, the player with the most points is the winner!
Some comments on the game….
1). Components: I cannot deny how good the components of the game are. The board is very beautiful, and I was especially impressed at how the regions were of different shapes, yet the iceberg tiles still fit nicely over them. The stone, campfire, and club tokens are of good quality, although I would have preferred perhaps plastic coins rather than stones (I know the theme of the game calls for stones, though). The hunters are you’re your typical wooden cylinders (I’d prefer cubes, as they don’t roll as much), but the mammoths are really nice little wooden mammoths, and are easily the nicest pieces in the game. The cards are good quality, and have a sort of “caveman” art on them. Everything fits very well in a snug plastic insert in a sturdy, well-decorated bookshelf box.
2). Rules: The rules are printed in an eight page full-color booklet that is full of examples, illustrations and help guides. I especially liked the quick summary of the rules on the side of the pages, which is very useful when replaying the game, as you don’t have to search through long rules to find exactly what you want. The last two pages of the rules have a very detailed explanation of each card – which was very handy for resolving arguments. The game is easy to teach, but does take a while for people to play well, as it’s a little confusing at first where to place hunters, etc.
3). Dark cards: I really like the idea of the game – pay to play good cards, but to get the stuff to pay for these cards, you must play bad cards that help others. It’s a tremendous idea in theory, and even works in this game, but what happens is that no player ever really has a chance of getting too far ahead. If any player is a clear frontrunner, that player will never receive any help from the other players. This keeps the game close until the end of the game, so why try at all in the beginning anyway? It’s frustrating to do well for three rounds, and then have everybody gang up on you the final round.
4). Kick the leader syndrome: As just stated, this is a major problem. It may be exciting to some to have scores extremely close during the fourth round and end of the game, but it basically makes moot the first three rounds. And since no negotiation is allowed in the game, it becomes a little plodding at this point. I may try the game with negotiation anyway, just to see what will happen.
5). Time: The game is short (an hour or so) and therefore can be played often. We weren’t impressed, with the speed of the rounds, however. Some rounds were over in less than five minutes, and the game has a certain “abrupt” feel that wasn’t very pleasing. Maybe this will get better over time?
6). Fun Factor: There were a lot of features that I did find fun in the game, and as I stated before, the light card/dark card idea is really good, and works in the game to some small degree. The theme is there, with mammoths, clubs, and stones, and that helped make the game more enjoyable to us. And no one could deny the fun of the last-place person extending the ice barrier. In a game that has some frustrations, it’s a lot of fun to destroy an entire area with an ice reef!
If you like area control games, there are many better ones that I can recommend to you. Mammoth Hunters is a good game, but the ideas in it really don’t work as well as they should. If I was asked to play the game, I will do so again, but I don’t think it will see a whole lot of time at our table. This game certainly does not hold up against it's older brothers (Puerto Rico, etc.), but if you are looking for a light game about Mammoths, and already have other good area control games and are looking for something lighter, then this might be the game for you. If careful planning is your forte, then I would suggest that you try something else, as this game may drive you mad. Nice theme, beautiful pieces, unique ideas, some fun – but for some reason, the game just doesn’t add up the way it should…